What Congress party can do from taking its own life
The BJP faces anti-incumbency in a number of states.
Post the Assembly election results of March 11, there have been calls for a serious shake-up within the Congress. The Grand Old Party lost two states, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, emerged as the single largest party in two, Goa and Manipur, and achieved an outright win in the border state of Punjab.
The party’s inability to form a government in Goa and Manipur, in spite of being the single largest party, has only added salt to its wounds. It is not just political analysts, but Congress leaders like Sandeep Dixit and Priya Dutt who have criticised the role of the Congress high command (currently vice-president Rahul Gandhi).
Others within the party have spoken about the need for some serious measures, but never gone to the extent of questioning the Congress vice-president’s leadership style.
There has been a clamour for reform ever since the 2014 parliamentary election, where the party could bag only 44 seats, and its continuous rout in election after election after that has seen numerous prescriptions being given to the party.
In May 2016, former Madhya Pradesh CM and general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, Digvijaya Singh, had spoken about the need for a "surgery".
One suggestion which has been made by critics, as well as well-wishers of the party, has been to strengthen regional leaders. The triumph of the Congress in Punjab, where it was able to wrest the state after a decade, is a strong reiteration of this point.
Captain Amarinder Singh, who took over as CM of the state on March 16, is popular in both urban and rural areas and the Congress's convincing victory in the border state is largely due to his personal charisma. Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi held only two rallies in Punjab.
Singh after his victory reiterated the need for the party to empower regional leaders who have a good grasp of local issues and understand the psyche of the people. It would be pertinent to point out that Rahul Gandhi was not initially keen to project Singh as the face of the Congress in Punjab, because the party had faced two successive defeats under his leadership.
It would also be pertinent to point out that Singh had defeated finance minister Arun Jaitley in Amritsar in the parliamentary election of 2014, amid a Modi wave all over the country. In the same election, then Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Partap Singh Bajwa had lost his own seat.
Singh sensed an opportunity post his triumph in the parliamentary election, though the leadership took over a year-and-a-half to make him PPCC chief and the face of the campaign.Analysts like Sanjaya Baru have suggested that Congress should bring back former leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar. Photo: India Today
Analysts like Sanjaya Baru have also suggested that the Congress should bring back some of its former leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar, who have formed their own regional outfits, into the fold. Some have even suggested that the regional satraps break away from the party. This is highly unlikely. None of the leaders is likely to question the leadership of Rahul Gandhi in the near future.
Stitching the right alliances
Sympathisers of the party are more optimistic about the party's chances, and want a grand alliance like the one stitched in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi, who managed to dislodge the reasonably successful NDA government.
If one were to examine both recommendations, there is no doubt that regional leaders need to be empowered not just at the state level, but their suggestions should also be taken for other state elections as well.
In fact, chief ministers or former chief ministers who have achieved electoral successes should be appointed as observers to other states, and their inputs should be taken. Those who have ruled a state would also understand the need for the local leadership having autonomy.
Interestingly, the Delhi unit of the Congress has sought the assistance of Punjab Congress for taking on the Aam Aadmi Party for the upcoming MCD election. In the 2015 Assembly election, AAP trounced both BJP and Congress, but the BJP, while winning three seats, maintained its vote share.
As for alliances, these are helpful but the recent election in Uttar Pradesh clearly shows that the India of 2019 will not be the India of 2004 or 2009. The BJP of today is no longer a party of upper castes or traders - PM Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have been able to expand the support base of the party, by not just weaving new social coalitions but also by selling a narrative of "development".
This has been successfully balanced with "welfare". In addition, demonetisation has strengthened Modi’s image among the poor. The old faithful, some of whom have not been convinced with Modi’s economic policies, have been humoured with the right dose of "nationalism", "Hindutva" and "vikas".
Does this mean the new BJP is infallible?
The fact is that in a number of states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and to some extent even Gujarat, the BJP faces anti-incumbency. In Rajasthan, the Congress has the best chance of revival and a good performance could also stand it in good stead for the next national election.
It will have to empower local leadership and young dynamic faces, and rather than banking on nostalgia, it needs to speak about how everyone can benefit from economic development and progress.
The party should be less reticent about its role in economic reforms in the early 1990s, and not allow the BJP to take all the credit for some of the policies initiated by the Congress.
In conclusion, the policies of Congress have for long been decided in five-star hotels in New Delhi, by those who are totally disconnected with the realities of a changing India. It is time that the party allowed strong leaders to function freely, and also stopped living in the hope that it will be able to wrest power from the BJP in due course of time.
India is changing fast; the Congress needs to come up with a more aspirational narrative than that of the BJP. The party doesn’t lack talent, but its leadership clearly lacks the drive and enthusiasm.