Days after his scathing appraisal of the Congress party’s current state of being in a column published by a leading English daily, Sanjay Jha was dropped from the party’s panel of spokespersons on June 17. Evidently, Jha’s views had finally riled the Congress ‘high command’ though it had previously turned a Nelson’s Eye to similar comments he had made in the past – both on television news channels and in print.
So what did the Mumbai-based businessman, who entered the Congress party in 2013 and quickly became one of its most visible defenders in television debates, say that warranted the action against him? In his column, Jha shared the widely accepted contention that the Congress party’s “extraordinary lassitude, and its lackadaisical attitude towards its own political obsolescence” despite a series of debilitating electoral reverses was baffling. He had alluded to the party’s “inability to set the agenda and seize the narrative” and added that the presence of a “robust internal democratic process that listens to individual voices…” is a false claim.
There is no denying that much of what Jha wrote is true for the Congress. Over the past six years, the party has shown no real inclination for arresting its steadily shrinking footprint across the country. The Grand Old Party’s inability to resolve its leadership issue, its abject failure in promoting real grassroots talent to more weighty party positions, its increasing ideological ambivalence and the well-entrenched sycophantic club of self-serving political deadwood have collectively turned the 134-year-old organisation into a caricature of its former self. This at a time when the Modi government’s failure on nearly every front – from economy to diplomacy – should have given the Congress enough ammunition to build a public movement that could help in its electoral revival. The Congress’s ideological and political war with the BJP seldom goes beyond the virtual battlefield of Twitter where Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra constantly fret and fume against Narendra Modi without even bothering to engage with their ‘followers’. As Jha rightly put it, “There are hard days ahead, but barring sporadic outbursts of a few constructive initiatives, the Congress has not created an alternative white paper on governance for India. This is the time for it to do so, instead of waging a social media hashtag tornado.”
Every point made by Jha ticks the right boxes when seen from the viewpoint of what ails the Congress party. However, if Jha is being praised for his forthright and honest criticism of his party, it is only prudent that he be put to the same test. Jha criticises the Congress for pushing false claims of its robust internal democracy; for the absence of “frank exchange of ideas and counter-ideas held with a defining purpose to get the Congress back on track” and says he feels dismayed to see the “painful disintegration” of his party.
Jha joined the Congress after an illustrious career in the banking and mutual funds sector. A well-connected entrepreneur, he had previously founded the portal CricketNext.com (now part of the Network18 Media group) and is presently the executive director of the Dale Carnegie training operations in India. Clearly, Jha had a personal standing before he began dabbling in politics but does that justify his appointment as a Congress spokesperson back in 2013 as soon as he joined the party? In 2014, when the Congress-led UPA government lost power, Jha was a party spokesperson but his colleague Manish Tewari, who had just lost his job as Union Information and Broadcasting Minister and had served in the Congress organisation through the previous two decades, was only ‘adjusted’ within the organisation as a media panellist. It took Tewari over a year to be elevated as official spokesperson despite having served only recently as Union I&B minister while Jha was para-dropped into the role. Did he raise a banner of revolt against the lack of internal democracy or aversion to merit then?
Jha, in many ways is a symbol of the skewed rationale within the Congress wherein people with formidable debating skills but little organisational, political or electoral experience to show are promptly rewarded. Of course, as spokesperson, Jha did a fairly good job of defending his party, often at times when other senior leaders shirked this responsibility, but beyond appearances in news studios and columns in newspapers, his contribution towards helping revive the party are hard to find. When Jha criticises his party colleagues of preferring “self-preservation to the more daunting challenge of bringing about change”, is it not for him to explain how he fared on this challenge? Or is it Jha’s argument that as spokesperson, he is not required to work on the grassroots?
Through the years that he has been party spokesperson, the Congress has faced multiple defeats in elections. How many public outreach programmes or booth or district level campaigns did Jha initiate or was part of during these years? Did he nurture a constituency or try to develop a grassroots profile to break his image of a corporate honcho disguised as a political leader? Yes, as chief of the Maharashtra chapter of the All India Professional Congress – helmed nationally by Shashi Tharoor – Jha organised some workshops and seminars but did these help the Congress politically in the state?
Jha’s platitudes to his partymen on how to regain people’s trust are typical of his party’s drawing room strategy sessions – white paper on governance or the rather brilliant sounding but misdirected analogy of functioning like a public listed company drawing short, medium and long term strategies to “synchronize with business potential and market expectations”. He made a passing reference to the need for leadership development and resuscitation at the grassroots but without giving any glimpse of how this should be done. This prescription has been typical of the Congress party’s way of functioning and, in more ways than one, the reason for its downfall. Jha is merely parroting it again.
Jha’s outburst against his party and the Congress’s decision to punish him for this transgression come at a time when there are much larger issues for the Congress to focus on than petty internal disputes. The Congress as a party, and Jha as its spokesperson (until two days back), should have only been concerned about seeking answers from the Modi government on the catastrophic lockdown and, more recently, the brutal killing of Indian Army personnel in the Galwan Valley. Talk of poor timing and misplaced priorities? Additionally, the Congress also seemed blissfully unmindful of the optics it would project by axing a spokesman for striking a discordant note though it claims to be a votary of freedom of expression, debate and dissent – the very things it criticises the BJP of trying to crush.
In a rejoinder to Jha’s column that appeared in the same English daily, Congress secretary Chandan Yadav said that during the 10 years of the party’s stint in power (2004-2014) an extensive club of careerists flocked to it. “They were looking for instant gratification – quarterly results as Jha puts it, but alas, it didn’t happen for these few,” Yadav said. Except for the occasional swipe he took at Jha, Yadav’s rejoinder, on many counts, sounded uncannily similar to what Jha had written. And here lies the problem for the Congress – whether you look at the party from Jha’s perspective or Yadav’s, there is an unending list of issues that the party needs to urgently resolve if it dreams of ever regaining its place in India’s polity again. What is abundantly clear though is that Jha isn’t the man to preach this revival sermon. He is a symptom of the ailment; not the cure.
(Views expressed are personal)