Lok Sabha polls 2019: Why Congress needs to fight and win the battle of perception

It is the infiltration of leftists and atheists in the party which has snatched the Hindu space from the Congress and served it on a platter to the BJP.

 |  13-minute read |   01-08-2018
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In politics, there is nothing as powerful as perception.

Perception has the power to get people elected, and governments routed. It is the only reality and the only agent of change that can either bring a party like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to the fore, or coerce a party like the Congress to have its back to the wall. For what people see, they believe, and that’s how they perceive a political party.

And for a party as strong as the Congress, it is only "perception" that has left it dealing with an existential threat so gruesome that it has brought the party to its knees.

While this perception can be attributed partially to some actual fallouts, there is a part of this perception which has just been projected by the Opposition. Fighting the propaganda built around the party may take a lot of time, but the Congress must evaluate where it went wrong and how to undo the damage.

The power shift across the country hints at the pressing need for the Congress to win the following symbolic battles of perception against the BJP:

Anti-Hindu

The party which, at the time of Independence, was known as the party of Hindus, presently craves for Hindu space in its own nation.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s demise, the Congress left the inclusive Hinduism space for the BJP to conquer and the latter has utilised the space pretty smartly. It was at the height of Ram Janmabhoomi movement that led to the Congress party’s downfall in Uttar Pradesh and ever since it rooted out of the Hindi heartland, a majority of Hindu votes started drifting away from the Congress.

And the UPA’s 10-year rule drove the final nail in the party’s coffin.

From a vote share of 42.69 per cent in the 1980 elections, which rose to 49.10 per cent in 1984 to a decline in votes securing merely 39.53 per cent in 1989, 35.66 per cent in 1991, 28.80 per cent in 1996, and 26.14 per cent in 1998 — the Congress couldn’t really recoup after 1991.

rahul-temple-body_12_080118123648.jpgAfter Rajiv Gandhi’s demise, the Congress left the inclusive Hinduism space for the BJP to conquer and the latter has utilised it quite smartly.

Although in 1999 elections, the Congress' vote share saw a slight improvement when it increased to 28.30 per cent, it later declined to 26.70 per cent in 2004 elections. Again, a ray of hope became visible when the vote share of the party improved to 28.55 per cent in 2009, but it ultimately reached to its all-time low vote share of 19.52 per cent in 2014.

The swing in the vote share away from the Congress went straight to the BJP. And with the BJP’s right-wing on the rise, one party’s neglect became another party’s USP.

Moreover, it is the infiltration of leftists and atheists in the party which has snatched the Hindu space from the Congress and served it on a platter to the BJP.

Whenever I write about Ram or Ayodhya, leftists, liberals and even some Congress supporters don’t leave a chance to troll me and address me as a “Sanghi”. This is how they have given Hinduism to the BJP.

As emphasised in the AK Antony report, this “perceived” minority appeasement by the party was one of the reasons that led to the Congress’ mighty beating in the 2014 general elections.  

Take Manmohan Singh’s debatable statement for instance. When in 2006 he said that plans for minorities, particularly Muslims, must have the “first claim” on resources so that benefits of development reach them equitably, an irreparable damage to the Congress party’s image was done.

And then in 2007, when the UPA government filed a controversial affidavit on Ram Setu in the Supreme Court, denying the existence of Lord Ram, it marked the beginning of the party’s decline. The Hindu community’s religious sentiments were hurt, and the party alienated many in Hindu electorate.

On the one hand, Narendra Modi was gaining massive popularity as “Hindu Hriday Samrat”, from 2002 to 2014. On the other hand, the perception about the Congress becoming a pro-minority party was leaving the Hindus desolate due to non-Hindu leadership at the helm of affairs.

Even today, the failure of the party to take a stance on Hindu issues is fostering the anti-Hindu perception that is surrounding the party from all sides. From evading the Ram Mandir case to not taking a stand on the atrocities on Hindus in West Bengal, the conversions by the missionaries in the northeastern states, and the resurrection of temples — the Congress continues to fail to address these issues and many more which are close to the heart of Hindus.

As long as the Congress will shy away from speaking about Lord Ram or about the issues that matter to the Hindus, it will not be able to shed its anti-Hindu image. And, until then, winning a place in the heart of the Hindus will remain a distant possibility.

