Series of failures, but Congress is still learning

AICC General Secretary and Congress Uttar Pradesh in-charge Priyanka Gandhi chairs a review meeting after party's debacle in recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in New Delhi, March 15, 2022. Photo: PTI

This is the third and concluding part of the Malayala Manorama series on the Congress party's election debacle and its future.

Read Part 1: Congress clueless on strategy to counter BJP's deft moves

Read Part 2: Many leaders ill at ease with the style of functioning of the Congress troika 

The recent drubbing at the Assembly polls in five States has once again evoked the usual response from the Congress's national headquarters: "We'll go forward after learning from our mistakes."

The response creates a sense of deja vu. The party leadership has been repeating the same after each poll debacle. But the party, apparently, has not learned anything from the past mistakes.

After each setback, a committee is formed to study the shortcomings and recommend corrective measures. But what happened to those reports?

A leader pointed at a small mound of earth on the lawns of AICC headquarters. "Reports on poll debacles submitted by various committees were buried there," he said. He may sound like cracking a joke, but in reality, several senior leaders have not seen the reports on election failures.

The Ashok Chavan committee was constituted to study the party's poor show in the 2021 Assembly elections, including in Kerala. The high command is yet to initiate any corrective measures based on the committee's recommendations.

With the Congress getting decimated in five States, including Uttar Pradesh, another committee to study the debacle is likely to be set up soon.

Rahul Gandhi
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the second part of the Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, March 15, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Leaders desert Rahul

BJP's secret ingredients for its success is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pan-India image combined with the party leaders' influence in States, an organisational structure that functions like a well-oiled machine, and the RSS playing an important role backstage.

The Congress does not have an answer to BJP's success mantra. A plan to strengthen Seva Dal, a grassroots-level organisation of the Congress, to counter RSS was dropped mid-way.

Even as the party has been facing defeat after defeat, it is also finding it hard to keep its flock, especially charismatic leaders, together. Leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, R P N Singh and Sushmita Dev, who were once part of Team Rahul formed to lead the Congress forward, are now in other parties.

The Congress leadership feels that they enjoyed the benefits during the party's good times, but jumped ship and joined others during hard times--an act the grand old party often cite as lack of political decency.

Three other leaders who had left Congress after being sidelined are now chief ministers: Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, and Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.

Lesson 1: States matter

Political observers point out that the Congress could bounce back in national politics only if it grows in strength in the States. Congress has been out of power for decades in several States, namely, Tamil Nadu (since 1967), West Bengal (1977), Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (1990), Gujarat (1995) and Odisha (2000).

The party has a very weak organisational machinery in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Delhi. These States together have 254 seats in the Lok Sabha. Of the 191 seats in which Congress had a direct fight with BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party could win only 16, reflecting the erosion of its support base.

The Congress will have to win at least 110 to 130 seats for the opposition alliance to defeat the BJP-led front and return to power in 2024. To go past the three-digit mark, the Congress should win a maximum number of seats in Kerala, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam and Rajasthan, where the party is organisationally stronger. Otherwise, the party will not be able to take up the leadership of the opposition alliance.

The election result will determine each party's relevance based on the seats they win, even though opposition organisations will probe pre-poll alliance possibilities.

N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had taken the initiative to cobble up an opposition alliance against the BJP ahead of the 2019 polls, but the drubbing his party received at the hands of Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP (Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party) in Andhra Pradesh, rendered him irrelevant among opposition parties.

Unanswered questions

Kapil Sibal
Congress leader Kapil Sibal leaves from the residence of party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, after the Congress G-23 leaders' meeting in New Delhi, March 16, 2022. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Even after the recent poll debacle, several questions regarding the Congress still remain unanswered. With the party heading for an organisational election in August, it is yet to be seen whether Rahul Gandhi would contest, if he will be opposed, and who will be the Gandhi family's representative if they decide against contesting.

