How Congress Is Botching Up Even Its Defeat

Published: May 27, 2016 14:36 IST
Through the last set of assembly elections, the Congress was on a hiding to nothing. It was the incumbent in two states - Kerala, Assam - and widely expected to lose in both. In the two states where it wasn't in government, its standing was not such that it could expect to be the surprise winner; at best it could hope to become a little less marginal. The worst came to pass. It lost office by large margins in Kerala and Assam, while in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, it won a couple of more seats than it had in the last assembly elections. Puducherry, won by a Congress-led coalition was, in the most literal way, small consolation.

Given that the only substantial state the Congress now controls is Karnataka, the loss of Assam and Kerala must be counted as major setbacks, bad outcomes unmitigated by the probability of these defeats. To hold office in the states builds political morale in a circumstance where the party doesn't control the Centre; more materially, it also helps replenish the party's coffers. A pan-Indian party that doesn't have its share of state governments lacks the wherewithal to live to fight another day.

All parties find excuses for defeat. Incumbency is the most plausible one and it has been liberally used by the Congress to explain away the debacle in Assam and Kerala. Rahul Gandhi's formal response to defeat was straightforward and correct. "We accept the verdict of the people with humility," he said, and went on to congratulate the parties that had won. It fell to his party colleagues to frame the defeat in a way that contested the narrative of terminal decline suggested by most newspaper headlines and prime time "debates".

Congress party spokespersons tasked with putting out the party line are clockwork noise-makers, their charmlessness unredeemed by rhetorical intelligence. To listen to them is to be persuaded of the permanence of Mr Modi's regime. On the question of Rahul Gandhi's responsibility for the electoral debacle, Randeep Surjewala primly declared that the party "rejects this improper suggestion totally". The responsibility for the defeat was collective.

The collective in spokesperson parlance refers to all party members save Rahul Gandhi and his mother, Sonia Gandhi. The magic of lineage works only if it is insulated from the cause-and-effect banality of the real world. The radiance of the first family is plugged into a transcendent source; that it didn't light the way to victory had nothing to do with its current wattage. Defeat was down to the fact that the Congress was an unworthy lens or the vagaries of a recalcitrant world.

But higher up the party's food chain, the unease was visible. Sonia Gandhi's call for "introspection" drew startlingly forthright disagreement. P Chidambaram called for drastic changes and a shift to collective leadership. Digvijaya Singh declared that the party needed drastic surgery, not more introspection. Shashi Tharoor tweeted a column he had written on the way forward under the header "Why I Said Congress Must Go Beyond Cliched Introspection". Given Congress's culture of deference to the High Command, this amounted to lese majeste.

In a fascinating interview in the Hindu, Digvijaya Singh accepted that Congress leadership "...was comparatively weak now", and called on "people who have left the Congress for one reason or other [to] come together", by which he meant regional satraps who had seceded from the Congress over the past twenty years like Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and Jagan Reddy. What's interesting about this "plan" is not the likelihood of its coming to pass (very unlikely), but the concession that the Congress in its present diminished form wasn't up to taking on the BJP on its own, and needed parties and leaders who were once part of the Congress family, back in its fold. Digvijaya suggested that this could take the form of a partnership or a "merger". The truth is that the only way a merger is likely to come about with the Trinamool Congress is via a hostile take-over bid initiated by Mamata.

Daring though Digvijaya Singh's statements were, they stopped well short of mutiny. When asked what happened when the dynasty stopped winning elections, he said the party would have to take a decision. Then, in the tame maverick style he has made his own, he reverted to forelock-tugging loyalism: the time for that decision hadn't arrived, he said, because the Gandhi-Nehru family was the glue that kept the party together. The Congress's out-of-work grandees, who now lurch from one column or statement to the next like unhorsed knights on foot, are willing to wound but afraid to strike.

The stasis within the party is more apparent than real. The absence of open dissent shouldn't be read as quiescence; rebellion in this late-model Congress takes the form of fission. Congressmen are voting with their feet. The defections in Arunachal Pradesh, in Uttarakhand, the rumblings in Manipur, the fatal loss of Sarma in Assam add up to a story of disintegration, of a party crumbling at its provincial edges.

It's widely rumoured that the Congress's senior most MP, Kamal Nath, wants the leadership of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the party because he thinks he has a shot at becoming Chief Minister the next time state assembly elections come round. The challenge this poses for the Congress leadership is how to choose him without annoying his rivals: Jyotiraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh and Suresh Pachouri. Not to pick him would be to run the risk of alienating a Congress veteran and family loyalist, a man who has won his Lok Sabha seat nine times despite Shivraj Chouhan's recent ascendancy.

The truth is that in bad times, a levitating high command kept aloft by the dynastic principle and ungrounded in the distribution of power within the party, is incapable of making acceptable choices. When the normal currency of politics-organisational ability, fundraising skills, crowd-pulling charisma-matters less than proximity to the High Command and its imperial prerogative, all choices, good or bad, begin to seem arbitrary.

The result is a pervasive two-way anxiety. Provincial strongmen worry about access to the dynast, and the dynast and his coterie fret about the loyalty of these distant subjects.

A symptom of the second sort of anxiety was the absurd affidavit of allegiance that the 44 newly-elected Congress MLAs in West Bengal were made to sign on non-judicial stamp paper. Whether the High Command asked for it or not, the fact that the provincial leadership felt the need to make their MLAs perform their loyalty is a sign of the times. Nothing damages a party more than being made to seem ridiculous. The decline of the republic's Grand Old Party should have had the resonance of tragedy; thanks to the opaqueness of dynastic rule, it's playing out as farce.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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