No political party can win Hindus by escaping Hinduism and the recent series of initiatives taken by Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to celebrate the Ramayana month is a testament to the fact.

congress-embed-copy_080118010245.jpgIt’s ironic that Congress whose leaders spent years in the jail to help gain Independence is labelled as 'anti-national' by the BJP, which played no role in freedom movement. (Credit: PTI photo)

The Congress attempts of an “image makeover” will be futile, until it takes in secularism in its truest form. Now that the party has celebrated Iftar this year after a two-year gap, it must celebrate all the other Indian festivals with full fervour. From Janmashtmi and Ramnavmi, Holi-Diwali to Gurupurab and Christmas, every community’s major festivals should be observed in the same manner. The time has come when the Congress leaders must prove that all religions are equal to them.

As a part of the Congress party’s outreach programme, Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Muslim intellectuals and activists sparked another controversy where reports were rife that he claimed the Congress to be a Muslim party.

While the Congress denied the reports, the damage was already done. Instead of making it just a meet with Muslim intellectuals, the Congress should have held a minority meet. The party should have invited intellectuals from different minority religious communities like Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs and Christians. It would have conveyed a strong message that the party is for all. However, Congress couldn’t grab this opportunity and stirred up another row in an already polarised environment. 

It’s time that the Congress reflected on its doings. All such activities that trigger the anti-Hindu narrative, knowingly or unknowingly, should be avoided at all costs.

Recently, we also witnessed Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s concern of India turning into a "Hindu Pakistan" if the BJP gets voted to power in 2019 general elections. As if that was not enough, he later came with another row making reference to a “Hindu Taliban”. It won’t be wrong to state that verbal responsibility takes a backseat with leaders like Shashi Tharoor choosing the wrong words and phraseology to bash the ruling government.

Till today, the Congress party is struggling because of terms like “Hindu terror” and “saffron terror” and now just a few months before the 2019 general elections, remarks like Hindu-Pakistan and Taliban are only going to hurt the sentiments of the majority population of Hindus.

What Tharoor needs to remember is that even if the BJP retains its position at the Centre, then also this nation can’t turn into Pakistan as Hinduism is a highly tolerant religion.

I want to quote here what Sonia Gandhi once said: “India is secular primarily because of Hindus, both as a philosophy and as a way of life based on what our ancients said, Ekam satyam, vipraha bahudha vadanti (The truth is one, the wise pursue it variously).”

The Congress party must not lose sight of its core existence. It is a party for the entire nation and must remain so.

Anti-national

It’s ironic that a party with a solid 132-year-old legacy, whose leaders spent many years in the jail to help the country achieve Independence from the British Raj, is labelled as “anti-national” by the BJP which played no role in India’s freedom movement. What’s even more concerning is the fact that till date the Congress hasn’t been able to defeat this "popular" perception.

When senior Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh address al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden as "Osamaji”, or when he alleges the 2008 encounter in Delhi’s Batla House as "fake", little could be done to save the party’s image from being dubbed as anti-national.

In June this year, a criminal complaint was filed against senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Saifuddin Soz in a Delhi Court for making "seditious statements against Indian Army". In another controversy, former Lok Sabha MP and Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit said that Army chief General Bipin Rawat was making public statements like a “sadak ka gunda”.

Such loose statements given by Congress leaders have badly marred the party’s image.

To add to this perception, Congress leaders’ presence in the JNU for extending support to students who were accused of raising anti-national slogans in the campus in 2016 worsened the situation even more.

What could be a bigger irony than this that the party which started the biggest national movement more than a century ago and contributed immensely in our country’s freedom has been unsuccessful to instil a sense of patriotism and nationalism, owing to such untenable actions.

Corrupt

Paradoxically, the Indian National Congress which was once established to transform the nation for the better is now tainted with scams and self-interest. The UPA government led the Congress party to a downhill journey with various allegations of corruption and graft. From 2G spectrum scam to CWG scam and coal scam, all these incurred widespread odium to the Congress party.

The controversy surrounding the alleged land dealings of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, was also a sharp blow to Congress. And now as the CBI has named P Chidambaram and his son Karti in a fresh chargesheet filed in Aircel Maxis case in Delhi's Patiala House Court, this has added fuel to this corruption perception.

Although nothing has been proved on these corruption charges so far and we don’t know how much the truth among these accusations, but the “perception” that the Congress is a corrupt party is there in the minds of the public.

Today, several BJP leaders are alleged to be involved in various scams. However, investigations against them have either been slowed down or scuttled outrightly. Take the previous SAD-BJP rule in Punjab as an example.

