A fortnight ago, I called up a senior office bearer of the Congress Party, an old-timer. It was a Sunday and he picked up the call himself. I told him that The Sunday Indian was doing a cover story on Congress and that as there was hardly anyone who, I believed, could speak better on the subject than him, he could perhaps give me some insights. I guess because he was an old source of mine, he didn’t quite hang up on me, but he made it plain that he had stopped speaking on any party issue a long time back. Despite my congenial insistences, he politely, but firmly, directed me towards chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala. “He is the guy you should talk to on party matters,” he said. Chief spokespersons there may be, but none can beat inner party inputs. So I called another senior office bearer. To my surprise, he too declined and directed me appropriately to the "Chief spokesperson". The next three I called had similar answers waiting for me.
Well, this typically is called 'closing ranks' – or more formally, a 'close order formation' – a military tactic used by forces when they have lost considerable ground, or are low on power and need to concentrate efforts. That, with all due respects, is the current story and state of the Congress party.
The repeated defeats and massive fall in support base has perturbed everyone inside the Congress. But none is more perturbed than Party President Sonia Gandhi. But she is also probably the only one who has not lost her composure and patience. She is well aware of the tussle between the new breed of leaders and the old timers. She is advocating the optimal utilisation of the strength and capabilities of the new generation, all the while asking the old timers to have patience.
The decision to make Ghulam Nabi Azad in-charge of the Party in Uttar Pradesh was purely hers. It did create some bad blood inside the Party. But she had her way at the end. It is on her request that leaders like Digvijay Singh are silent. But it is not hidden from the regulars that even she is finding it difficult to bridge the gap between the old timers and the fresh blood. The impatience and uncertainty among the old timers is palpable. There is genuine concern among them whether they will ever be able to adjust amidst the new team members of Rahul Gandhi.
It was in the Jaipur session that talks about restructuring the Party were first heard. It was the same session where Rahul Gandhi was made the vice President of the Party. The talks remained just that, and no particular restructuring was undertaken. The defeat in the UP Assembly Polls again reignited the talks about restructuring, but to no avail. The massive defeat in the following Lok Sabha polls in 2014 again opened up prospects for the great churning. But once again, this never materialised and the so-called restructuring simply kept getting postponed.
The old timers have become the most vocal, well, even by Congress’ standards. It has reached a point where even Rahul’s style of functioning is being questioned now. And that’s dangerous, given the pillars that the Party has stood on.
So when is the Congress planning its internal polls? If one goes by the opinion of the Party’s Election Commissioner, the same can only take place after December 2016, and not before that. There’s apparently a valid reason behind this. Election Commissioner Ramachandran has written to the Central Election Commission saying multiple Assembly Polls had made it impossible for the Party to go for internal polls. Talking to TSI, Ramachandran said that the Party has asked CEC permission to hold the polls in December. He also admits that the Plenary Session of the Party can take place only after the internal polls are over – which essentially means that the session cannot take place before early next year now. According to Party rules, it is only in the Plenary Session that the Party can elect its working committee. And it is in the same session that AICC members give their approval to the new Party President.
But this leaves a very tight window for the Party. The polls in Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur are due in February next year. Immediately comes the all-important Uttar Pradesh elections. If it was because of the Assembly Polls that the internal polls were not taking place for the last two years, it is only logical to expect that the polls may get further delayed. The more realistic date for the polls is therefore after the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections. And if the results in the said elections are not in line with expectations, we can expect further delay. It is therefore logical to expect that the suspense regarding Rahul Gandhi’s young team members and the fate of old timers will remain so for months to come, if not years.
There are two main reasons why questions are being raised on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Those leaders who had some traction among the people started to keep themselves aloof from their electorates. Others like Shashi Tharoor, Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad were sidelined by those who were rooted at 24 Akbar Road. These high priests of 24 Akbar Road themselves used to reach the Party office late in the evening, and then too, instead of formulating strategies, spent time crying over the Party’s fate. They were always heard complaining that Rahul’s team could not manage to do the work that was supposed to be done. More plainly, that the new blood could not do justice to the responsibilities they were given.
Despite what it may seem, there is some apparent weight in these complaints. One party secretary, who entered Congress through the media route, said that while Rahul Gandhi gave responsibility to youngsters, the youngsters could not prove themselves.