Sonia wants Rahul to be the AICC president again. Rahul, however, has made it clear that he is not willing to be the president. The Congress will witness a tough battle if he changes his mind, and G-23 fields its candidate.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Mukul Wasnik are the prominent G-23 leaders. If the Gandhis decide against contesting the election, they might field one of their loyalists, Ashok Gehlot, Kamalnath or Mallikarjun Kharge.

The country will be witnessing two other major elections this year. The Presidential poll will be held in July, followed by the election to the office of the vice-president a month later. It is yet to be known if the Congress will take the initiative to field a common opposition candidate to take on the BJP.

But, it will be tough for the Congress to win the support of Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSRC and BJD. BJP will have an upperhand in both the elections.

Lessons in revival

A revival is possible for the Congress party. It had bounced back to power in Madhya Pradesh in 2018 after sitting in the opposition for 15 years. It can also learn from the DMK, which made a spectacular comeback after losing three consecutive polls during 1977-89.

If these are not enough, there are overseas examples from which the Congress could learn a lesson or two. The Labour Party in Britain lost four consecutive elections during 1981-1997. It also led to the epithet, "The longest suicide note in history," coined by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, referring to his party's 1983 election manifesto.

The Labour Party underwent a total revamp under Tony Blair and defeated the Conservatives in three consecutive elections.

The Congress has several examples of revival to learn from, if it decides to go beyond the mere "will learn from our mistakes" refrain, and pull its act together through organised and disciplined studies and work. The rank and file of the party, and a section of the leaders, believe only such a move could revive the organisation.

Sachin Pilot

No dearth of capable leaders

The Congress is facing its worst rout in its 136 years of existence. Is it time to write it off? A large number of observers feel it will be politically immature to consider the party has lost its relevance.

The upcoming Assembly elections may further fuel BJP's 'Congress Mukt Bharat' (Congress-free India) move, but the grand old party still has significant presence in the States, and hence the possibility of its rebounding cannot be ruled out.

Additionally, the party has several leaders, who could hand-hold the party to the future. Congress can pin its hopes on capable leaders such as Sachin Pilot (Rajasthan), D K Shivakumar (Karnataka), Bhupesh Baghel (Chief Minister, Chhattisgarh ), Deepender Singh Hooda (Haryana), Revanth Reddy (President, Telangana PCC), Kanhaiya Kumar (Bihar), Hardik Patel (Gujarat), Nana Patole (President, Maharashtra PCC), and B V Sreenivas (National President, Youth Congress) for a revival -- if they are given ranks and responsibilities.

Shashi Tharoor, Ramesh Chennithala, V D Satheesan and K C Venugopal are the prominent Congress leaders from Kerala with experience in national politics.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi
Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi and party leader Rahul Gandhi during the Congress Working Committee meeting after party's debacle in recent Assembly elections of five states at AICC headquarters in New Delhi, March 13, 2022. Photo: PTI

All eyes on 'Chintan Shivir'

The national leadership is contemplating to hold a 'Chintan Shivir'-- brainstorming session -- in a bid to revive the Congress. The Gandhi family-led high command will decide the participants.

Sonia Gandhi has already received hundreds of ideas to rejuvenate the party. The 'Chintan Shivir' is likely to be held in Rajasthan in April.

The Congress has held three 'Chintan Shivirs' ever since Sonia took over as the AICC president. She convened a 'Shivir' at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh soon after she became the president in 1998.

The 2003 'Shivir' at Shimla discussed strategies to counter the BJP's "India Shining" campaign. The party successfully implemented the decisions taken at the 'Shivir' and grabbed power at the Centre. Jaipur hosted the latest 'Chintan Shivir' in 2013.

The 'Shivir' scheduled for next month will discuss the party ideology, means to win the support of the poor and middle-class, candidates for the Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and the challenges posed by the Aam Aadmi Party.

Congress has its hands full, with a huge number of issues needing solutions. Ordinary party workers and a section of leaders, meanwhile, are anxiously waiting to know whether the planned brainstorming session will save the Congress from fading away into history.


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