Congress Baby Steps into Lessons in Primaries
By Santwana Bhattacharya - NEW DELHI
Published: 26th Jan 2014 08:34:31 AM
The coming fortnight will see some excitement around the Congress’ brand new project. Rahul Gandhi’s pet idea of holding primaries to zero in on candidates with high winnability quotient for the Lok Sabha elections will start rolling in 15 pilot constituencies in early February. Refining the process of candidate selection, throwing it open to honest competition and making clear, early choices—are the cornerstones of Rahul’s strategy. And his camp believes the old style of patrons and mentors remote-controlling the process has no future.
As many as 150 sitting MPs will be weaned out of the race, but the primaries are not for those constituencies. The party has readied a “wonder list” of 120 names after year-long consultations—steered by Rahul’s favourite general secretary Madhusudan Mistry—and a party panel will put its seal on that.
Though Mistry is not much liked by the old guard, who see him as an interloper, they have not been able to scuttle that process except to inveigle themselves into the panel, which will anyway do Rahul’s bidding.
The names will be out in the coming days. Interesting faces from the corporate world, bureaucracy, technocrats and those with a social media footprint will be the obvious choices for metros, to go along with solid grassroots names for the hinterland.
On the other hand, the primaries will be held almost exclusively in seats not presently held by Congress, thus revealing a key thought in the battle strategy: an awareness of the strong possibility that it will face an erosion in seats it has, and therefore a desire to go beyond a ‘holding operation’ mentality and strike further afield in virgin areas.
The seats selected for the pilot project are all interesting: Varanasi and Sant Kabir Nagar (UP); Aurangabad and Dhule (Maharashtra); North Bangalore and Dakshina Kannada (Mangalore); Indore and Hoshangabad (Madhya Pradesh); Vadodara and Bhavnagar (Gujarat); Guwahati (Assam); North Kolkata (West Bengal); Gurgaon (Haryana); Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan); and one seat in Delhi that is yet to be decided.
Sant Kabir Nagar, although a new constituency created in 2008, has for long been alien territory for Congress. Looking into the history of the constituency that lapsed into it, Khalilabad, we see an old anti-Congress stronghold.
Held by the Jan Sangh for 17 years and later by various Janata family parties and lately by BSP, the Congress managed to win this just once in the last 45 years—and that was during the post-assassination sympathy vote of 1984.
Varanasi, with all its Hindu symbolism, has a more chequered history, with the Congress winning in 2004 too. But it’s currently held by BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi and is quite significant because it is often touted as one of the potential seats for Narendra Modi in case BJP goes with the plan of him contesting from outside Gujarat. It could also go to Kalraj Mishra, another BJP veteran from UP.
Down south, it’s a different take: North Bangalore is with BJP, though before delimitation it used to be with the Congress, so it is eyeing reclamation. Dakshina Kannada, including coastal Mangalore belt, is classic saffron territory—it has voted BJP since 1990s. But the recent Assembly polls saw a near-wipeout for the BJP, so 2014 presents a unique opportunity to make a big conquest.
The two chosen constituencies in Gujarat are prestige seats for obvious reasons. Vadodara is deep saffron—it’s said that Modi, if fielded from there, won’t even have to campaign once and still win hands down. Bhavnagar, though held by BJP now, is local Congress strongman Shaktisingh Gohil’s area, under his thumb till the last time, and they entertain more believable visions of retaking it.
Aurangabad, now with Shiv Sena, is a place where a good fight can be expected if Congress puts up a strong Maratha candidate. But Dhule is a BJP stronghold (though it fell to the Congress in 2004).
In MP, the Hoshangabad seat is vacant because its sitting Congress MP joined the BJP before the Assembly poll and it’s a grudge match of sorts. And Indore has been personal property of BJP’s Sumitra Mahajan ever since 1989—so it’s again that pattern of one seat where the Congress has had a good fighting chance and one where it is striking deep inside enemy lines.
Guwahati is a yo-yoing seat—now with BJP vice-president Bijoya Chakravarty. This was where, in 2004, the BJP had erred by fielding singer Bhupen Hazarika and mended its tactic in 2009 by going back to Bijoya.
North Kolkata presents a test-case for the idea of holding primaries. It’s held by Trinamool bigwig Sudip Bandyopadhyay, who defeated Mohammed Salim of CPI(M) last time, but it was a joint TMC-Congress front then.
This time, apart from the alliance having broken, there is the additional fact of former Bengal PCC chief Somen Mitra, one of the mentors of Mamata Banerjee in her Congress days, having severed ties with her and rejoined Congress.
North Kolkata is Mitra’s old constituency and fielding him would have been an obvious decision. But the party has gone for primaries—a Mitra-Bandyopadhyay faceoff may only benefit the CPI (M).
Gurgaon and Jhunjhunu in Haryana and the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan—part of the Jat belt—have more than a couple of common things. The Jats, especially after Muzaffarnagar, are believed to have been conclusively saffronised—as proved in Delhi’s rural Assembly seats that went exclusively to BJP.
And secondly, both seats have seen the exit from the scene of an old Congress man. Three-time party MP Rao Inderjit Singh in Gurgaon defected to BJP three days ago after months of a battle of attrition with the high command and the Hooda government over the Robert Vadra land deal. And the death of old-timer and five-time MP Sis Ram Ola has opened up Jhunjhunu, an old Congress stronghold.
Besides these two, Delhi presents the other exception to the rule of holding primaries in non-Congress seats. Because of the stunning AAP incursion, Rahul is keen on making an example of the process in this high-visibility urban area, whereby current expectations Sandeep Dikshit may be the only man standing in the five seats the party holds. And maybe Kapil Sibal. The seat is yet to be chosen, though.
The whole idea is to seek to systematise local competition in a healthy way. The old way, believes the Rahul camp, does not always allow for a transparent idea of who actually is a good candidate. Secondly, as plenty of painful experience shows, in no way did it guarantee against local disaffection and sabotage.
Not that there can be any ultimate immunity against subversion from inside—but Camp Rahul believes this process will at least ensure a better sifting of the grain from the chaff, which can be so crucial in what may be a photo-finish of an election.