Take for example Jitendra Singh and Jitin Prasada respectively. Jitendra Singh was said to be so possessive of the Defence Ministry that he kept sitting in the Defence Ministry office even after he was assigned a different ministry. Jitin Prasada was to be elevated as the Uttar Pradesh Party President, but he was too shy to bear the responsibility. Similar is the case of RPN Singh, who was made the vice president of the state Congress Party. But he lost the election from his pet Padrauna Lok Sabha constituency during the previous general elections. The situation was so bad that he polled less votes in his own Vidhan Sabha constituency (he was a Member of the state Legislative Assembly before becoming a Member of Parliament) than in other constituencies inside his Lok Sabha constituency. Even media in-charge Surjewala is a lightweight compared to his predecessor Janardan Dwivedi.
It is not for nothing that out of 44 new secretaries, people don’t know even four. And as a regular with the Congress beat, one can say with some confidence that he is not exaggerating. These secretaries do figure in the list on party’s website, but they are nowhere to be seen visibly in the field.
Now comes that important point that the Party may have ignored for long this time. That is, to introspect and to ponder upon the mistakes made. The Congress Party has many a time avoided dealing with sticky issues and learning from mistakes. Take for example the recommendations of the 2014 Antony Committee Report and the 'Action Taken Report’ which followed it. They were swept under the carpet unceremoniously. A similar ATR following the debacle in Assam is also looking to meet the same fate. There are as many as 12 ATRs that are lying unread. The question is, if the previous Lok Sabha elections' ATR has not been implemented till now, even two years after the polls, what is the need for further such ATRs anyway? The real reason is, implementations of these reports will mean disciplinary actions against those responsible. And when you start blaming office bearers, the buck may stop at Rahul Gandhi himself (or not!). No one wants that.
But this is not to say that serious people inside the Party do not want action to be taken against those responsible. At several sessions of the Party, it is not uncommon to see some enthusiastic speakers speaking about fixing the responsibilities for the poll debacle and a need for punitive measures at the least. But such enthusiastic speakers are quickly shown their place. In the old times, leaders like Rajesh Pilot used to speak out against the popular consensus. But Congress does not have leaders who would test such waters these days.
As far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned, his is the one-way communication highway. Recently, a delegation from Uttarakhand Congress Committee came to meet him in his office regarding changing a candidate who was going to stand from the Kumaon region. Rahul Gandhi, after listening to the delegation merely for a few seconds, referred them to his political aide Kanishka Singh. But Kanishka’s office is an exhibit of uncleared files, while he himself is absolutely snowed down under work. Eventually, the delegation was asked to meet someone else. This is a common story. In the Central office, only Motilal Vora is visible all the time. Other stalwarts walk in leisurely by late evening and meet only select people. Only Oscar Fernandes’ home is open for all and sundry. But even there, an unusual traffic of physically challenged people leaves little time for other work. Fernandes is known for his gratis and pro bono work for the physically challenged.
The delay in corrective measures has also emboldened the bad apples and lessened the fear of the Party High Command. When MLAs Bhanwarlal Sharma and T S Mustapha held Rahul Gandhi directly responsible for the Lok Sabha debacle, it took the Party several months to suspend them. Oscar Fernandes, in an interview to TSI (succeeding pages), insists that the suspension of MLAs could not have been hastened. Well, in contrast, a female leader of BJP who was unhappy with the Party’s decision and made a comment targeting the Patel community, was shown the door within a few hours of her outburst. Congress needs to re-establish the fear of the proverbial High Command inside the heart of its members, or else indiscipline will become chronic and widespread.
The people who are slighted by the Congress are routinely poached upon by BJP, a party which goes on to give them post and prestige. At least ostensibly. the Congress has hundreds of Shamim Akhtars, Ajay Sharmas, Navneet Jhas and Rajendra Chaudhrys who left their well established businesses to join the Youth Congress in their heydays. But following the demise of Rajiv Gandhi, these people were left symbolically orphaned. M J Akbar was once a spokesperson of Congress. He is a Minister of State in the present political dispensation. Had he been inside Congress, his fate would have perhaps met that of Tom Vadakkan’s, whose dreams of a Lok Sabha seat came to naught in 2009 with an open rebellion in the Kerala Congress and with some members even burning his effigy. Same goes for Najma Heptulla, who left the Congress in 2004, stating that she was humiliated by Sonia Gandhi. She joined the BJP, was a Union Minister till recently, and may possibly be made a Governor in the future. “I was destined to go to the international parliament [when in Congress]. But this made people jealous. The then Prime Minister Vajpayee gave me respect. PM Modi made me a cabinet minister. Congress could not have possibly given this respect to me,” says Heptullah.
