On Friday, veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath slammed the Narendra Modi government for only giving bhashan (speeches) and ashwasan (assurances) to the people during the three years it has been in power.
Nath’s diatribe was part of the Congress’ plan of fielding its veterans to puncture the claim of "achievements’’ made by the Modi sarkar on completing three years in office on May 26, and highlighting the BJP-NDA’s failures with regard to farmer suicides, agrarian crisis, women’s safety, increasing atrocities against Dalits, rising prices, growing unemployment, surging fuel prices, Kashmir and foreign policy.
But in accusing the BJP of resorting to bhashans and ashwasans, the 132-year-old party may be talking about itself as well.
The Congress’s role during the three years it has been in Opposition has been a litany of bhashans and ashwasans’ about revamping the fortunes of the party which got a mere 44 Lok Sabha seats and drew a blank in nearly 20 states and Union Territories in 2014, and lost 13 of 16 Assembly elections held since 2014 while the BJP-NDA won nine of these.
The trend of serial losses began with Gujarat in 2012 and Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi in 2013. To add to the party’s woes, it has never managed to return to power in the states it lost, including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh which it last ruled in 1967, 1977 and 1989 respectively and which contribute 159 seats to the Lok Sabha.
With its rapidly shrinking base and appeal, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and vice-president Rahul Gandhi have for some years now been staring at an existential crisis vis-a-vis the party’s fundamentals, ideology, organisation, leadership, socio-political reach and grassroots connect.
Instead of facing up to the herculean task, the leadership seems to be seized with paralysis - much like the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2 was - unable, unclear and unsure of how to stem the alarming slide.
With Sonia focusing more on trying to pass on her mantle to Rahul at an opportune time, the party seems to have come to a standstill. Its three years in the Opposition have been marked by dilemmas, contradictory statements, oscillations, flip-flops and half-hearted experiments, some of which were abandoned mid-way.
After each drubbing, Sonia and Rahul had promised deep introspection, intense soul-searching, structural changes and strong corrective actions. Photo: Reuters
The confusion that continues to grip the party was best reflected in the UP polls. Led by Rahul, the Congress seesawed between wooing farmers and Dalits; it began by going it alone and then tied up with Akhilesh Yadav and his SP, thereby sharing the fallouts of incumbency and the Yadav family drama; it projected former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit as its CM face and then pitched for Yadav; and it raised workers’ hopes – only to dash them - of Priyanka Vadra campaigning.
If the Congress has not able to break out of the chakravyuy it finds itself in, it is because there has been no substantial reparative action. There has been no introspection to find out where the party had gone wrong; no attempt to refurbish its ideology to attune it to the changing times; no effort to present a new vision t0 revive the organisation or galvanise the workers and masses; and no organisational overhaul to signal its intent to fight the crisis.
There is no serious bid to give a new direction or language to the party that presently rules just Punjab, Puducherry, Manipur, poll-bound Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka - which together represent less than 50 Lok Sabha seats and 10 per cent of the population - and is a junior partner in the JD(U)-RJD alliance in Bihar.
Yet, after each drubbing, Sonia and Rahul had promised deep introspection, intense soul-searching, structural changes and strong corrective actions, with the Amethi MP even assuring an organisational transformation "in ways you cannot even imagine".
These were promised after the 2013 Delhi defeat, the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle, subsequent setbacks and more recently after the 2017 electoral disaster in UP where the party won just seven of the 105 seats it contested and lost all five Assembly segments in Rahul’s parliamentary constituency Amethi - a debacle that the vice-president downplayed by saying "we had a little down in UP’’.
Even in 2014, Sonia set up the AK Antony committee which blamed every factor for the defeat except Rahul’s uninspiring leadership, which party workers publicly identified as the main reason.
As the list of electoral setbacks lengthened, the leadership’s ashwasan of reparative action began to sound hollow, so much so that senior leader and Gandhi loyalist Satyavrat Chaturvedi lamented after the UP disaster that it is now too late for even correctives. Indeed, even the usual chants of "Priyanka lao" have died out.
The Congress tried to offset the absence of any transformative action with bhashans, speeches, allegations and jibes against Modi and the saffron brigade in Parliament, at press conferences and in rallies.
Rahul managed some headlines with his allegations of "suit boot ki sarkar’’ (alluding to Modi’s expensive monogrammed attire that was later auctioned and his pro-rich governance), "arhar Modi’’ (over rising prices of pulses) and a "fair and lovely’’ regime that sought to whitewash its failures. He repeated these and other charges in his interactions and public rallies.
But most of these forays at trying to dent the BJP’s image and improve its image remain patchy, cosmetic and delusional. This includes its latest move of joining forces with other opposition parties to field a common candidate for the presidential election in July, for which the BJP is short by just about 20000 votes and the vice-presidential polls in August, for which the saffron brigade has the numbers.
On Friday, Sonia and the Congress were the centrepiece in the gathering of 17 opposition parties - all battling a resurgent BJP in their respective states - but the move is unlikely to put the party on the road to recovery for the 2019 polls, where a number of region-based leaders could be vying with Modi for the PM’s post.
The big questions staring at the Congress remain: Where are the sustained field-level agitations? Where are the attempts to re-connect with workers, voters and masses? Where are the moves to reinvent the party’s ideology, to restructure the organisation, to rebuild the leadership’s credibility with its workers and supporters? Where are the efforts to craft a base that would stand it in good stead? Where are the plans to reset the party’s compass for a rapidly changing future?
Until all this happen, it can only spell doomsday for the party which had ruled India for the better part of seven decades after Independence.