Ideological clarity, not Priyanka Gandhi, can save Congress

Should the Congress under Priyanka Gandhi perform reasonably well, it could turn its attention on raiding Gujarat.

Ajaz Ashraf May 19, 2016 18:59:33 IST
Ideological clarity, not Priyanka Gandhi, can save Congress

The electoral battering the Congress received on Thursday, barring in Puducherry, had a witness remarking: The results show the Congress is a liability for any party entering into an alliance with it. No doubt, this is an exaggeration, but it does point to the abysmal depths to which India’s grand old party has fallen.

Nothing will hurt the Congress more than its defeat in Assam. The Congress will say the loss of Assam was inevitable, given that it was facing triple incumbency. It will consequently argue against discerning a longterm, or national, trend in the reverses suffered in Assam.

But this argument is specious. Naveen Patnaik has bucked anti-incumbency since 2000, as has Manik Sarkar in Tripura, where he became chief minister in 1998. The BJP has ruled Gujarat since 1998, and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since 2003.

Assam is perhaps the last chapter in the era of what is called Congress dominance, which has been unravelling for the past 25 years. At least, it still remains a factor in Assam. This can’t even be said of the party in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it acquired relevance by hanging on to the coat-tails of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Ideological clarity not Priyanka Gandhi can save Congress

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi. AFP

But relevance isn’t synonymous with revival. The defeat in Assam, therefore, won’t give the Congress even the opportunity to spin a story of its comeback, or sing paeans to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities. Though Assam accounts for only 14 seats in the Lok Sabha, and doesn’t matter unduly for leaders nursing national ambitions, it is yet another blot on Rahul’s CV.

This is because it was vital for the Congress to deny the BJP a turf conducive for conducting Hindutva experiments. Assam’s hellishly complicated ethnic relationships, and its paranoia of Muslim migrants, will have the BJP hook the state into overall ideological war to redefine the idea of India.

Since the Congress claims to represent the ideological pole opposite to that of the BJP, Assam signifies a reversal for Rahul that is far more serious than the 14 MPs it elects would suggest.

Assam also offered Rahul the possibility to break the chain of successive defeats the Congress has suffered under his helm. Since May 2014, the party hasn’t bagged a state. It, in fact, lost two – Maharashtra and Haryana – where it had been sitting pretty.

Over the next few months, more bad news will likely greet Rahul. In Punjab, AAP threatens to gobble up the vote-base of the Congress. As for Uttar Pradesh, well, the party simply doesn’t matter, unless it belatedly demonstrates ingenuity and a certain daring.

As the Congress appears to gradually slip into oblivion, it has started to resemble the Mughal Empire in its last days. The rapid shrinking of the Mughal Empire did not dissuade the princes and nobles from conspiring to grab the devalued royal sceptre. Likewise, the geriatric leaders in the Congress scheme quite unmindful of the party’s free fall.

Take the fate of the strategist, Prashant Kishor, whom the Congress has borrowed from Nitish Kumar to script a comeback for it. He is now the target of Congress leaders who fear their own marginalisation – that too, ironically, in a party gradually walking into oblivion.

This is all because Kishor is said to have been pushing for Priyanka Gandhi to lead the charge in UP. The geriatric set’s logic is as follows – Priyanka can’t go there because it is too risky. Why? In case she fails to revive the party there, her value will get eroded.

They believe that in Priyanka they have the ultimate trump card, their brahmastra, which shouldn’t be tested and risked in an assembly election. They would rather cash in on her presumed popularity at the national level, once Rahul has failed over and over again – and voluntarily steps aside in her favour.

By then, however, it is possible the Congress might have lost the war irreversibly.

This is no commentary on Rahul’s leadership skills. It would have been impossible for any Congress leader to win the 2014 Lok Sabha, so low was the credibility of the party, and so popular was Narendra Modi.

Call it a jinx or misfortune, fact is Rahul has become synonymous with defeat. He is perhaps psychologically debilitated. When a seasoned batsman has a slump in form, he is dropped to save him from the further shattering of his confidence, to also help him to recover his touch. This is what Rahul and the Congress need – respite from a chain of defeats. Defeat can become a habit.

Obviously, there is no reason for a Gandhi to helm the Congress. Dynastic succession rules out the possibility of the most meritorious to emerge at the top. But the Congress can’t break away from the tradition of dynastic succession – it is the glue which holds the party from splintering. Since the most meritorious can’t inherit the leadership mantle, it only makes sense to have the best in the family lead the party.

There is nothing to suggest that Priyanka is the most meritorious in her generation of Gandhis. All that we have seen of her is the occasional sound bites she provides on her forays into the Amethi constituency. She does portray a certain spunk and feistiness. All these don’t a leader make.

Ideological clarity not Priyanka Gandhi can save Congress

Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

But at least, she isn’t scarred by ignominious defeats, nor does her persona invite derision, as Rahul unfortunately does. Because she is still untested she holds out a promise. All this could help galvanise Congress workers, or lure back those who have deserted it.

It is said Kishor suggested Priyanka’s name for Uttar Pradesh because she could rally the Brahmins behind the party. They were once the party’s most loyal supporters. Among all social groups, the Congress polls the highest percentage of votes from the Brahmins even now. They are also said to be miffed with the BJP’s concerted attempts to woo the OBCs and Dalits.

It is also argued that once the Brahmins return to the Congress, the Muslims might consider the party as a serious option. As such, the minorities vote a party whose support base includes at least one dominant caste. Their voting decision also involves judging which party is best suited to defeat the BJP.

But all these calculations are just on paper, so to speak. Priyanka may or may not help realise the coming together of Brahmins and Muslims. Yet, as others would say, it is better to at least have a script, a plan on paper, than to go around wildly throwing blows in the already crowded theatre of UP.

Should the Congress under Priyanka perform reasonably well, it could turn its attention on raiding Gujarat, which has been seething with rural discontent. In the 2012 Assembly elections there, the Congress won in 49 rural constituencies as against the BJP’s 45. Now even urban Gujarat has been rocked because of the Patel agitation. This social group has been among the most steadfast supporters of the BJP.

But more than anything else, the Congress needs an enduring purpose, often called historic reason, to justify its existence. In post-Independence India, the party’s legacy of having spearheaded the national movement stood it in good stead. It then transformed itself into a party best suited to provide governance. But this purpose has lost its sheen because of the scams plaguing the Congress.

Some would say that in contrast to the BJP, it represents the Indian version of secularism and plurality, that it represents liberal values which the BJP doesn’t. Yet, even on this score, it has appeared terribly confused.

It voted to suspend AIMIM member from the Maharashtra Assembly who refused to chant the slogan of Bharat Mata Ki Jai. No less than Congress leader Digvijay Singh preened that Congress-ruled states were the first to ban cow-slaughter in the fifties. The Congress state unit of Gujarat recently demanded to declare the cow as the national animal.

Then again, outgoing Assam CM Tarun Gogoi played the soft Hindutva card in the 2011 Assembly elections, in a counter-response to Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF garnering Muslims. A soft Hindu card only legitimises the BJP’s Hindutva, so evident from the time Indira Gandhi tried to build a Hindu constituency after she received a drubbing in the post-Emergency elections.

So what the Congress needs is a leadership change. Reluctant to pass the baton of power to anyone other than the Gandhis, it can’t but ask Priyanka to become the party’s face in UP. It has to overcome its own fear of failure. And yes, it has to acquire ideological clarity.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)

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