Opinion Columnists 15 Mar 2019 Congress, on the bac ...
The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

Congress, on the back foot, is damaging itself

Published Mar 15, 2019, 7:52 am IST
Updated Mar 15, 2019, 7:52 am IST
The Congress Party has clearly been slow off the block in preparing for the coming general election.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi
 Congress president Rahul Gandhi

After its surprise victories in the three North Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December, the Congress should have dominated the political narrative. It could have flaunted the alternative policies pursued by its newly-minted state governments to address agrarian distress, youth unemployment, the closure of small businesses and the communal polarisation created by the BJP.

None of that has happened so far. With barely a month left before polling begins in the Lok Sabha elections, it is hard to say whether the Congress Party has improved its electoral prospects for the Lok Sabha even in these three states.
On the other hand, the ruling BJP appears to have gained an edge over it. Aware that its “revolutionary” initiatives such demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax  (GST) would not win any votes, the BJP decided to contest the 2019 polls on a platform of ultra-nationalism after the Pulwama terrorist attack and the airstrikes on Balakot deep inside Pakistan.

 

The Congress Party instead of questioning the security failures of the Narendra Modi government and its disastrous Kashmir policy, found itself precisely where the BJP wanted it to be, at the tail end — waving the tricolour and singing hosannas to the armed forces. By the time it had recovered its act, the public mood had already been hijacked.

Earlier on, the Congress had tried to create a narrative of party renewal with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s debut in politics. However, that initiative seems to be have been frittered away. There is no evidence of a Priyanka wave in Uttar Pradesh. Her first rally scheduled for Lucknow was bombed out by the airstrikes on Pakistan. It was cancelled as a gesture of giving priority to national security over partisan interests. However, it was never rescheduled and Priyanka’s public appearance remained in abeyance till her somewhat underwhelming speech in Gujarat, where the party is bleeding MLAs.

Now it is being said that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will neither contest a Lok Sabha seat nor campaign outside Uttar Pradesh. This sends out the  signal that the Congress is playing a defensive game. Given the caste combinations in UP, the party’s gains there can only be marginal. Priyanka Gandhi will undoubtedly be given credit for any gains the party makes in UP over and above the two pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. However, one wonders whether this is the most effective use of her charismatic and fresh political persona.

If the Congress were to use her for campaigning in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh as well, she would pose much more of a challenge to the BJP. As it is there is no way that the BJP can retain the 62 out of 65 seats in these three states, a vigorous campaign by the Congress by playing its trump card would ensure that the BJP is virtually decimated there.

There is every danger that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may then turn out to be a wasted bullet by a party short on ammunition. The Congress is woefully short on nationally recognisable campaigners. Besides Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and now Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, it hardly has any effective campaigners. One could argue that the BJP’s sole effective campaigner is Narendra Modi. But then the party has a largish bench strength of excellent campaigners who can be brought forward in an emergency. Lacking a similar bench strength, to take on the BJP the Congress ought to make strategic use of campaigners like Priyanka Gandhi.

While the BJP meticulously stitched together its alliances by cajoling and persuading its estranged allies, the negotiations of the Congress with potential allies verge on brinkmanship. The Congress wasted the advantage it had in the Northeast where almost all the political parties were ranged against the BJP on the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Now all of them are back with the BJP!

The failure of the Congress high command to prevent the division of anti-BJP votes in Delhi by forging an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party points to the lack of political acumen in the party. After a series of flip-flops, now the party cadre is being asked to vote on whether to reopen alliance talks through the specially designed Shakti Android App.

The shortsightedness of the Congress is astounding in the face of sure annihilation if the BJP returns to power. Why else would the party in Maharashtra not accommodate Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and Raju Shetty’s Swabhimani Paksha? It knows that their candidates will cut into the Congress vote.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi should have taken a few lessons out of his mother Sonia Gandhi’s book. In 2004, she went to the homes of all major Opposition leaders, even walking on foot as she did when she visited Ram Vilas Paswan, and persuaded them to contest in alliance with the Congress. It is true that in 2019, the failure to form an Opposition alliance cannott be blamed on the Congress alone. The obduracy of Mayawati may be due to factors other than the Congress. But Congress leaders also failed to demonstrate that they were willing to subordinate their egos and interests to enable an alliance with her as well as other leaders.

However, alliances are not the only problem for the Congress. Surely it needs slogans other than “Chowkidar chor hai” and it does it seem to have a media plan and is yet to hire a media agency. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have been doing, its leaders should have fanned out across the country holding rallies to mobilise support even before the election schedule was announced. So far only Rahul Gandhi’s rallies are being scheduled, but just one leader cannot help it win the elections.

The Congress Party has clearly been slow off the block in preparing for the coming general election. It has not displayed even a small fragment of the political energy that the ruling BJP has summoned despite the public mood being critical of its government’s performance. The Congress is mistaken if its feels that voters will bestow victory on it because of anti-incumbency. They need to be persuaded.

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