As Congress Waits With Bated Breath, It Knows Its Strategy for Renewal Can No Longer Be Delayed

The party believes it has been successful in denting Modi’s expensively cultivated image of being a development man but it is not clear what it stands for or whether it knows how to get what it wants.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, party vice president Rahul Gandhi and party leaders shout slogans outside parliament . Credit: PTI

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, party vice president Rahul Gandhi and party leaders shout slogans outside parliament . Credit: PTI

The exit polls have injected a sobering note and the actual results – if they are along predicted lines – will further sour the mood. But the Congress party has no option but to proceed apace with restructuring plans that appear to have been set into motion over the past three weeks, ever since the AugustaWestland bribery allegations began to fly on its face.

Under direct and personal attack from the BJP and the media, the Congress ‘First Family’ responded by exercising firm control over the party both inside and outside Parliament; it put a team in place to take on the Modi government, armed with a mixture of facts and rhetoric, clarity and aggression that has not been seen in a long time. The strategy meetings held in party president Sonia Gandhi’s house saw both the old and new leadership pooling ideas and tactics to combat the litany of allegations and insinuations that came their way. Even the normally clammed up Sonia and Rahul were daring and combative in their responses to the allegations levelled at them. For the first time, Sonia Gandhi took the persistent taunts of being an Italian from Modi, when she hit out during an election rally in Kerala – declaring that she has a 93-year-old mother and two sisters in Italy but would ‘breathe my last’ in India.

Unlike in the National Herald case – where yet again both Sonia and Rahul were specifically targeted, and when Congress MPs staged a daily walkout in parliament – party MPs this time not only allowed business to be conducted in the house, but even participated in the Agusta debate with gusto. Perhaps the confidence in the Agusta case comes from the deal’s origins going back to the Vajpayee government whereas in the Herald case, the issues of law and propriety remain fuzzy. The faces of the party were a mix of new and old – a dramatic shift from the recent move to completely replace veterans with new recruits – and so, there was a battery of experts and pros, who were instructed and briefed on the game plan. Parliament saw A.K. Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and on the aspirant side, Randeep Surjewala and Jyotiraditya Scindia, both inside and outside the house.

After a series of death blows in the past few months – where a napping Congress saw its governments dismissed in two states (Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) and is on the brink in another two (Manipur and Karnataka) – the party has also been hit by dissidence and despondency among the old guard, with Sonia Gandhi making her succession plan clear to anoint her son Rahul. As the media writes off the party – expect a spate of obituaries if the Congress loses both Assam and Kerala – what do Congress leaders and party loyalists believe they need for revival, resurgence and boom? Here’s what a cross-section of party workers and leaders have to say.

Hit back on corruption

The BJP has made its strategy clear – take the Gandhis head-on with corruption charges and hope it sticks, the aim being to shock and panic the cadres. So far, the party leadership and cadres have rallied around not just the Gandhis but also the top leadership, like P. Chidambaram, who has been dragged into corruption scandals involving his son, Karti. While corruption had become the face of the Congress in the 2014 general elections, the party believes its strategy of battering BJP leaders and CMs with corruption charges has helped take some of the sting from its own reputation. The Agusta scam has got BJP chief minister Raman Singh of Chattisgarh in its net, which has put BJP on the back foot somewhat; the DDCA allegations that embroiled finance minister Arun Jaitley, the Lalitgate affair that hit foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, the Vyapam scam that stung Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, and the PDS scam that had hit Raman Singh last year, are some of the anti-corruption campaigns the party has galloped on.

But a strategy is already in place – for starters, none of the stigmatised faces of the UPA-II era are leading the charge against the BJP today. Those who “defended corruption rather arrogantly” in the run up top disastrous 2014 election are off the frontlines now, even though they are working behind the scenes for the party, whether in the courts or in strategy rooms. The leadership is no longer sniffing at corruption charges and turning their backs to it – it’s a complete turnaround by facing the BJP head on, daring them to take action. Though this is clearly because Sonia Gandhi and Rahul are in the firing line, the aggressiveness has motivated the cadres, energised them and showed them the party means business.

