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Here is how Congress can chart its recovery

Possibly, the time has come when Congress should stop its High Command culture and consider opting for a federated structure.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
May 26, 2019, 11.03 PM IST
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Congress should focus on the states where assembly elections are due later this year
By Neerja Chowdhury

On Saturday, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) rejected Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as party president. But the last word may not have been said on the subject. For an upset Gandhi is reported to have flounced out of the meeting, saying he wanted to work as an ordinary worker and that his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should also not be inducted as party president.

True, a knee-jerk reaction can create more problems than resolve existing ones. The task of replacing a member of the Gandhi-Nehru family, which has kept the party together even though it’s no longer able to win votes, is also not an easy one. Yet, Mandate 2019 has messaged a sentiment against dynastic politics. This comes particularly from younger and first-time voters (15 million). Clearly, Narendra Modi’s jibes at ‘Naamdar versus kaamdar’ found some resonance.

While Gandhi’s other ‘naamdar’ colleagues, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Deepender Hooda and Milind Deora, did lose, some in the Congress like Gaurav Gogoi got through. As did some dynasts on the NDA side — but the Paswans and Badals may have won because of the cover provided by Modi.

The point is this: a reaction has set in against the politics of entitlement, and Congress (and other parties) will have to factor this in when they reformulate their strategy. We can’t forget that India is a young country today and the average age by 2020 is going to be 29 years.

The CWC also resolved to ‘authorise’ Gandhi to restructure the party. In other words, it re-vested in him the same powers he had enjoyed for 18 months. This time, it didn’t even go through the motions of forming a committee to assist him, as has been the case on occasions in the past.

Congress has received its severest drubbing, worse, in many ways, than in 2014, even though it has got eight more seats this time. The trouble is that its decline continues unchecked. It has drawn a blank in 18 states, its presence really being only in Kerala. It has managed to get eight seats in Tamil Nadu, piggybacking the DMK’s popularity.

There was a time when Congress leaders used to wring their hands helplessly about how to revive the party in large states like UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Now, other large and mid-sized states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Orissa have been added to that list.

The real shocker was Maharashtra where the party got only one seat, despite the terrible drought that had ravaged parts of the state, the series of agitations for reservations spearheaded by young Marathas, the lakhs of farmers hitting the streets of Mumbai, and the alienation of dalits after the Bhima Koregaon violence. Congress could not capitalise on any of these issues. Surely, this is a failure of leadership in state as well as in Delhi.

While Congress caught the pulse of the people and highlighted farmers’ anguish and youth unemployment in state elections only five months ago, it did not have an equivalent of Modi’s emotional Hindu-nationalism-national security message. The Nyay scheme had the potential to do so, but it came too late in the day.

The party’s old guard may feel that Congress should wait for disenchantment and anger to grow against the Modi dispensation, however long this may take. But then, its workers will start to flee to greener pastures. Those in their 60s and 70s may not have much to lose. But those with 30 years of politics ahead of them are not likely to wait for oblivion.

It goes without saying that Congress should focus on the states where assembly elections are due later this year: Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana. A national victory has, of course, enthused BJP workers in these states already. But then, Gandhi will not have to face a Modi in these states. Delhi polls are also due early next year. But the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is likely to be more of a formidable foe in the state polls than it was in the Lok Sabha polls. Elections in Bihar and West Bengal will follow in 2020 and 2021, and in UP in 2022, about which Priyanka Vadra spoke during the course of the campaign.

It is now openly conceded that she should have taken the plunge at least a year ago, and been deployed in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, where she could have possibly made some difference. In UP, wherever Congress perked up, it damaged the SP-BSP gathbandhan, not the BJP.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry was sudden and the decision taken, from all accounts, by her and her brother. Had there been a wider discussion in the party on her induction and role, perhaps her services might have been better utlilised.

BJP is increasingly becoming a High Command-oriented party today with Modi and Amit Shah calling the shots. Possibly, the time has come when Congress, which has relied on the High Command culture over the years, should consider opting for a federated structure, which gives autonomy of functioning to state leaders. Captain Amarinder Singh, after all, delivered because he was seen as a strong leader.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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