Congress lost in a dark alley

Anil Anand

It is prophetically true to say that a weakened opposition poses a grave danger to a democracy than a ruling party with brute majority which has its own pitfalls as seen in India during the past decades. Since the opposition has the role of a watchdog to play, and checkmate the Government in the interest of the nation and its people, so it is necessary that the opposition parties even after suffering electoral debacles should discover their moorings sooner than later.

The country is presently facing this perilous situation of an opposition ( read Congress) in dire straits and not knowing what to do and how to counter a very aggressive ruling party thriving on unflinching faith and trust of people no matter whatever its performance be. The opposition here is synonymous with Congress as it remains to be the only political party with a pan-India presence. So, fits in this groove and so discussion on its current status of total hopelessness.

The party, it seems, is founding itself trapped in a dark alley not knowing how to emerge out of it. Is it the case of the over a century old political party’s top leadership totally bereft of new ideas to face the indomitable Narendra Modi’s juggernaut?

Where does the Congress go from where? Caught in a vortex of its own making none else but the Congress itself has to search for an answer and at the earliest if it has to politically remain relevant and survive. The time is ticking fast for the party and the shadow of Modi is casting its net fast by the day despite none-too-impressive record of his Government particularly on the economic front which he has convincingly camouflaged under the cover of hyper-

nationalism and the Hindutava.

The current happenings within the Congress, which is no public secret as every leader worth his salt is on a binge to publically air his or her views, with the top leadership either confused and flummoxed and not knowing how to fix the cracks and save the ship from capsizing is more than alarming. Or perhaps they have left it to the fate.

It seems speaking out of turn has become the norm and party discipline, as if it existed, has already burst at the seams. But still the interim party president, Sonia Gandhi, whose comeback had raised high hopes of sealing the leaks and stirring the ship out of troubled waters, seems either indifferent to the situation or still searching for new ideas.

To say that the current situation is entirely the making of Sonia or her son and former party chief Rahul Gandhi and that those raising variety of questions are above board or have made stellar contributions in the growth of the party in the past, will be a misnomer. Or else how does anyone explain the standing and contributions of leaders such as Salman Khurshid, Shashi Tharoor, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Digvijay Singh in the growth of the party. The list is long and there are others who have already conveniently crossed over to BJP for greener pastures and having pot-shots at their erstwhile party from across the border. They have all defied party discipline with impunity and continue to do that without any consequence without being hauled up. And there lies the faultline and responsibility of top leadership (read Sonia) began there.

Speaking out of turn in the Congress has become the norm. In most cases, those defying party discipline get away unscathed. Break discipline or hold out a threat, extract your pound of flesh and go scot free with a reward. This has become bane of the Congress.

The inefficacy of the Congress president’s office has been totally exposed than ever before. Three instances glaringly pin-point to the fact that the party seems to be refusing to fight its way out of the dark alley and perhaps waiting for some miracle to happen not realising that sometimes it takes hard work even for the miracles to happen.

Beginning with Haryana which had witnessed factional fights of the worst order with former chief minister, B S Hooda having openly revolted against the state chief Ashok Tanwar, a handpick of Rahul Gandhi, during the last three years. Ultimately, rather than taming Hooda, the high command ( read Sonia Gandhi) compromised with him and in turn accepted all his demands including removal of Tanwar from the post. Humiliated and badly bruised after even his supporters were denied tickets, he quit the party while the high command gleefully looked the other way.

The episode is more important as Hooda versus Tanwar fight is a pointer to the malady that has afflicted the premier opposition party of the counter. This line of fight is symptomatic of the old versus the young dual that had unfolded in the party ever since Rahul became president and is continuing even after he quit. Many feel that Rahul quit in disgust as not only was he waging a lone battle but was also the target of vicious campaign of the so called old-guard.

The second instance is that of the long pending appointment of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) chief. The post fell vacant after the death of former chief minister, Sheila Dikshit and it had become for the party president to fill the slot without delay as the capital-state is due to face assembly elections. Barely two to three months are left and still there are no signs, notwithstanding prolonged consultations that Sonia had, of a new president. Even if it happens now at any moment, the indecision has already done irreparable damage to Congress’ poll prospects.

It is baffling that how and why the decision to pick a new DPCC chief has become so complicated and difficult for Sonia. Fact of the matter is after the demise of Dikshit there is no senior/old guard leader on the scene to pursue pressure politics and blackmailing tactics. It is the easiest decision which for strange reasons still waiting to happen.

The third glaring instance depicting lack of vision or application of mind pertains to sudden decision by the Congress to boycott the Block Development Council (BDC) elections in the politically hot Jammu and Kashmir. The Block level elections might not sound and interesting proposal but in the context of J&K and coming in the aftermath of partial abrogation of Article 370 and breaking the state into two Union Territories, these polls have added political significance and directly related to survival of political parties such as the Congress.

A day before the last day of nomination the party high command in their wisdom decided to boycott the elections. The reasons forwarded for boycott were far from

convincing. Who took the decision and why? It is not known till today.

There are many such instances but these three episodes more than explain as to what ails Congress and the total inaptness of the leadership to rise to the occasion. Each of these moves had a demoralising affect on the rank and file. This is just an index of what the party is facing today.

The Haryana developments, with Hooda persistently targeting Tanwar, was an opportunity for Sonia to act firmly in a manner to strike some balance between the old guard and the younger generation of leadership that is synonymous with Rahul. Yes, Hooda had made himself indispensable and yes in the current scheme of things there is no alternative to him for Congress to bank upon but it was equally important to protect Tanwar in order to set a remedial model for the similar battle which is on from AICC to the levels down below.

