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The day after Rahul fails: What will the Congress do next?

By Saroj Nagi

April is the cruellest month, said TS Eliot in his poetic masterpiece The Wasteland. He could well have said April-May insofar as the Congress in concerned, with Sonia Gandhi’s party staring at its own political wasteland ahead of the counting of votes for the 16th Lok Sabha on 16 May.

Unless there is a miracle, the Congress’s abject defeat is one of the certainties of the elections, with the leadership straining every sinew to see that it does not slip below the 100 seat mark. The party’s poorest tally so far has been 114 seats in 1999. In that year, Sonia stepped out of the cloisters of 10 Janpath to take it upon herself the daunting task of reversing the party’s fortunes which had touched a new low after the exit of PV Narasimha Rao as prime minister and Sitaram Kesri as party chief. It took her five more years to do so, but she managed to bring the party and its allies to power first in 2004 and then again in 2009.

Cut to 2014, and the Congress seems to be hurtling back to where Sonia had started, although party leaders stoutly maintain that they will cross the 114 mark. But if the results bear out the poll predictions of a debacle, the Congress is in for a long and torturous haul. Post election, it has no option but to go for an intense, painful and agonizing soul-searching that calls for a radical reinvention and makeover of the party which has had to pay the price for 10 years of incumbency and the government’s failure to check prices, inflation, corruption and paralysis in decision making and governance, specially between 2009-14 under UPA-II.

Will the leadership measure up the demand of the situation? Can the Congress get out of the morass it finds itself in?

Back to basics

There is little doubt that the rituals that accompany electoral defeats will follow although part of the blame for the party’s current woes also lie with Sonia who dispensed with Congress Working Committee meetings, used platforms like the Jaipur chintan shivir to anoint Rahul rather than brainstorm on issues and failed to revive the party in key states despite 10 years of power at the Centre.

If it fares poorly in the elections, there is every chance that a committee will be set up to go into the reasons for the defeat. A chintan shivir (brainstorming session) would be on the cards. The practice of holding chief minister’s conclave -- largely abandoned after it came to power at the Centre -- would be revived, though in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, Rahul had presided over a conference of chief ministers. There will be a reshuffle at the All India Congress Committee and new office-bearers appointed. Similar changes will take place in the state units. Adjustments will be made to ensure that the new teams bear the imprint of changing India and a young India. And calls will be made to tone up the organization in the growing number of states where the party has become a marginal and fringe player.

The failed Rahul experiment

But all these steps will be cosmetic because the malaise gripping the organization runs deeper. The party will need all its energy, determination and nerve to address the basic problem -- the crisis in the charisma, credibility, confidence and competence of the top leadership, the fading shine of the Gandhi brand that is now represented essentially by Rahul Gandhi, the shrinking geographic and social space of the party and the declining value of the 129 year old organization that has been overtaken by regional forces, including by newbie Aam Aadmi Party in its bastion in Delhi.

 The day after Rahul fails: What will the Congress do next?

Rahul Gandhi is seen in this file photo. AFP

For Congress workers who have lived and fattened on the Nehru-Gandhi name, it will be a bitter truth to swallow that their future cannot be tied to vice president Rahul Gandhi whose rise in the party has been directly proportional to the decline in its fortunes under his leadership.

Over the last one year in particular, Sonia had tried to make the Congress synonymous with Rahul who was anointed vice president at a stage-managed session at Jaipur in January 2013 despite his inability to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat where the Congress was crushed in the assembly polls or for that matter in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or Bihar where it has all but withered away. He failed to deliver again in the 2013 year-end assembly polls in which it was virtually decimated in Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, crushed by the ruling BJP in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and booted out in Rajasthan.

Despite Rahul’s failure to inspire workers or voters, Sonia entrusted the 2014 campaign to him. If the Congress fails the Lok Sabha test too, the impression would intensify that Rahul is no vote catcher specially when juxtaposed with Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee who has pitched himself as a strong, dynamic and decisive alternative capable of filling the leadership vacuum created at the national level with the collapse of the trimurti represented by Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. The three Congress leaders had between them attracted the support of the middle classes, the poor and the youth to win the 2009 general elections. The middle classes and the youths have since then abandoned the Congress for Modi.

An anti-Rahul coup?

The big question then is whether Rahul will remain pivotal to the Congress or will Sonia bring Priyanka into the picture to help shore up the party’s flanks? And what about Sonia’s own role in the party?