The state witnessed extensive indebtedness and a spate of farmer suicides under the rule of the Badal family which drained the state’s resources. Parkash Singh Badal, along with his clan, reportedly smartly converted politics into a commercial venture and ran Punjab into the ground. The regional parties such as the DMK, the SP, the BSP, the RJD, the NCP etc, are all apparently corrupt to the core, but it’s Congress’s image which has been badly tarnished by the BJP.

Even the much-hyped Gujarat model of governance, spearheaded by Narendra Modi, was riddled with corruption scandals. All this happened right under Modi’s watch when he was the state’s CM, but the BJP’s propaganda machinery didn’t let these scams come to the front.

We know that in politics, timing plays a very crucial role. And the way the BJP publicises corruption allegations and accusations against the opposition mirrors the opportunism that is put to great use by the ruling party.

Today, the BJP is nothing but a seeming crucible for crony capitalism, but the Congress party is unable to broadcast the truth behind this corrupt ruling government. Perhaps, the Congress needs to take a leaf out of the rulebook of the BJP and learn how to emphasise the ruling government’s flaws for a healthy democracy to flourish.

Dynasty

The country needs no reminder on how time and again Narendra Modi has used the dynasty politics plank to assail the Nehru-Gandhi family. It has been the worst attack on the Nehru-Gandhi lineage and signals at the myopic view of our PM.

From labelling the previous UPA government as “maa-bete ki sarkaar” to stating that the Congress worships “one family” and it rests on “parivarvad rajneeti” — these swipes that Modi took on the Nehru-Gandhi family over dynastic politics appear quite odd, given the fact that there are several political clans in India.

In fact, this nepotistic nature is not just restricted to politics; it exists in Bollywood too. From the Kapoors to the Khans, Bhatts, Bachchans 1 several star kids have made their way easily to the big screen, thanks to their inheritance.

But the focus has, more or less, been on the Nehru-Gandhi family alone.

rahul_080118010440.jpgRahul Gandhi recently appointed Keshav Chand Yadav as national president and Srinivas BV as national vice-president of the IYC. They both are from a non-political background. (Credit: Facebook/ShafiParambil)

Yes, Rahul Gandhi is a scion of India’s most popular political dynasty, but he isn’t the only one. From Sachin Pilot to Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Dev, many politicians in the Congress party come with the infamous dynasty tag. So, why always take a dig on Rahul Gandhi only?

Even the BJP party has been a staunch supporter of dynastic politics with names like Vasundhara Raje, Rajnath Singh, Piyush Goyal being the propagators of nepotism in politics.

Just because the BJP’s PM candidates are non-dynasts, it doesn't take away the fact that the party isn’t free from nepotism. And the regional parties are no different. Be it the SP, the RJD, the SAD, the DMK, or the TRS — all are known to be the bevy of dynasts.

However, that doesn’t mean that the Congress shouldn’t fight this perception. It must get rid of this nepotistic image by including fresh and new faces in the party.

Of late, when Rahul Gandhi inducted the former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi into the Congress Working Committee (CWC), along with his son Gaurav Gogoi, this fusion of old and young could have been avoided. Instead of appointing the octogenarian father, efforts should have been made on sending the right message within and outside the party that Congress is ready to infuse fresh blood in the CWC.

Now, let’s put aside for a second the fact that the Congress has several dynasts and take a look at a few recent appointments in the party that hint at a changing scenario. Rahul Gandhi must be appreciated for appointing Keshav Chand Yadav as national president and Srinivas BV as national vice-president of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), both of whom are from a non-political background.

Just because the Congress is the oldest living party with a legacy that crosses a century, the perception of dynastic politics has been handicapping the party and initiatives like these are ignored by a large part of the population.

Breaking the ‘perception’

Over the past many years, negative perception about the Congress party has resulted in its inability to inspire confidence amongst the voters. Even though the Modi magic is waning, people still aren’t ready to accept the Congress as an alternative to run the nation.

Remember, once turned negative, it is extremely difficult to turn perception otherwise.

Now that the country is awaiting the next general elections, how well the Congress fights with these four ongoing perception battles is one of the biggest questions that remain to be answered.

Also read: How Rahul Gandhi has transformed himself to lead the charge in 2019 general elections

Writer

Sadhavi Khosla Sadhavi Khosla @sadhavi

Entrepreneur, blogger and political analyst based in Gurgaon.

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