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Tribhuvan Tiwari
Old wave Sonia, Rahul Gandhi at a Congress meeting in New Delhi
politics: congress
At The End Of The Grand Line
Confronted with Modi’s popular persona, wringing its hands at anti-incumbency, a bedraggled Congress awaits downfall

Narendra Modi’s managers, backed by huge corporates, have mastered the technique of “manufacturing consent” through a media anxious to tell a story, minus its complexities, by focussing on one personality. It is therefore quite possible that the just concluded assembly elections in five states—being projected as primaries to a presidential contest with only one candidate—will deliver a result echoing the exit polls that predict a big win for the BJP. A stronger validation for Narendra Modi can’t be imagined.

Equally, there is a possibility that Chh­attisgarh could still go the Con­gress way if voting in the Bastar area works to their advantage, and the BJP win in Madhya Pradesh turns out to be modest. But at best, these would be small face-savers for the Congress. For, even if the debacle is not as thorough as the exit polls suggest, Congress spokespersons would be clutching at straws to deny that the party could be headed for a historic defeat in the 2014 general election. There is enough ane­cdotal evidence and sound analysis from the ground to suggest that many cer­titudes are being turned upside down.

By the time the hurly burly is over and the battle won or lost, could the Congress at best hope to give outside support to a regional formation? Could the party hit its lowest ever tally yet in Parliament and slide under 100 MPs? It’s certainly possible, if we factor in the long drawn out hara-kiri in Andhra Pradesh (that gave the party 33 MPs), and the ongoing downslide in Uttar Pradesh (22 Congress MPs) even as the Modi-led BJP seems headed for an excellent show in the now communally polarised state.

The Congress, after all, is a party that depends on ‘hawa’—meaning something between ‘wind’ and ‘wave’. Lacking in cadre or organisational structure, they often delude themselves into a smugness because they have cultivated many loyalists over generations. During elections they wait for the opposition to defeat itself (as in Karnataka earlier this year) and/or charisma to pull them through.

The single most important factor to alienate voters has been the price rise. No cash scheme can undo the suffering.
But the current generation of the first family has been failing spectacularly to establish an emotional connect with the electorate, except perhaps eliciting mass scorn. Indeed, the first sign of the Con­gress’s impending defeat in Delhi was the pathetic showing at Rahul Gandhi’s rally. There are Con­gressmen who clamour for Priya­nka’s popular appeal, but her image has been tarnished by a spouse with a reputation for unsavoury land deals. Sonia Gandhi retains her dignity and poise, but has indicated a desire for the next generation to take over.

Structurally, it’s a party full of traditio­nal ruling elites, scions of notables who pay lip service to secularism and liberal values and hand out doles. It’s a feudal model of democracy the Con­gress excels at. It may stumble upon the changing, yet-to-be-quantified demographics in India where people aspire for something bey­ond political royalty and sanctimony. Good intentions aren’t eno­ugh when the system is being hollowed out by greed, corruption and corporate agendas.

Entree Arvind Kejriwal with AAP supporters before the Delhi assembly elections. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

At the beating heart of the schizophrenia seizing the Congress is the fact that it has been offering doles even while dismantling government investment in health and education. Its stable of articulate ministers often hark to Nehru’s vision. But then, socialism was long abandoned, while secularism rema­ins an expedient tactic to be moulded and used as the situation demands.

Besides systemic flaws, there is the gargantuan issue of price rise—possibly the single most important factor to anger and alienate voters. No cash scheme or promise of sacks of grain can compensate for the fact that vegetables are out of reach of millions. India never shone for the NDA in 2004, and there is growing evidence to suggest that it will not believe the lofty promises of the UPA in 2014.

Only if they had strong, charismatic state leaders with a stake in the Centre, the Congress would perhaps have had the res­­erves to charge the opposition in a cou­nter-attack. But then, such leaders are systematically hung out to dry in the fine Congress tradition of loyalty to one family. The manner in which three-time Delhi CM Shiela Dixit was left to fight by herself, even as a Congress faction wor­ked against her, also offers an insight into power dynamics within the party.

Granted that the verdict in five states is no guarantee of future performance. But 2014 is not 2004. There are different imp­o­nderables in the era of unitary, image-managed, media-saturated, presidential style of campaigning, where even the states may be making choices not merely on local issues but with an eye on the national future. Regardless of the BJP’s return to power in Rajasthan or its retention of control in Madhya Pradesh, the Aam Admi Party’s spunky audacious campaign must also carry a message. Quite clearly, in a head-to-head face-off, the BJP is coming off well against the Congress. But where there are other  players, is similar success guaranteed? With most opinion polls predicting that over 200 of the 543 seats may end up in non-Congress, non-BJP kitties, the writing on the wall is less clear than what the BJP might want us to think.

The Congress is structured as a crowd around a family with heavywei­ghts com­p­eting for gate-keepers’ posts. In the mon­ths that possibly mark the last days of the Manmohan Singh government, the PM himself is not much of a player. He can only watch every last initiative of his regime getting blocked in a bleak winter session in Parliament. Even the few reg­ional players who occasionally play foo­tsie with the UPA may come to regard any truck with it as a liability. A few  months back it was being said that Nitish Kumar wanted an alliance with the Congress. Would he still want that? At the same time, Chandrababu Naidu is said to be seeking an understanding with the BJP. A sign of changing political realities?

Even if the Congress fares better than exit poll predictions, a des­pondent mood prevails in the party. Many leaders candidly say that they sho­uld plan for some months in the opp­osition. As things stand, there are many regional parties in the fray, and the successful launch of another entrant. Then there is that one persona looming large, bursting with ambition, gaining momentum every day and backed by an RSS cadre come to life suddenly. Conversely, the Congress barely inspires confidence within itself. How will it convince voters?

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