Assembly polls: Congress debacle foregrounds party's organisational inadequacies, underscores importance of regional satraps
Experts feel unless Congress looks at nurturing strong regional leaders, it will continue to grapple with the regaining traditional ground that it has ceded to its political rivals
Congress party faced yet another electoral setback in Sunday’s counting for Assembly elections. It could not wrest power in Assam and Kerala -- the two states where it was the main challenger. In West Bengal, it failed to open its account, even though it was in an alliance with the Left parties. Ailed by defections, Congress also lost in Puducherry. The only glimmer of hope came from Tamil Nadu where its ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led the alliance to a resounding win.
This was a high-stake election for Congress as it pitched some of its top political heavyweights including sitting chief ministers as senior observers to oversee the electoral campaigns in states. However, for a political party that is already faced with a leadership crisis at the top, senior Congress leaders and experts feel that Sunday’s results could put the spotlight back on the need for organisational overhaul and promoting regional satraps in states.
The significance of these elections can be gauged from the fact that in the last two years, since Lok Sabha polls of 2019, elections have taken place for 14 legislative assemblies out of which Congress has been able to form government in only three – Maharashtra, Jharkhand and is on course in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, in all these three states, Congress is a junior party where the ruling alliance is steered by key regional players. Apart from these three, Congress is in power on its own in Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh.
“We have lost connect with the people. There is also a lack of long-term planning especially when it comes to elections. There is no substitute for hitting the ground but many of our leaders have forgotten that. We seem to do well in states where we have strong regional satraps, but in this election, that too was limited. A complete organisational overhaul is needed,” a senior party functionary involved with the party’s Assam unit said requesting anonymity.
For instance, in Assam, this was the first election since the demise of veteran leader Tarun Gogoi, who served for 15 years as the chief minister. In this Assembly election, Congress did not promote anyone as the face of the campaign including in Assam and Kerala where it was in a direct contest with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Left Democratic Front (LDF) respectively.
In Assam, Congress had experimented with a decentralised approach to elections. Key issues like choice of candidates and alliance with regional parties were taken care of by the in-charge of the state campaign. It however failed to translate on the ground as Congress only marginally improved its performance. On the other hand, BJP scripted history in the state by becoming the first non-Congress government to return to power.
“It is very unfortunate that Congress was not able to clinch a victory in Assam and in Kerala even though we fought unitedly and we fought with a positive agenda in both the states. Whether it was the five guarantees in Assam or our manifesto in Kerala, the focus was on a transformative agenda for the state,” said Rajeev Gowda, spokesperson of the Congress party and former Rajya Sabha member.
Indeed in both these states, Congress had drawn a high-profile campaign by both former party chief Rahul Gandhi and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The party put all its might in the two states when it assigned sitting chief ministers – Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan – as senior observers of Assam and Kerala respectively.
Interestingly, this was also the first election in Kerala since Gandhi started representing Wayanad parliamentary constituency and the state became a high priority for the party. However, Congress-led United Democratic Alliance (UDF) failed to replicate its 2019 Lok Sabha performance when it had swept the state.
“During Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi was able to create a wave in Kerala by announcing his candidature. However, in Assembly elections, it is much more difficult because there are challenges within the state unit including differences between leaders and factionalism. LDF also led a strong campaign and the electorate liked the work they did in the past five years,” said KM Sajad Ibrahim, professor and head of the department of political science at the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram.
With Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan led LDF retaining power on Sunday, it has also bucked the nearly three-decade-old trend where every five years, the electorate votes out the incumbent, and the opposition party forms government. If the LDF had not bucked the trend, a potential win for Congress would have helped its political consolidation in the southern region.
Congress on Sunday however added Tamil Nadu to its list of incumbent states, the only one in the southern region. The DMK led alliance won with more than two-third mandate and wrested power from All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Apart from this, results from parliamentary bypolls on Sunday showed that Congress won from Kanniyakumari seat in Tamil Nadu and its ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) from Malappuram in Kerala.
“There is hope that alongside a victory in Tamil Nadu with our alliance partner DMK, we have performed well in some assembly bypolls and narrowly lost Belagavi Lok Sabha seat in Karnataka. This suggests that Congress is on a path of revival in other states too. We must continue to focus on strengthening the party, articulating its vision and redouble our efforts to take on the challenges ahead,” Gowda said.
Experts however feel that unless the party looks at nurturing strong regional leaders, it will continue to grapple with the regaining traditional ground that it has ceded to its political rivals. For instance, in both Kerala and Assam, Congress was in power till 2016 when the previous assembly elections took place.
“There was a time Congress used to have some of the strongest regional leaders. However, the party’s leadership has been unable to manage factionalism or placate those who have been unhappy. Congress’ nemesis in the two states – West Bengal and Assam – has come from strong regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Himanta Biswa Sarma respectively who were earlier with Congress,” said Rajendra Sharma, professor of political scientist at Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak, Haryana.
The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports at the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.
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