The first word from the RJD has come after its Mahagathbandhan with the Congress failed to notch up the numbers to form the government in Bihar.
“The Congress had become a shackle for the Mahagathbandhan. They fielded 70 candidates but didn’t even hold 70 public rallies. Rahul Gandhi came for three days and Priyanka Gandhi didn’t come. Elections were in full swing and Rahul Gandhi was on a picnic at Priyanka ji’s place in Shimla. Is a party run like that? This is benefitting the BJP,” RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari said on Sunday.
The BJP was quick to capitalise. Union minister Smriti Irani, who defeated Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in the 2019 elections, tweeted: “When politics for some is in in pants, shirts and picnics.”
The dilemma before the Congress is how to react to what the RJD has said as it remains an ally. But what Shivanand Tiwari said is something many of its allies in in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are starting to fear. That the Congress has no fire in its belly and its projection of Rahul Gandhi as the only star campaigner means that it may well be a dead horse as the BJP breaths down its neck before critical assembly elections.
The presidential polls in Congress are due in January, and while Rahul Gandhi will be pitched and cajoled to take up the top job, some within the party are beginning to wonder whether that would be a good idea.
First of the states headed to assembly polls next is West Bengal. While as a national party the Congress would not be seen as playing second or third fiddle to any regional party, the fact is that the Congress joining hands with the Left to take on the Trinamool Congress will only make the Congress end up as a ‘vote katua’ (vote cutter) party.
For the Congress, it’s important to understand who the real enemy is. It’s clearly the BJP. These are the only two national parties. The two stand at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and, in this sense, offer an alternative to each other.
But the Congress has yet to get its state organisations battle-ready. In Bengal, barring Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, no other leader is even recognised in the state. And the appointment of Adhir as the state unit chief has angered TMC supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee even more as he is a known Mamata baiter who had in the Lok Sabha raked up the Narada issue. Adhir also comes from the Murshidabad belt which has sizeable Muslim population, and the Owaisi factor is a warning sign.
An angry Mamata would have no qualms crushing Adhir in his bastion. All this helps the BJP.
“In politics, it’s important to appear to be an opponent at times without being one,” a senior Congress leader said.
This could perhaps have been the strategy in West Bengal.
In Tamil Nadu, barring a handful of MPs, the Congress has not even bothered to build a strong organization. Infighting and egos battles have hammered the Congress. The DMK isn’t too sure that the Congress can be of help. There are chances that the DMK may not agree to give the number of seats the Congress would demand to contest on. In fact, some observers say the DMK may distance itself from the Congress in the run-up to the elections next year.
Zooming out from the two state elections, the larger issue here is a confused, inadequate leadership. “We have no problems with Rahul Gandhi becoming the party president, but then he has to be a 24×7 politician. Optics are critical. This has carried on for far too long,” another senior Congress leader said.
In August, a group of 23 Congress leaders, dubbed in the media as Group of 23 or G23, had written a letter to interim chief Sonia Gandhi asking for clarity of leadership. They had also demanded that a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting be held soon and elections announced. While that process has begun, the future still remains uncertain.
The corridors of the Congress headquarters these days are empty, which would be an acceptable sight if the leaders were away and busy in political action. But barring a few who are stationed in states they are in-charge of, most are missing in action altogether.
Shivanand Tiwari’s comment comes close on the heels of former US President Barack Obama’s mention of Rahul Gandhi in his memoir as a leader lacking passion and patience.
The Congress is at such a low point that outsourcing political activism is no longer a luxury it can afford. Sonia Gandhi during UPA days had outsourced it to her close group, but back then she ran the party with an iron fist. Her strength also came from the fact that she led her party to wins in national elections and in several state assembly elections. Unfortunately, neither Rahul nor Priyanka have that achievement yet to their credit. And till they do, the allies and smaller regional parties are likely to remind the Gandhis and the Congress that politics cannot be one big party.