Even Narendra Modi would have lost had he contested on a Congress ticket”. That succinct summation was by Congressman Sanjay Nirupam, post the 2014 polls. It is yesterday once more in the Congress tent. In the 2017 polls, the party won Punjab, lost Uttarakhand, let slip Manipur and Goa, and did miserably in Uttar Pradesh.
The 2014 summation continues to echo in 2017. Since 2014, voters polled for 2,367 seats in 11 states. Of these, the Congress has won 357—their tally in 11 states is just ahead of the BJP tally for one state, Uttar Pradesh. In less than 30 months, the party has lost power in seven states—to their credit, they haven’t alleged EVM fraud, not yet anyway.
Déjá vu it would seem has tenancy rights at 24 Akbar Road. The response in 2017, post the 7/114 score in Uttar Pradesh is the same as it was in 2014 after it lost in Haryana and Maharashtra, or 2015 after it scored a duck in Delhi, or 2016 after it lost in Assam and Kerala. There is a grudging acceptance of “responsibility” and the promise of “introspection”. The A K Antony review of the 2014 decimation deserves a post mortem.
What passes as strategy in the Congress is often inexplicable. For instance, the BJP had 17 ministers campaigning in Uttar Pradesh and other states. Arguably the Congress has a pantheon of leaders ostensibly representing communities but scarcely any of them was visible. Apparently, Meira Kumar, daughter of the early Dalit icon Jagjivan Ram, was called to address a meeting on the last day of the campaign.
The narrative after every defeat, typically, moves in two streams. There is a torrent of questions about debatable decisions: The logic of appointing Raj Babbar as UP party chief, the anointment of Sheila Dikshit, and the curious dependence on five Rajya Sabha members—Babbar, Sanjay Singh, Pramod Tiwari, P L Punia and Rajiv Shukla—for staging the battle. The second stream is a whine and whisper campaign about the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
There is much that Rahul Gandhi is being blamed for and charged with. His periodic disappearances, inaccessibility, the coterie confusion, the fog of indecision, disregard of senior and grass root leaders. Equally relevant is the role of Congress leaders—the visible and the invisible—who have evaded responsibility.
Mind you, the UPA decade saw over 50 ministers, 15 chief ministers and 200 MPs riding the Congress bandwagon. Having enjoyed the perks, many dodged the cross and the calumny and migrated to La-la Land.
After every poll, a set of leaders, like Kamal Nath, step out of annual hibernation and issue advisories—either that Rahul Gandhi should take over or that Sonia Gandhi should come back. There are others who dole out diagnosis—former MP Priya Dutt thinks the Congress suffers from auto immune disorder. They also issue prescriptions—decentralisation, restructuring and so on—and disappear till the next byte season.
Congress leaders have found in the limitations of RaGa a convenient raga to play to hide their incompetence and irrelevance. Take the Goa bungle—it is a scandal that its leaders couldn’t even manage a letter staking claim.
To borrow a cliché from cricket commentators, the Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The triumph in Punjab under Amarinder Singh is the exception that proves that ineptness rules.
The gulf between success and failure in politics is defined by the character of membership and its politics. The BJP juggernaut is propelled by political entrepreneurship—by its leader and followers. Public perception matters. The BJP leaders are perceived to be stakeholders, willing to invest equity for returns. The perception about the Congress, in contrast, is that its leaders are focused on entitlements and on fixed risk-free returns.
The organising principle of the BJP under Narendra Modi is management of an institutional narrative. The disorder in the Congress stems from the lack of an organising principle. The narrative is about individual interests. Yes, loyalty is emphatically a critical metric in the BJP— as it is in many parties. What distinguishes the Congress is the institutionalisation of sycophancy, dressed up as loyalty.
Frequently, the saga of revival under Indira Gandhi is cited as the route. Sure politics is the art of the possible. Bear in mind though that nostalgia can be seductive, that outcomes depend on constants and variables. And the context now is very different from the 1970s—Indira Gandhi had stature, following, she trounced a debilitated Janata Party and didn’t have to face an opposition as organised as the BJP is today.
The BJP has a growing cadre and there is the enduring ballast of the Sangh Parivar. The Uttar Pradesh victory owes its genesis to a multi-layered blitzkrieg—from Ram and Shiva kathas to crowd sourcing of expertise to political engagement at fractional levels to booth-level management. Scarcely any other organisation in India would be as adept as the BJP in leveraging technology—this is a party that deploys algorithms, sentiment analysis for connectivity.
Perception in democracy is defined by victories, the winner takes it all. Remember, between 2004 and 2012, the BJP, too, was floundering, till the clarion call from Gujarat. What revived it was the appearance of Brand Modi and a narrative. The Congress continues to have a national footprint. However, the mere presence of dealerships is not enough, the party needs a product, an idea to revive subscription.
Ideation demands an eco system for free thinking, a departure from the norm—second guessing the family.
The crisis in the Congress is about outcomes, but more importantly it is about the processes. Inner party democracy was uninstalled in 1970s. Rajiv Gandhi spoke about it in 1984 when the Congress turned 100. The party, now over 132-year-old, is riveted together by anointments and appointments.
Revival demands clearance of the geriatric ward, elections right up to CWC—even for an executive president/CEO to professionalise the organisation.
It did induct a CEO in power, why not now? The critique about the Congress is that the party does not stand up for what it claims to be against and cannot articulate what it stands for. The immediate challenge is for the Congress to stand up for itself.