Apart from this, BJP has also had a field day because of Congress’ weak social media presence. The so-called “cultural organisations” affiliated with RSS are very active on social media, and leave Congress dead in its tracks. The fact becomes doubly ironical when one realises that it was the Congress that had brought in the information revolution in this country. And now, when it comes to the comparison of Modi and Rahul Gandhi, one section of the social media has left no stone unturned to ensure that Rahul Gandhi will remain stuck with the title of “Pappu” for quite some time. The pejorative seems to have stuck. The online muckraking armies have used every despicable trick to malign Rahul Gandhi. To a point where they have started comparing Gandhi to starlet Alia Bhatt, a capable actor who has had trending memes mocking her intelligence (all in good humour, of course, for the actor; not so for the Gandhi scion).
The social media wing of Congress is managed by Dipendra Hooda, MP from Rohtak and son of ex-CM of Haryana, Bhupendra Singh Hooda. The Congress’ social media war-room is at Gurudwara Rakabganj. All the social media warriors sit here and control the action. While they have started to make their presence felt, they are far from breaking the “Pappu” image of Rahul Gandhi. While BJP strictly maintains that none of their official websites is involved in tarnishing the image of Rahul Gandhi, the truth lies somewhere else. Hooda maintains that the Party does not want to stoop to the level of BJP in countering them. “We don’t want to resort to such crass, below the belt tactics. This is not our culture. We are a serious party. We only take the government to task on unfulfilled promises and the response has been great. I am reasonably sure that the response will convert into votes as well. The society at large will not continue to ignore their style of functioning,” he says.
A section of party wanted to go for no-holds barred attack on BJP, which may go below the belt. But the proposal was dismissed by Sonia Gandhi personally. She maintained that cheap pot-shots and below the belt attacks are as much against party culture as they are against basic human decorum. Ambika Soni concurs, sharing with TSI, “We once proposed the idea of a nationwide ‘Chakka Jam’ against unfulfilled promises of the government. It was dismissed summarily. Mrs Gandhi was of the opinion that such actions will harm the common people more...”
Those close to Sonia Gandhi maintain that while she is dejected by recent losses and the overall situation of the Party, she has not lost hope. Her commands and decisions are still on the dot, and are being implemented. Had it not been so, motor-mouths like Digvijay Singh would not have kept silent for so long. A senior party functionary maintains that there is a strict compartmentalisation in place now. Only those leaders who belong to a certain state, or have been given the charge of that state, are eligible to speak on that state.
Interestingly, some praise comes from none other than RSS itself. The organisation in its meet in Uttar Pradesh praised the decision of Congress to maintain decorum while being in the opposition, and rued BJP’s decision to do otherwise while being in power. It also had to accept that some of the allegations heaped by Congress on the BJP did have merit, and can’t be pooh-poohed.
It is pretty obvious that Sonia Gandhi has realised that an extraordinary situation needs extraordinary steps. Extraordinary steps are indeed being taken by her. But the same cannot be said for others inside the party, including the son and heir apparent. Unless there is synergy, simply closing ranks would not provide solutions for the Congress.
For records, the dated tactic of closing ranks was discarded during or around the American Civil War, as improved explosives from the opposing forces were more effective at wiping out the last resistance if they had closed ranks than otherwise... surely an analogical lesson not to be missed for India's grand old party.
(In a sign of reducing patience, during a Parliamentary speech in late July 2016, Rahul Gandhi started taunting the Prime Minister as "Arhar Modi", mocking him for his failure to reduce price inflation in pulses like Arhar).
“No government in Uttar Pradesh will be formed without the help of Congress”
You were once the chief election authority in the Party. Any idea why the central election of the Party has not taken place for a very long time now.
Since the last two years, we had to face the General Elections as well as various state elections. During this period, we couldn’t hold internal elections as the Party was busy with ongoing elections. So the Party’s super decision body, the Congress Working Committee, decided to extend the membership drive exercise for the entire year till December.
Is it because of the internal elections that Rahul Gandhi’s political coronation is delayed?
