Singed by Modi Surge, Congress Firefights Within
By Santwana Bhattacharya
Published: 18th May 2014 09:04:53 AM
NEW DELHI: The Congress is fumbling for a right disaster management plan after being handed its worst-ever electoral humiliation in post-Independence history. But the signs are that old habits of mind will not be entirely abandoned—if only for the TINA factor.
Party President Sonia Gandhi and her son Vice President Rahul Gandhi, whose anointment as the chosen successor many people outside, including allies of UPA, are seeing as her biggest political blunder, have offered to step down taking responsibility of the 2014 rout.
But the above-mentioned TINA factor, the doom scenario that any alternative will only hasten a splintering of the party, may work to ensure that their offer is not taken up. “This absolutely is not going to happen, we will not allow it. This is no way to go forward. You don’t cut yourself to find solutions,” a top Congress leader burst out in anger.
Such panic was not seen when the party’s numbers tumbled down to an abysmal low of 44 from 206. He went on to assert that was “not how things work in our party—CWC will introspect.” There was an apparent fear in the party, that “forces are at work to engineer (another) split” in the Congress. How exactly “the current scenario” is to be tackled while keeping in mind the need to meet the rising discontentment with ‘family rule’ remains to be seen. A full CWC meeting on Monday will offer the first formal signs—which may be followed up in other party fora.
The blame game, venting of anger apart, a rather plain-speaking Congressman Satyabrat Chaturvedi said, the party has to devise strategy to keep its head above water (for survival, revival will come later). To begin with, a resurgent BJP helmed by determined Narendra Modi, an unknown in Delhi’s power circles, puts a question mark on many things, including the longevity of quite a few state governments—Bihar, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.
But one thing is clear. A major shake-up of some sort is inevitable in the grand old party. And heads have to roll.
The obvious targets are members of the coterie that surrounded Rahul, who took charge of the campaign, in the last few months, sidelining the old guard.
Madhusudan Mistry, C P Joshi, Mohan Gopal and Jairam Ramesh can look forward to a quick trial, if not summary execution. Ramesh, a senior figure who was part of the last two successful campaigns in 2004 and 2009, cannot obviously be entirely relegated to obscurity.
The difference in the previous campaigns was that he was one of a team, that comprised veteran political managers like Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Janardan Dwivedi, Ambika Soni and Salman Khurshid, who read the signs on the grounds, cobbled up alliances and responded with canny strategies, despite being known as the “Rajya Sabha’’ brigade. Pranab Mukherjee and P.Chidambaram used to chip in at various levels.
This time, Jairam found himself as the senior pro in a group of newbies and political innocents para-dropped right into the centre of India’s toughest election, entrusted with the onerous job of pulling it off against a mighty multi-media onslaught against the UPA, led by its most savvy opponent, Modi.
Jairam, in this solo role, could not match the demands of the situation with the aplomb he had shown in his ministerial stints. Mistry is the other mystery figure. His rise in the party structure almost matched the perceived decline of his state-mate from Gujarat, the wily Ahmed Patel, Sonia’s trusted political secretary and one of the key behind-the-scenes figures during UPA’s good years.
Mistry did take credit for a few state successes as the Congress pointsman, notably the Karnataka Assembly elections.
Thereafter, he was made the key man to steer through the crucial task of candidate selection according to Rahul’s blueprint. He spent months on the project—but a yield of 44 seats at the end of it means Mistry must be guillotined from his current prestigious status.
Anil Shashtri, a special invitee to the CWC, is already drawing up points of target in a letter to Sonia Gandhi, topping it is the “faulty candidate selection”. “People who quitother parties who have no roots in Congress politics were freely given tickets,” he said. But these are perennial carps.
Mistry’s failure stands out in stark relief against the spectacular success totted up by his counterpart in the BJP, Amit Shah. In fact, when the BJP catapulted Shah to commandeer its Uttar Pradesh campaign, the Congress answered with fellow Gujarati, Mistry. The folly of imagining a manager, with little experience of elections, could pull it off without a local structure—the Congress is the only big party in UP without a state-level leader of any stature, forget its moribund grassroots presence—was clear with the results. Only the two family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli could be saved—almost mirroring the state of the last Mughals whose territory did not extend beyond the Red Fort.
On the other hand, Shah delivered a bumper crop of 71 plus, decimating not just the Congress but spectacularly reducing BSP to zero and SP to its own four family fortresses. The disproportionate importance Congress accorded to Mistry was clear from his final and crowning shame—sent out as the party warrior against Modi in Vadodara, presuming to beard the lion in his den, Mistry faced the ignominy of losing his deposit.
Mohan Gopal, a political nobody with vague socialist ideals borrowed from the seventies, became Rahul’s main advisor on everything from manifesto-making to campaign strategy. Also C P Joshi, another professorial-type Rahul protégé, plucked out of the Cabinet was given to run the Congress’ Bihar show. Joshi quit his charge faster than Ram Vilas Paswan exit from the UPA-fold, buzzing off to contest elections in Jaipur, Rajasthan which he spectacularly lost.
A notable feature of Rahul’s ascendancy in the last year or so has been the silent sidelining of the party’s old guard, who could not protest too audibly because of the dynastic culture in the party. But it’s now clear that a mere “youth push”, devoid of any real content derived from a sense of the grassroots or of any tactical knowledge, is the way forward to more doom and gloom.
The resignation of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after the JD(U) wipeout and Assam CM Tarun Gogoi’s offer to do the same for the Congress debacle in his state present the grand old party a context: a picture of the full extent of the Modi wave against which it must craft its revival plans.
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