Cash-strapped Congress gaslights public while collecting funds, lays bare moral rot at heart of party

It is no secret that Indian National Congress is going through a severe crunch of funds and has been forced to take a slew of austerity measures. The interesting bit is how the Rahul Gandhi-led party is gaslighting on transparency and “outreach” to make a virtue out of necessity.

 Cash-strapped Congress gaslights public while collecting funds, lays bare moral rot at heart of party

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

To be sure, paucity of resources is not a crime. It is an indication of Congress’ altered political fortunes. Congress was at its lowest ebb when it relinquished power at the Centre in 2014. Since then, its national footprint has steadily eroded. The party is in power now in just three states (Karnataka, Punjab, and Mizoram), down from 15 in 2013. It shares power with JD(S) in Karnataka and rules Punjab, which barely qualifies as a “big state”. In terms of raising funds, which is easier when a party is in power, Meghalaya and Mizoram are almost inconsequential. Unsurprisingly, the party is facing an acute financial crisis.

Congress has also not helped its cause by taking a strident ‘anti-business’ stance. Rahul’s habitual slandering of big business could be political opportunism to position himself as “pro-poor” but it has led to an erosion of trust among captains of industry on Congress president’s ability to lead instead of just being a disruptive influence. Not surprisingly, corporate donations have dried up.

“We don’t have money,” Divya Spandana, who leads the Congress’ social media department, was recently quoted as saying by Bloomberg. The party’s income slumped to Rs 2.25 billion rupees, a drop of 14 percent from previous year while BJP’s coffers swelled to Rs 10.34 billion in the same period. The Bloomberg report also quoted Carnegie senior fellow Milan Vaishnav as saying, “Headed into 2019, the BJP has a decisive fundraising advantage, not least because the Congress and other key regional parties are seen as less business-friendly.”

Elections in India are expensive affairs. Congress needs money, and quickly. The party hopes to tide over this cash crunch in two ways: by tightening its belt and crowdsourcing its funds. Accordingly, office-bearers have been asked to minimise travel expenses (taking trains instead of airplanes, for instance, or settle for the cheapest flight if train fares are higher), MPs have been urged not to seek travel allowances and party workers have been instructed to take a haircut on everything, including use of vehicles, canteen expenditure, computer peripherals, electricity usage and even newspapers.

The party also hopes to raise at least Rs 500 crore through its crowdfunding programme ‘Lok Sampark Abhigyan’ that began on 2 October and will continue till 19 November. Congress eventually plans to make it an annual affair. According to reports, the party has identified one crore booth-level workers who will visit each home “with vouchers containing receipts of Rs 50, Rs 100, Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 to seek donations to ‘tide over the party’s fund deficiency vis-a-vis BJP’s deeper pockets’.”

BJP’s financial strength is complemented by its structural superiority. Taking a leaf out of BJP’s book, Congress plans to turn its crowdfunding campaign into a multipurpose initiative where some aspects of BJP’s election machinery will be copied. BJP’s ‘panna pramukh’ model, for instance, has “inspired” Congress into launching its ‘Congress sahyogi’ programme where party workers—in charge of each booth—along with collecting donations will also remain connected with families all through the year.

They will conduct door-to-door campaign, create awareness among voters, rope in youngsters and create a “database of community leaders, influential people and businessmen right from the booth-level up to the state-level prior to the general elections”. There is nothing wrong with the Congress imitating its rival, provided it succeeds in pulling it off. It is good to see Congress shaking off its lethargy and showing some initiative in tackling BJP. A deviation from its trademark laissez-faire politics was long overdue. The problem with Congress, however, is that it appears unable to recognise the importance of integrity in political messaging.

There’s nothing wrong in running out of cash. There is nothing wrong, once again, in reaching out to voters for donations. If anything, it may make the voters more invested in Congress. However, this gesture of probity and sincerity sits at odds with Congress’s reflexive gaslighting. Its leaders, even while approaching the voters for funds, cannot resist indulging in fake moral posturing, with the result that the entire crowdfunding campaign that rests on virtue-signalling, comes crashing down.

Sample a few comments from Congress leaders. According to Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot, “Industrialists fear donating to Congress because of the politically motivated income tax raids. We will go door to door to ask for money and urge people to help us overthrow a dictatorial government. These are arrogant people who think they will rule for 50 years.” Congress has fashioned its crowdfunding as “BJP’s cash power” versus “people’s power”. The party evidently believes that paucity of funds has washed the scam taints off its face and it can now pose once again as a “clean party”, never mind if that “cleanliness” is forced by circumstances.

Sachin Pilot, Congress’ CM-designate in Rajasthan, told news agency PTI Congress stands for “transparency” and “transparent resource mobilisation” and claimed in a video message that “BJP has enough money, power and resources. They do not lack anything. The Congress believes in politics of principles and hence, we have got people’s love and trust and that is our biggest strength...”

It is a very righteous and utterly romantic way of rebranding a publicity stunt. Had Congress been so averse to corporate funding out of principle (and not necessity), it would have refused all forms of funding from industrialists when it was in power. A cursory look at the top 10 corporate contributors to Congress and BJP between fiscal 2004-05 and 2011-12 (during UPA-I and UPA-II) reveals Congress received as much corporate contributions, if not more, compared to the BJP during that period.

The Aditya Birla Group, for instance, contributed Rs 36.4 crore to the Congress and Rs 26.6 crore to the BJP; The Tata Group donated Rs 10 crore to the Congress and Rs 6.9 crore to the BJP; Bharti Enterprises donated Rs 11 crore to the Congress while it gave the BJP Rs 6.1 crore.

These figures clearly show that Congress was not averse to corporate money when it flowed in but started believing in “politics of principle” and “people’s trust” only when the funds dried up. Taking money from people isn’t wrong, but Congress’s sleight of hand lies in adopting a pseudo moralistic tone and window-dressing dire necessity to make it look like probity. The intellectual dishonesty inherent in this exercise exposes the moral decay within Congress.

As for austerity measures, in 2013 when the Manmohan Singh government and finance minister P Chidamabaram were mulling “austerity measures” to boost Indian economy amid a global economic slowdown, it turned out that the UPA spent Rs 21 lakh from public exchequer to celebrate its fourth anniversary at a dinner party thrown by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 22 May at his 7 Race Course Road residence.

Information accessed by The Economic Times under the RTI Act showed that celebrations “cost the exchequer Rs 20,61,359. This included tentage charges of Rs 11,15,819, catering charges of Rs 6,30,874, electricity charges of Rs 3,03,770 and flower arrangement charges of Rs 10,896.”  For the 300 guests who attended the event, that works out to Rs 6,871.20 per head. So much for austerity!

Congress’ moral turpitude hasn’t come about in a vacuum. It is the inevitable result of a party that has long treated power as its entitlement, and now appears to be struggling outside its trappings. It seems to have lost the ability to even sound sincere without appearing flippant.

Updated Date: Oct 13, 2018 21:32:22 IST