Please don’t relate this issue with Rahul Gandhi’s new responsibility in the Party. It is a normal practice that the organizational elections are held after the completion of membership drive. And that will be held during the plenary session, which will be scheduled any time after December.
In the last General Elections, the Congress Party lost rather badly. The causes of the failure were discussed in the Party forum, and many suggestions were made as well. However the Action Taken Report was never implemented...
You are talking about the Antony Committee. I think the Committee met several times in the past; and in my view many suggestions that were made, have already been implemented.
Demands were raised to fix the responsibility for the defeat. Even Rahul Gandhi’s name cropped up for criticism...
After the debacle of the General Elections, the Antony Committee was asked to look at the causes in detail. The Committee, after much deliberation with important leaders from the Party, submitted its report to the Congress President. The responsibilities are being fixed. Action is being taken.
There’s nothing to show for it...
I’ll admit that many of the steps are yet to be taken. But then, no one said that all the action needs to be taken in one go. For example, we have in-charges of various states, and they are taking action following their own deliberations. If by action taken you mean dismissal of a functionary responsible for defeat, yes, that is being done too. Rectification is an ongoing process.
I understand you mean to say that implementation has been done in bits and pieces. But is there is a possibility of an overall reshuffle in the organization...
If and when the Congress President decides to go for a reshuffle, it will be done. She can very well do so as per the demand within the Party. She has the requisite power and she has used it in the past. Only recently, for example, Ghulam Nabi Azad was given the charge of Uttar Pradesh.
Let’s talk about the Party's booth committees. Do they hold water in front of their counterparts from BJP?
I think that activities at this level should be improved so that we can have much better interaction with people.
So you agree that the booth level committees are not very effective in wooing voters to the party-fold...
It might be the case that some committees are ineffective, but you can't generalise that. Block and booth level committees are the backbone of the Party to interact with people. They have to carry forward the programs given by the Party. When I was a block secretary, I used to regularly interact with people without being told to do so. The idea is to be proactive.
Do you think that Congress still has workers as honest as they used to be during your time...
We have enough workers who are the real source of inspiration. They are the soul of the Party. I think it was quite obvious during the recent agitation in Delhi, which was well attended.
Where do your cadres stand in comparison to those from BJP?
It is natural to be upbeat when you win an election. Conversely, you feel dejected following a loss. The same is true in case of our workers too. They were demoralized a bit. But this has changed now. BJP has started reneging on its tall promises on price rise and black money. There’s a feeling in the masses that things are not good. Mr. Modi needs to recall all the tall promises he made when he was in the opposition, and also during the campaign.
What is the Congress doing for the plight of poor?
Congress is raising people’s issues in the Parliament. The Government says that we are stalling the Parliamentary work. My question is, why are the prices not coming down? In fact, there is a stark mismatch in petroleum prices and the prices of goods and services. If the oil bill has gone down substantially, the benefits should have been passed on to the poor people.
But the Finance Minister categorically says that the Congress is to be blamed for high prices as the present government inherited double digit inflation from the previous UPA government.
It is a wrong allegation. During our time, the pressure was because of the high crude oil prices that had touched $140 per barrel. The current price is $30 per barrel. They have failed to check the price. And this is because they don’t have the will to help the poor.
But the irony is that despite all of what you are mentioning, BJP is winning state after state...
Oh yes, (sarcastically) they won Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Delhi.
But BJP won Assam!
Assam is the only exception. Congress was ruling for the last three terms; so, the anti-incumbency factor was there.
You talked about the anti-incumbency factor, but that may also apply for the states like Karnataka and Uttarakhand...
Diminishing return will apply for BJP. They say that they will make “Congress Mukt Bharat.” They can’t do that. They are using the wrong weapons.
What is that?
They used governors in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh to topple the elected governments, which is shameful. However the judiciary has taught them a lesson. Just wait till the next Parliamentary Elections when people too will teach them a lesson.
Do you think the government is inefficient because of the lack of experience in governance?
Mr. Modi has a fairly long experience of governance. Gujarat massacre, Godhra and many similar 'achievements' have been in his tenure. This government is very clever. They are passing on every facility to the rich people, and they are growing richer by the day. Look at people around him. At least, don’t make poor people any poorer.
Let’s talk about the fate of Congress in Uttar Pradesh...
I want to assure you that no government in Uttar Pradesh will be formed without the help of Congress. Our estimate is that the Congress Party is going to do fairly very well in UP.