From appeasement to secularism 

The question of whether it stands for secularism at all or if it only plays cynical politics with the religious card has dogged the Congress for years. Even today, there seems to be a divide on how the party should handle religion.  Of course, no one believes that the old, crooked ways of playing soft Hindutva to appease majority voters while pandering to reactionary minority leaders – and thereby falling between two stools – will work anymore. But there are differences at the top on how to handle religion. On one side are those who believe the party should be in the forefront to demand reforms in religion where leading community party leaders should launch the debate on the universal civil code, triple talaq, and take the issue straight to the people, rather than just debate with RSS-BJP leaders. On the other side, opponents believe the party should stay off religious issues completely, and only address the aspirations of the minorities and poor. On the Sachar Committee report, which detailed the socio-economic backwardness of Muslims and made vital recommendations for their upliftment, some leaders believe one size does not fit all, and that any reform must take in the diversity of Muslims in different states.

However, they all agree that Rahul Gandhi must never – and will never – open up the locks of a ‘temple’ in Ayodhya, or let a ‘Shah Bano happen again’, where the late Rajiv Gandhi’s government played into the hands of the Muslim clergy and denied maintenance to a Muslim woman because it interfered in personal law. Nor will a Congress worker be expelled as Arif Mohammed Khan was, for opposing the party on the issue.

Studio to streets  

It’s back to good old-fashioned politics again, with the leadership charging ahead with street protests, dharnas and sit-ins, as was seen during the ‘Loktantra Bachao March’ last fortnight where Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan Singh courted arrest. The message is clear – no more baithaks and shok sabhas (condolence meets) when the chips are down but get out there with all guns firing. While technology like social media and online communication has its uses, there’s a diverse society outside the virtual world, as party strategists are beginning to discover. First, they scorned the techno age, missing the social media bus, and got on it too late. Now, they are seeing when to take to the streets.

Television studios, once the battleground for a triumphant BJP and a besieged Congress, must no longer see the Congress with a bloody nose, cadres and leaders say; rather, party spokespersons have been told to aggressively take on political adversaries. There’ll be no place for “what-about-your-time” kind of defensiveness; instead the retort will be to face up to the bitter truth that corruption, political fraud and hypocrisy did the Congress in, and that it is time to move ahead. This was seen during the debate on president’s rule in Uttarakhand. The demand now from Congress cadres is for the party to recharge its media strategy with sharp cracks about Modi’s policies, cow, culture, governance that will hit home. Of course, the message will only work if the substance is real.

Party prospects

The string of defeats for the party since May 2014 could not have been timed worse. Haryana and Maharashtra was lost after being in power for 10 and 15 years respectively, Jammu and Kashmir was lost after one term while in Jharkhand, the Congress dithered to form a government with JMM after president’s rule was imposed, and lost it too. It also lost Delhi after 15 years, while in Bihar it continued to lag behind in fourth place, though it gained seats but lost its vote share.

In 2016, the outlook does not look good for the party in Assam, where it has been in power for 15 years, or Kerala. Exit polls suggest Mamata Banerjee has the upper-hand in West Bengal but that the Congress could come back to power (in coalition) in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

In 2017, party strategists are hoping to make a dent in the forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur, but they believe things will start looking up from 2018. In UP and Punjab, even as the party has hired election tactician Prashant Kishor to improve its prospects, party strategists are very clear – in UP, an improvement on its present tally of 28 to 50 will in itself not be such a “formidable task” given the resources, both manpower, planning and Kishor’s ‘expertise.’ If Kishor’s brief is to improve the tally to between 50 and 75 seats, party strategists believe it’ll be in a position of strength as no party, either BSP, SP or BJP, can form a stable government.

In Punjab, it has finally got the leadership issue sorted – Amarinder Singh is back and the party is hoping to cash in on his charisma, despite a formidable opponent in the Aam Aadmi Party. Party leaders hope to take advantage of AAP’s floundering internal affairs. In Uttarakhand, the party has to fight incumbency in 2017, but is clear on its leadership issue finally – it will stick with the sitting CM, Harish Rawat.

