At the national level, the Congress needs to revive itself to provide the necessary framework for a national Opposition
Media reports have said that the group of 23 Congress leaders, who had written a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in August urging an organisational revamp, was forced to scotch speculation over the weekend that another epistle had been sent in the wake of the party’s disastrous showing in the recent election.
Be that as it may, Tariq Anwar, one of the most senior Congress leaders from Bihar and a party general secretary, admitted on Friday that his party’s dismal performance had prevented the Opposition alliance — the Mahagathbandhan — from unseating the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Bihar and forming a government in the state. Soon after, he clarified that he had not intended to blame the leadership for the fiasco.
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari had no reason to soft pedal and he didn’t. He launched an unsparing tirade against Congress MP Rahul Gandhi on Sunday, saying he was at a picnic in Shimla while the election was in progress in Bihar. He pointed out that Rahul had campaigned for just three days, managing to address only six meetings at two a day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tiwari said, who was much older had attended three or four a day. Tiwari said the Congress had not been serious about the elections. For good measure he added that this was not just his personal view but was shared by senior leaders of his party.
On 11 November, a day after the results had been declared, RJD founder Lalu Prasad Yadav was reportedly furious with the Congress, holding it responsible for the alliance’s failure to cross the halfway mark — it fell 12 short. He blamed some leaders, not Sonia and Rahul, for messing up the campaign. As well he might.
So, let’s briefly review the Congress’ performance in Bihar and the Assembly by-elections for which results were declared on 10 November. In Bihar, the Congress was allocated 70 of the 243 seats in the Bihar Legislative Assembly. It won just 19 of those, with the lowest strike rate among the major players. The reason was a shambolic approach to the selection of candidates and the organisation of the campaign.
Gujarat leader Shaktisinh Gohil, who is the party’s Bihar minder, seemed to have been kept out of the loop. Spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala was drafted in at the last moment to oversee the selection of candidates. Given that his familiarity with the Bihar situation was close to zero, he obviously was not in a position to mastermind a brilliant roster. It has been reported that a large number of leaders in Bihar had also been sidelined when candidates were being chosen.
The Congress argued that it had been given tough seats to contest deep in NDA territory. Even if that were the case, it is clear that in addition to the facts that the selection of candidates was arbitrary — the dominant view in the party is that around 20 seats had been conceded at the outset because of the candidates who were selected — and the campaign was a shambolic non-starter with few central leaders bothering to make the trip to the state, over the past five years, the leadership has done nothing to strengthen the organisation and make its presence felt through political programmes.
It is arguable that in the final analysis it was the RJD itself that was to blame for giving 70 seats to the Congress — almost 30 percent of the seats available. Not only did the Congress’ poor strike rate — 27 percent — pull the alliance’s final tally down, it also left very little wiggle room for the RJD to accommodate other alliance partners as a result of which Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party joined the NDA and got four seats out of the 11 it contested. More important perhaps is the fact that it transferred crucial Nishad votes to the NDA.
Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) had also flipped to the NDA in September, weeks before the elections started, ostensibly because of problems with discussions about seat-sharing formulae. That might not have been a direct result of the seats finally allocated to the Congress, but that could well have played a part. In any case, it was hardly a secret that the Congress organization in Bihar was practically non-existent, its contribution to the Mahagathbandhan in terms of upper-caste votes would be residual, and whatever it achieved would in large measure be by piggy-backing on the RJD’s strengths.
While it seriously underperformed in Bihar, in the by-elections spread through the rest of the country it was hammered. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 41 of the 59 seats which went to the polls. Of those 31 were wrested from the Congress mainly in Gujarat (eight) and Madhya Pradesh (16). The Congress was also shut out of Uttar Pradesh where the BJP won six out of seven seats, with the former losing its deposits in four constituencies.
Reports of the Congress having been energised under the leadership of general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra turned out to be premature.
The question then is where the Congress goes after this shellacking. Clearly, the first thing it will have to do is get itself a proper leader – meaning, a leader elected by due process as laid down in its Constitution rather than an ailing, interim president, which Sonia is. When that happens, it will be without question Rahul, despite his brave assertion at the time of his resignation in May 2019 that neither would he be the president, nor would anyone from his family.
There are serious questions about Rahul’s political acumen and leadership qualities. Former US president Barack Obama’s observation that the Gandhi scion is like a student who has done his course work and is eager to please his teachers, but gives the impression of being ‘unformed’ and lacking ‘either the passion or the aptitude to master the subject’ is not far off the mark. In addition, one should say that Rahul’s main problem is that he does not have the bottle to remain in the fray when the going gets tough. His resignation from the president’s post after the 2019 fiasco proves that abundantly. There is also the sense that he does not take the task of conducting a political career seriously enough, that he is, in fact, a somewhat reluctant leader.
Nevertheless, Rahul will likely not relinquish the sceptre. The least he can do is drop his backseat-driving tactic, take responsibility and become the president of the party. He will then have the luxury of selecting his own working committee. If he has any nous or sense, he will not vindictively render irrelevant the 23 leaders who pleaded in their August letter to Sonia that actions be undertaken to instal an elected leader, refurbish the organisation by, inter aliareviving the Parliamentary Board and instituting organisational elections, and embark on a mass-contact programme. Despite Rahul’s immature reaction to the letter at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in which he read the letter as an attack on Sonia’s leadership, there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the letter was written in good faith, unlike the jejune potshots taken by Sanjay Jha, once a party spokesman.
At this juncture, the Congress has become practically irrelevant in the national political context. It may sound clichéd, but the fact is that for democracy to survive, forget flourish, a functional, forget vigorous, Opposition, is a desideratum. Thus, at the national level, the Congress needs to revive itself to provide the necessary framework for a national Opposition. The BJP in its current avatar is a predatory party. That fact must be accepted rather than moaned about when the Congress sets about trying to chart its future course.
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