Demonetisation and scramble for political gains: Congress could end up as a has-been

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation move has led to a mad scramble among political parties to tap the impatience, resentment and growing anger of the common people who have been forced to queue up, often for days together, outside ATMs and banks to withdraw their own money to beat the crisis of liquid cash for day to day expenses.

The Congress is the largest party in Parliament with 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha — though it does not enjoy the official status of leader of opposition — and another 60 in the Rajya Sabha. This adds up to a hefty 104 MPs which is considerably more than the 50 of the AIADMK and the 46 of the Trinamool Congress, its immediate non-NDA opposition parties.

The 130-year-old party has been raising its voice against the tardy implementation of demonetisation by stalling the proceedings of the two houses of Parliament, protesting in front of the Gandhi statue in the complex and leading a delegation of opposition leaders to submit a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi stood outside ATMs and banks in solidarity with the common people who were facing hardships in accessing their own money.

 Demonetisation and scramble for political gains: Congress could end up as a has-been

Representational image. AFP

And even here he and the Congress have had to compete with parties like the Trinamool Congress whose chief Mamata Banerjee is leading her own charge against the Modi government by demanding a rollback of demonetisation — a demand articulated also by Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

The Congress was overshadowed by her fiery presence and tough stand when on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament on November 16 she marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan, with the BJP’s ally the Shiv Sena in tow, and later held a rally at Jantar Mantar with AAP and some other leaders.

It is easy for the Congress to register its protest in Parliament and capture the headlines or for Rahul to come out with quotable quotes like PayTM means Pay To Modi, demonetisation is the country’s biggest scam, notebandi was intended to help Modi’s corporate friends, there would be an "earthquake" if he is allowed to speak in the Lok Sabha or the country is tired of the PM’s monologue .

All this has helped Rahul capture the headlines and acquire a profile. It has also given him a handle to chip away at Modi’s image.

So far, so good.

But what after the Parliament session?

The big question is what will the party do once the session gets over as scheduled on December 16? Will its hyperactivity fizzle out? Or will it take out street level campaigns to empathise with people hit hard by the withdrawal of the old Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes and the non-availability of the new currency in adequate quantities? Will it commiserate with the farmers who have found sowing difficult in the rabi season? More pertinently, will Rahul, who led a 26-day Deoria to Delhi Kisan Yatra to make a pitch for the Congress in next year’s assembly polls in UP, traverse the countryside and the hinterland where the bulk of India’s voters reside?

Indeed, this is where the Congress’s problems really lie.

The Congress’s strength at the grassroots level has been rapidly depleting over the years. This is reflected in its electoral track record. The party was rejected by the electorate in 2014 because of the UPA’s mega scams, its inability to check price rise and the paralysis in decision making in government. It got just 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and drew a blank in as many as 19 states and union territories. It could win just 261 seats of the last 2226 seats , including those for the Lok Sabha, for which elections were held.

The party presently rules just seven states — Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka (the biggest of the lot), Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya — and shares power in Bihar and Puducherry. Over the years, it has been systematically ejected from vast stretches across the country. In Tamil Nadu it was overrun by Dravidian parties 50 years back. Even in states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it once held sway, it has been dislodged by the BJP for almost a decade and a half now. Its place has been taken over time by the BJP, a host of regional outfits, region-based parties and new forces including the SP, BSP, JD-U, RJD, BJD, TRS, TDP and newbie AAP.

No leg to stand on

What hurts the Congress most perhaps is the fact that it does not have a social base to call its own. Its erstwhile coalition of upper castes-minorities-scheduled castes has been hijacked by other parties. Its success in 2004 and 2009 in bypassing the caste affiliations by winning over the poor, the middle classes and the aspirational youth through the combined appeal of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi has long dissipated. With Sonia now poised to hand over the mantle of party president-ship to her son, Rahul will be confronted with the triple task of strengthening the organisation, building a social coalition for his party and improving his and his party’s image, credibility and appeal if the Congress is to recapture the popular mind and vote.

File image of Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Rahul Gandhi. PTI

It hopes to do this partially by its intensive campaign against Modi’s poorly -implemented and half-baked demonetisation drive. But then there are drags like charges of corruption in defence and other deals during the UPA tenure. The recent arrest of former Air Chief SP Tyagi for irregularities in the Rs 3600 crore AgustaWestland deal has not only stoked those memories but also threatens to widen the net as the former air force officer has alleged that the specifications of the helicopters were tweaked at the behest of the PMO, that is the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This in turn would drag the Gandhi family into the controversy. Until the people and the voters are able to forget or overlook the sins of omission and commission of the UPA regime, the Congress can only be an also-ran in the battle to extract political gains from Modi’s adventurism.

Parties which dominate their states will have the advantage of harnessing the anti-BJP sentiment arising out of demonetisation there. This would mean, for instance, Mamata’s Trinamool in West Bengal, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP in Uttar Pradesh. Even parties that have not gone the whole hog in opposing Modi’s move — like the BJD or the AIADMK, which is grieving over the loss of its leader J Jayalalithaa — are unlikely to cede space to the Congress.

Indeed, in many of the states where the regional parties hold sway, the local sentiments for the home grown outfit would perhaps weigh more with the people than that of a 'national party' like the Congress which is notional at best given its present condition. The Congress however believes that since it is as an all India party with its footprint across the country it would automatically attract those who are disgruntled with or disillusioned by the BJP.
But this could turn out to be a pipe-dream unless the Congress manages to reconnect with the people, enhances its political profile and improves its performance in the elections. Voting will take place in 15 states before the country moves into another general election in 2019.

In 2017, there will be elections in seven states including SP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Akali-BJP ruled Punjab, BJP ruled Gujarat and Goa and Congress-ruled Manipur, Uttarakhand and Himachal. In 2018 votes will be cast in eight states: BJP- ruled Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and Congress-ruled Mizoram and Karnataka. Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland are the other three states.

It is a long road ahead for the party before it can re-emerge as an alternative.

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Updated Date: Dec 14, 2016 11:38:19 IST