With Sonia determined to hand over her mantle to him, a rebellion against Rahul is unlikely even though there are murmurs whether he has it in him to pull the party out of the crisis it faces. Some of its leaders may migrate for greener pastures but Congress workers are also aware that the Gandhi name---no matter who it is—cements and holds the party together even at the worst of times. With Sonia stepping back because of her undisclosed illness and advancing years---she will be 68 this December--- she is likely to play mentor and referee to the simmering battle between the old guard and the new who Rahul has been promoting often at the expense of the tried and tested hands who had rallied behind Sonia since she joined active politics.

Indeed, one of the factors for the party’s sorry state of affairs has been the imposition of youngsters as state unit chiefs just ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha polls without giving enough time either to them to settle into their news jobs or to allow the veterans to get used to the new change. There have been reports of poor coordination in states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh where youngsters like Sachin Pilot, Ashok Tanwar and Arun Yadav were appointed state unit chiefs.

Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally. AFP.

Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally. AFP

But with the Gandhi brand itself under strain, voices within the party would rise for an expanded and meaningful role for Priyanka who has so far confined herself only to handling Rae Bareli and Amethi where, in fact, she will be on test this time. Her performance so far in these two seats has been mixed.

She ensured huge margins of victory for her mother and brother in their seats but could deliver only two of the 10 assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi during the 2012 assembly elections. Though Priyanka is yet to prove herself on the larger canvas, her easy style and ability to connect with people provides a glimmer of hope to a despondent party and despairing workers who see in her traces of Indira Gandhi specially in the manner in which she took Modi head-on in the recent election campaign.

In the event, the two interlinked challenges before the party are to bring a new shine to the Gandhi brand and re-energise the Congress which does not have any big state to its name other than Maharashtra where it is in alliance with the NCP. The stakes are too high for the party not to address to these dual tasks.

Time for a third Congress avatar

It has to make the necessary internal adjustments, refurbish its image or go for another reinvention—the third since Sonia stepped into the frame in 1998-99. The first reinvention saw her giving a pro-poor tilt to the party (represented in the slogan of Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath), jettisoning its go-it-alone policy, forging alliances (including with the NCP which had split on the issue of her foreign origin), setting up the Congress’s first coalition at the Centre and renouncing the prime minister’s post.
The second reinvention established a formidable trimurti of Sonia, Singh and Rahul who between them leapfrogged the caste divide promoted by regional and sectarian parties to win the support of the poor, the middle class and the youth. A third reinvention has been due for some time now as it battles the crisis of identity, credibility and perception on almost all fronts.

Indeed, after the 2013 assembly polls, senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had underlined that mere introspection would not serve any purpose. “The Congress needs a revamp and reorganization in the party structure. It’s too late for introspection. I think we need a serious revolutionary change in our organization,’’ he had said, urging the party leadership to tap the energy of the vast reservoir of Congress supporters elected to various panchayats and to implement the reports of the Uma Shankar Dikshit and the AK Antony committees that went into the factors responsible for the party’s defeat in 1989 and 1999 and recommended, among other things, vetting memberships, holding free and fair internal elections and announcing Lok Sabha and assembly candidates six months and three months respectively in advance.

That was years ago. Newer forces and challenges have surfaced. But if such a revamp has to be conducted, the Congress will have to show nerve and not succumb to the temptation of forming a UPA-3 to keep the BJP-NDA out of power and use the time it now has to rebuild the organization, especially in UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which account for 201 of the 543 elective seats in the Lok Sabha. Even in Andhra Pradesh, which boosted the party’s tally in 2004 and 2009, the party is in a tailspin having miscalculated the political and electoral benefits of bifurcating the state.

While much would depend on the outcome of the elections, there are already different voices in the party on whether or not it should make an attempt to hammer out a UPA-3, with Rahul ruling out supporting a third front. At one level, all this talk could be part of the electoral rhetoric to boost the sagging morale of party workers to fight the Lok Sabha battle to the finish. At another level, it reflects the fear of the unknown---unlike a BJP spearheaded by Atal Bihari Vajpayee or L K Advani who have had long innings in national politics, the saffron camp’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi is an unknown entity.

But if the party has to get out of the dark tunnel it is in, it has no option but to bite the bullet.

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Updated Date: May 09, 2014 20:34:46 IST