India's grand old party has become truly federal in the 132nd year of its existence. With the senior leadership of the Congress out of town or planning to travel soon, the legislative party units of several of the five states going to the polls over the next few weeks have virtually seceded from the Congress High Command in Delhi.
It no longer matters very much whether Congress Vice-President and apparent heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi was holidaying for the first nine days of the year (he was back in Delhi yesterday). Or, according to party officials, if he has planned to take another week off touring Shanghai and Beijing on the invitation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from January 15-22. After all, party-to-party ties, comes the pat Congress argument, especially with the most powerful political party in the world, cannot be ignored.
As for campaigning in the five states, yes, that will also definitely take place - before China and after. All is well, assure the party's permanently optimistic yea-sayers.
But dig a little deeper and it's clear that full-time fatalism has set in. Congress party workers in Punjab, which has the best chance of returning to power after ten years, point out that their Chief Minister-hopeful Amarinder Singh has also been camping in Delhi these last few weeks, ostensibly because he is waiting for the powers-that-be to advise him on how to allocate the last 40 of 117 tickets-for-seats that will be up for grabs on February 4.
So Rahul Gandhi has been on holiday and Amarinder Singh has been away from home. And yet, Punjab's Congressmen are folding their hands and giving thanks to the Almighty in the hope that their luck will hold - besides being thrilled to bits that veteran political strategist Prashant Kishor has probably given them a winning formula that will help tip them over to the winning side. It's called "ghar-ghar rozgar
," and it promises one job per household if the Congress party wins. If not, it promises Rs 2,500 per month in the form of an unemployment allowance. But what has really charged up the crowd is a gimmicky procedure in which every job-seeker fills up a form on which an ATM card-lookalike is pasted. The person fills the form and punches the code given on the ATM card on his mobile phone, upon which a PIN number is revealed. That's when the phone gets a call back with a voice saying, "You have now been registered!"
Congress party workers are fighting back enthusiastic Punjabis - Jat Sikhs and Mazhabi Sikhs as well as Hindus and Muslims across the Doaba, Majha and Malwa regions - wanting to fill up the form and win the job lucky draw.
The party's second-rung leaders also give kudos to Kishor for making Amarinder campaign in the state for at least the first few months - give and take a few weeks in Delhi - and battle it out with cheesy schemes such as "Koffee with Kaptan" as well as imbuing the phalanxes with courage and confidence to fight the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance and rank outsider, the Aam Admi Party (AAP).
To be sure, the Congress was in real jitters about six months ago. AAP looked very strong, Modi's demonetisation drive hadn't set in and Navjot Singh Sidhu's penchant to play spoiler was very real. Today, AAP seems to be beset with infighting, while the Punjabi farmer is said to be furious that the kharif
has bombed because there isn't enough cash in the market and the rabi
will be at the mercy of the money-lender. The Akali Dal's alleged links to the drugs mafia have gained much credibility.
If only the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi had allowed Kishor to articulate a political strategy for Uttar Pradesh, probably India's most important political battle-ground state with 403 seats. Kishor wanted the charismatic Priyanka Gandhi to either contest as Chief Ministerial candidate (that suggestion was turned down) or unleash a campaign across the state that hadn't been witnessed before.
But of course the Congress party was made of sterner stuff. Rahul's sister has remained in purdah
and in her stead, the elderly but still spunky Sheila Dikshit who ran Delhi for 15 years was catapulted into Chief Ministerial candidate. Meanwhile, the lacklustre Raj Babbar - who remains infamous for insisting that it is possible to have a full meal for Rs 12 in Mumbai and that there was nothing wrong for the UPA in 2013 to weave its poverty bottom-line around it - was made the Pradesh Congress Committee president. Now it seems as if an alliance between Rahul Gandhi and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is in the offing - question is, crestfallen UP party workers are asking, if this alliance will be announced before Mr Gandhi leaves for China, which gives them a few more days to campaign, or after he returns.
Certainly, Akhilesh has won much kudos for standing up to the betrayal employed by his father and friends. But Akhilesh is agreed with his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, that if the SP gives the Congress the 85-90 seats it is demanding (down from 175 seats, before the bargaining started), it will be swept out before the games begin. It seems the SP is willing to give the Congress between 55-60 seats and knows clearly the score: that it will have to carry the Congress party to the polling booth, just like with the Rashtriya Lok Dal of Ajit Singh in the case of a trilateral alliance.
As for Ghulam Nabi Azad, the man in charge of UP on behalf of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) is said to be a worried man. He is also part of the Rahul Gandhi delegation to China but remains concerned that so many of the senior leadership will be away for so long, which is why he wants to return home after two or three days in Shanghai. Azad knows the score, that BJP party president Amit Shah has been ensconced in Lucknow for some time. If the Congress whittles away precious time in a foreign country, it is nothing short of political hara-kiri.
On the other hand, if Akhilesh Yadav can pull off the impossible, the Congress party will also gain, if only from the point of view of the coat-tails.
Uttarakhand is another state where the Congress is said to have a fighting chance to return to power, even if incumbent Chief Minister Harish Rawat has been at loggerheads with some of his own MLAs, including the rival camp of state Congress chief Kishore Upadhyay. Here, too, the aforesaid Prashant Kishor is at the rescue. On New Year's Eve, he met Rawat and one week into January - while Rahul Gandhi was still on holiday - he met Upadhyay. The day after, it was decided that Kishor will create a poll strategy for the Congress in Uttarakhand for all 70 seats that go to the polls on February 15. Question is, can Kishor's wand wield magic in five weeks, when the BJP already has an edge in Uttarakhand? Unlike in UP, at least the party is in the fight in this hill-state.
Then there is Congress-run Manipur, whose 60-seat assembly goes to the polls on March 4 and 8, but which the Election Commission is watching closely because the blockade sponsored by the United Naga Council against the Congress chief minister Ibobi Singh's decision to create seven new districts is entering its 70th day. The BJP, which won Assam six months ago and persuaded legislators in Arunachal Pradesh to switch loyalties is now accusing the Congress of playing politics between the Naga-dominated hills and the Meitei-dominated valley. It is said that the Irom Sharmila-led People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance, which is contesting 20 seats - Sharmila, herself, is fighting against Chief Minister Ibobi Singh - will cut into the Congress votes, thereby helping the BJP.
As for the paradise state, Goa, the Congress is hoping against hope it will turn the tide even if it doesn't win outright. An alliance between small outfits like Goa Forward, United Goans Party and the NCP is in the offing. But it is unlikely that the incumbent BJP Chief Minister, Laxmikant Parsekar, will be ousted, even if he has given the Congress the compliment of becoming the chief opposition (rather than AAP) when polls to the 40-seat Assembly are held on February 4.
The results of the state elections will undoubtedly be a vote on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reign; they will also be a wake-up call for Rahul Gandhi's leadership of the party. It is unlikely, though, that the Congress looks at it this way. For better or worse, the dynasty is here to stay.(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)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.