Taking the fight to BJP states  

But it’s in 2018-19 that the party believes it would have settled the leadership issue in crucial states that will go to polls, which will be the defining feature of party strategy.  In Gujarat and Karnataka (2018), and then Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh the next year, it is party affairs that have to be sorted out first. In Gujarat, the BJP has been in power uninterruptedly for the last 18 years, with 13 years under Modi; but there seems to be a silver lining in the Congress’s seemingly doomed prospects. With the Patel problem and Modi’s chosen successor Anandiben Patel’s floundering, the Congress believes it can take a serious shot at power. It has already chosen Bharatsinh Solanki as its face, and in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra too, Congress strategists believe they have a fighting chance to take on the BJP. In all three states, BJP chief ministers will be fighting either incumbency, dissidence, and their own allies.

The state leadership issue has been settled with appointment of youth leader Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan; the choice is left to another scion, Jyotiraditya Scindia, in MP, who is still undecided over whether he wants to stay in the Centre or the state; in Maharashtra, it is Ashok Chavan. Its ally in the state, the NCP, has all but backed off with Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel having retreated; and with Ajit Pawar wresting control, the Congress hopes to poach on the NCP’s disillusioned crack ground force and lure them to the party. Meanwhile in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Congress has Raghuvira Reddy and Uttam Reddy as working presidents respectively. It is also a matter of time, say strategists, that former party loyalist Jagan Reddy returns to the fold or they forge an alliance.

Party leadership

Finally, it’s not just the nuts and bolts of the party that’s been fixed but the crucial issue of who will lead the party in the 2019 general election. In many ways, the question is an existential one – should it be the tried and tested Sonia Gandhi or her squeamish son, Rahul Gandhi? Who would be best to take on Modi, now no longer freshly minted but a second-hand PM? Not surprisingly, the party is cut in the middle between the two camp followers. The Sonia camp says the party is doomed to be stuck at the bottom in the electoral sweepstakes if Rahul leads; Rahul’s enthused followers believe the very same people who brought the Congress to a humiliating low of 44 MPs do not deserve to lead. The answer will come when Sonia relinquishes her throne and makes her son party president. The bets are on when this will be done – between June and October, some say – now that the new strategies are being put in place. The UP polls will be seen as Rahul’s first big foray as party president.

But the more crucial questions that should worry and nag the Congress leadership are, what does the party stand for, and for whom?  Can the Congress appeal to diverse caste, regional and religious groups, who now all have their own leaders?  Should it only appeal to the poor and disenfranchised, or can it carry both the rich and poor? Why can’t Rahul talk to industrialists and tycoons, at CII and FICCI forums, even as he pushes for policies to protect the poor and backward communities, ask his colleagues. Does he still want to be philosopher king or action hero? Shouldn’t the party follow a “middle path” of bridging both wealth creation and wealth distribution? How does the Congress abandon its image of just being a ‘dole’ party, some ask. Does it have an economic blueprint for industrial growth, and a safety net for farmers, craftsmen, and such like, to bring them into the development fold? India is ready for a second Green revolution, says party workers, but does the Congress have a plan for the agricultural sector, where almost 60% of the work force is employed?

The party believes it has been successful in denting Modi’s expensively cultivated  image of being a development man,  and of planting the impression that his is a “suit-boot ki sarkar” – a pro-rich, anti-poor government. Some leaders even believe they have succeeded in making the Modi brand an object of ridicule. For now, however, party cadres acknowledge that their own leaders – who in some ways are as inaccessible and remote as Modi is to the BJP second-rung – are also the object of ridicule, and that the Congress has simply not managed to credibly occupy the policy space in which economic opportunities via the market can sit comfortably with social justice. Unless these issues are sorted out, renewal seems a distant dream. The road ahead is as long as you make it.

Vrinda Gopinath is a senior journalist based in New Delhi

  • Thrive thrive

    Rambling and quite a lot of wishful thinking.