The younger set of leaders is already feeling dismayed and voicing their concern opening. Unfortunately, on one count they are following the footsteps of the old guard and that is to speak out openly and go against the party line. Certainly this is also an act of gross indiscipline as ilks of Hooda have been doing without any check.

So to say, AlCC has a disciplinary committee. No one till date knows what exactly is its role as it has never been seen acting even in matters of serious indiscipline. Just a look at the composition of the committee; The average age of the committee which is headed by former Defence Minister and a man of unimpeachable integrity, A K Antony, is 82 years. The three member committee has Antony, 78,

Moti Lal Vora, 90 and Sushil Kumar Shinde, 78. That is one aspect of it as many would argue that experience is an asset in dealing with such issues. The question arises as to how frequently or periodically the committee has been meeting or is there any guideline to this effect. If the party insiders are to be believed, the committee meets “sometimes. However, the discussion on controversial is often deferred to be taken up in the next meeting which most of the times did not happen.

In the near past the Disciplinary Committee took action was the revocation of the suspension against irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar and that was more than a year back. There was a total lull before and after that even as indiscipline kept growing and engulfed the Congress organisation at all levels.

Congress is ignoring the younger set of leadership at its own peril. The one task that Sonia as interim Congress president was expected to perform was to develop a mechanism whereby a fine balance was struck between old guard and the leaders of gen-next and in turn usher the party into an era of smooth generational shift. After all she and the Gandhi family had/has a stake bigger than any other Congressperson. And recent plight of Rahul should have propelled her into fast-mode drive on this front.

There could be a difference of opinion on the approach adopted by Rahul, as the party president, in creating space for younger generation of Congresspersons. But to be fair to him he tried and as the adage goes it better to try and fail than do nothing. The old guard was alarmed and alerted by his approach and acted more in panic sensing that there days were over. His direct and honest approach did him in. Ostensibly, as are indications, he did not

believe in using manipulative tactics to keep the experienced leaders in good humour. And on their part these leaders failed to read the message that their days are over and that they should volunteer to help ensure smooth generational transition in the party. That mindset still prevails and has in fact further strengthened after Sonia Gandhi became the interim president for the simple reason that she failed to deliver a clear message about her intent and roadmap to build the organisation afresh.

Majority among the old guard took Rahul’s ouster and replacement by his mother as some kind of personal victory. It was but in a very limited sense of the term as they took Sonia’s advent at the top as a protective gear for them against the Rahul-led younger generation of leaders and Congress activists. It only reflected the strong sense of insecurity of these leaders who had been in the vanguard for decades and enjoying power and perks all the while.

There is a “give back time” in everyone’s life and so had the time come for these Congress veterans. They would have elevated themselves had they fully backed the Rahul-led AICC and his endeavours at generational shift which in turn would have helped in the long run to galvanise the moth-eaten organisation to be fit to face the well-oiled machinery of Modi and Amit Shah.

Sonia is just two months old into the party president’s office and normally that is too small a period to assess someone’s performance at that level. But the fact remains that even when she was not the president, Sonia was not out of the loop and it is anyone’s guess that she was fully aware of the organisational problems and monitored from very close quarters. This background should have made her task easier even in the face of strong pressure built by Modi Government in terms of corruption cases against some senior Congress leaders and former Ministers.

Instead of mollycoddling the veterans and giving them a sense, even if it is self assumed or acquired by them, that they were all indispensable and safe under her wings after the Rahul experimentation, a strong message should have been conveyed to them that this the “give back” time for them and that they should voluntarily and assiduously work in rebuilding the organisation without expecting anything in return. That sense has neither travelled nor been conveyed in any form.

Ironically, the importance of Congress is realised more by the arch-rival Modi-Shah led BJP than the party itself. And that is why the party and its pivot Gandhi-family are under persistent attack and central theme of the BJP’s political strategy since 2013. No doubt, this strategy has wonderfully worked.

For BJP the Congress’ political significance lay on two fronts. Firstly, it is the only political party at the national levels with a pan-India presence despite decimation and all ills plaguing it. Coupled with it, the Gandhi family remains to be its mainstay and a glue of sorts to keep the flock together as had been witnessed on many occasions in the past.

Secondly and more importantly being the only national party with presence in every nook and corner of the country, it has the natural potential to become a fulcrum for opposition unity. In some ways it is a monopolistic situation for Congress particularly after the disintegration of Janata Dal parivar, in terms of opposition unity.

By consistently targeting the Congress the BJP has strategized to shrink the former’s pan-India presence while increasing its own base. This in turn would result in Congress’ significance to act as a base for opposition unity losing sheen.

In this endeavour of the BJP, a section of the Congresspersons acted

in a seditious manner to give leverage to the saffron party. Some crossed over to BJP to safeguard their own interests while others made a common cause through other various means. Even some among those who stayed back did not do so with good intention.

The Congress organisationally has reached a crucial juncture where the only option is to prepare for battle ahead. Further retreat is no option as its end point would only vindicate Modi’s “Congress mukt Bharat” theory.

Discipline, accountability, quick decision making and warding off blackmailing and pressure tactics, should be the key features of new strategy. Above all Sonia must accord due place to the younger generation in the party even if she has to act tough against tried and trusted veterans.

Given the relevance of opposition in a democracy the Congress leadership should act to assume the mettle of an effective opposition party. It is imperative if the party is to think of getting back to power in near future on its own or by becoming fulcrum of the opposition unity.