While the Congress seems to have picked itself up elsewhere after its fortunes plunged in the 2019 general elections and is dusting itself off, it continues to be going round in circles in Odisha. After yielding the second position in the state Assembly to the BJP, the party is yet to make any attempt to pull itself out of the rut. PCC president Niranjan Patnaik continues to be persisted with even after he tendered his resignation. No wonder, dissidence is growing. Those opposed to his leadership have tried holding parleys, spoken out in the open and even been handed out a warning from AICC’s Odisha in charge Jitendra Singh. Last heard, a group was trying to meet Sonia Gandhi at Delhi to make their case, but it apparently did not work out.
In Maharashtra, the party has stitched up an unlikely alliance with the Shiv Sena and the NCP to get back in power. The GOP picked up 44 seats despite the BJP-Shiv Sena pre-poll alliance challenge. Insiders argue the Congress did well in Maharashtra because the state unit was given a free hand. Even as it improved its presence in states where the BJP had its dominance, the party is scraping the bottom of the barrel in Odisha, where it once held sway for decades. Yet, the high command hasn’t been proactive in taking remedial measures. Why?
Bereft of a leader who had had pan-Odisha acceptability within the organisation as well as among the masses, the party has been struggling to match up to the might of the ruling BJD and even the BJP, which has gone on to spread its base.
Niranjan Patnaik, who was given the reins of the party in 2011 but abruptly removed before the 2014 general elections despite reviving the Congress organisation, was once again handed the leadership in April 2018. However, he was never given a free hand. The then Congress boss Rahul Gandhi, who apparently did not show his faith in the veteran, saddled him with three working presidents. Naba Kishore Das, one of the three, was poached by the BJD along with another senior Congress leader Chandra Sekhar Sahu. Rahul’s ploy of using the Karnataka model and zonalising party functioning not only failed but led to a structural collapse of the Congress just before the elections. The plan to remote-control the party did not work, nor did the candidate selection practice and dynastic politics, which only fueled factionalism. Large scale desertion followed. The result was for all to see.
The post-election revival process has been marred by the party’s inability to understand the ground reality. As it keeps Niranjan Patnaik in the saddle and the party’s rank and file guessing, Cuttack-Barabati MLA Mohammed Moquim has emerged as a younger face staking claim for leadership. To his credit, Moquim comes with new energy and connect with the voters and does not have the baggage of the old guard. But he, too, has issues with pan-Odisha acceptability although financial resources could be in his favour.
There are talks of the Congress looking for a younger tribal face to prepare the state unit for 2024. Should Koraput MLA Saptagiri Ulaka be it? The young MP is the lone Congress face from Odisha in Parliament but knowing the party’s culture and inner workings, he could face similar resistance without a support system in place.
What the Congress leadership has failed to do is to understand the pulse of the new age voters and their ability to connect. Its inability to groom young leaders has added to the drought of strong leadership. There are urban body elections ahead in the state and the Congress has to put its house in order well before that.
Some believe a national wave in favour of the Congress could change its fortunes in the state, but that would mean a long wait. The high command must repose faith in the leader it chooses and give him complete freedom along with accountability. As of now, the Congress appears too cozy with the BJD. It must assert itself and get its identity of being an Opposition back first.
Deputy Resident Editor, Odisha