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Congress 2020: Living a crisis & battling a nightmare

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New Delhi: For Congress, life in 2020 has been worse than what the coronavirus-hit world endured. As the planet wakes up to the hope of a Covid vaccine in the New Year, India’s grand old party is struggling to make a recovery from electoral reversals, tactical confusion, organisational disarray, ideological vagueness and, to top it all, a rift in the leadership in crisis. The party that has ruled for around 54 of the 73 years of Independent India, has now even acquired the ignominy of being headless since August 2019, hobbling along with an interim arrangement. Many feel two unnerving diagnoses will add to the party’s existential challenge in negotiating the ‘agnipath’ in 2021. One, even the Congress people have started grumbling about the inability of the Gandhis to catch votes anymore and keep the party united. Two, the unease among the opposition parties about Congress becoming more of a coalition liability.

UNTAPPED OPPORTUNITIES

The Covid outbreak has thrown the society, economy and administration out of gear, pushing the second Modi regime into unforeseen challenges early in its tenure amid the Chinese provocation along the LAC. The already shaky economy tanked, hit by the pandemic and the hastily-imposed lockdown. Crisis in key sectors triggered rampant loss of jobs and social agony, manifested in the misery of migrant workers. Normally, any Opposition would feast on this plethora of crises but Congress failed to tap them effectively. The AICC announced a slew of agitations but mostly ended up holding ritualistic virtual agitations besides a string of troll-like tweets by Rahul and Priyanka, thus leaving the regime off the hook. Now Congress faces a challenge in turning the farmers’ agitations to its advantage. Acknowledging that the party requires a new beginning to be effective, senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily said: “The Congress has to find ways to re-route and reconnect with the masses through organisational and tactical overhaul even while emphasising on the party’s democratic and inclusive ideology. The Congress has to become appealing to the old, the present and the youth, who are all fed of the opportunistic politics based on religion, caste and cash.”

UNABATED REVERSALS

2020 proved to be electorally unsparing for the party. It not only fared poorly in the Delhi and Bihar polls but also lost a string of key assembly bypolls; losing 19 of the 27 sitting seats in Madhya Pradesh, eight in Gujarat, five in Manipur, besides failing to open score in the Priyanka Vadramonitored seven bypolls in UP – despite the Gandhis taking up the Hathras incident – and losing both bypolls in Karnataka. The solo victories in Haryana, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh came hardly as a consolation.

The dismal shows in the local body polls in Bodoland, J&K, Hyderabad and Kerala added to the Congress’ woes. In contrast, these polls showcased the BJP leadership’s determination for territorial expansion. The loss of the Madhya Pradesh government to BJP’s toppling bid and a touch-and-go in Rajasthan completed 2020 as the Congress’ eminently forgetful year. The New Year battles in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry pose tougher challenges.

TACTICAL & IDEOLOGICAL DILEMMAS

Three decades since the “Mandal and Kamandal” unsettled Congress’ rainbow social base, the much-depleted party is now facing more complicated plots. Given Congress had downsized its organisational ambition of ruling India solo since the mid 1990s by lazily settling to modest coalition-managing electoral calculations, the GoP’s inability to absorb and fightback, the shock of the ‘Moditva game-changer’ since 2014 stands strikingly evident.

Congress appears clueless in tackling or scripting a plan or narrative to counter ‘the new normal’ being unleashed in the forms of hyper-nationalism, Hindu revivalism and Islamic/Maoist labelling of anti-establishment agitators even as the ruling saffron establishment showcases accomplished Hindutva missions of Ayodhya temple, Article 370 and Triple Talaq to ‘quarantine’ Congress’ secular plank. Adding to the party’s travails is Rahul Gandhi’s inability to acquire a convincing image makeover vis-a-vis Modi, and the party’s inability to demonstrate tactical clarity in dealing with ‘nationalism’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim questions’. Now, Congress also confronts the double-edged ‘Mission Asaduddin Owaisi’ that leaves the party’s Hindu-Muslim base on a scissor’s edge formed by BJP and AIMIM. AICC general secretary Tariq Anwar said: “The outcome of the Bihar elections has clearly showed AIMIM and BJP are two sides of the same coin. AIMIM is clearly doing what BJP wants; divide the Muslim votes, weaken Congress and help BJP. Congress should face this challenge head-on by asserting the party’s secular ideology, commitment to fight majority and minority communalism alike and by carrying out a campaign to make the people, especially youngsters, vigilant about the BJP-AIMIM joint plot.”

As the second Modi government moves into its second half from mid-2021, thus making the ruling and opposition sides to begin positioning for Battle 2024, the Congress faces a short-window test to recoup or lose the opposition pivot status to ambitious regional players, who have started exploring joint ventures on an anti-BJP/Centre plank as being demonstrated in Mamata Banerjee seeking out Sharad Pawar and in RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari questioning Rahul Gandhi’s leadership mettle and Congress’ ability to fight BJP. CPI’s D Raja said: “Being the pan-India secular party, Congress’ decline is a matter of concern. The Congress leadership should introspect and position itself ideologically by not competing with BJP’s religious appeasement policy and by disowning some of its own past neo-liberal economic policies to make the party capable of rallying the opposition to fight against the Modi government”.

DOG IN THE MANGER

It is in this backdrop of Congress’ organisational, political, electoral and leadership disarray, that an ‘enough-is-enough’ protest was raised by 23 Congress pro-change leaders who demanded functional reforms, elections to leadership slots and pitched for “an active and full-time party president”, a reference widely seen as a disapproval of Rahul Gandhi, who even after resigning as party chief after the LS poll rout, is micro-managing the leadership matters – without taking responsibility and by backseat-driving his mother’s interim presidentship. The ways of Rahul and his favourites, his mother’s seeming indulgence and Priyanka Vadra’s perceived non-starter status in UP seem to have made the Gandhis, from being the traditional vote-catcher-cum-Congress unifier to the proverbial ‘dog in the manger’.

The whisper is growing in Congress circles about how the Gandhis are neither leading effectively nor are they making way for a new leadership or even allowing a search for it. The desertions Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi faced after much lesser defeats and the revolts Rao and Kesri faced, some say, should make the Gandhi trio aware of a Congress ground-rule; that the party generals worship and cling on to mascots that can get them votes and power. This merciless home truth, death of crisis manager Ahmed Patel and growing internal rumblings have prompted the Gandhis to finally initiate peace talks with the internal critics. How these talks will progress will dictate the developments towards the AICC session in the New Year –– where a full-time president and CWC will be put in place –– and whether the party will close ranks or emerge as a deeply divided house.

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