Battered in the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress trotted out hackneyed justifications for its brutal defeat—from 'anti-incumbency' to 'poor marketing' of its chief ministers to 'local' factors like caste and development issues. Obliquely acknowledging that the party's campaigns were poorly conceptualised, badly managed and lacked lustre, a few leaders admitted to a need for "restrategising" (or as party president Sonia Gandhi put it, "for pulling up its socks"). For Lok Sabha 2004, they admitted, the Congress needs all the friends it can get, as well as competent election managers and credible campaigners at the national level.
The defeat has driven home, at least to a section of Congressmen, the necessity of engaging potential electoral allies in a brasstacks dialogue, moving beyond its blow-hot, blow-cold flirtations. Besides, younger members of the party are looking for restructuring the party organisation, by enforcing accountability for the failures in the assembly elections. Perhaps the most significant outcome of last week's defeat, party leaders privately admit, could be a growing clamour for the induction of one or both of the Gandhi siblings. A subtle submission that the Family alone can come up with a strategy to deal with the 'Sonia factor': her foreign origin and her political ineptitude.
"We need to look for allies, but there are problems," says Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal. "The BJP and its allies are united by anti-Congressism. Our potential allies, on the other hand, are not natural allies." By that token, anti-BJPism united the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party in the assembly polls, but the parties failed to arrive at a pre-electoral adjustment. A big mistake, according to some party leaders. "Maybe it was, but the CMs felt that they could do without it," says senior leader Salman Khursheed. He insists the ball is not in the Congress court at all. It's for the allies to come to the table with a credible proposal.
Although Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav is inexorably closing the door on the Congress, alliances with the BSP, NCP and DMK are still wide open. In a goodwill gesture last week, Sonia made it a point to visit the dmk office in Parliament, to offer tribute to the late Murasoli Maran. Congressmen saw it as an indication that she is ready to shed the baggage of the past and arrive at an understanding in Tamil Nadu. In UP, a quick resolution is difficult as "jumping from SP to bsp will appear opportunistic", says senior Congress leader Devendranath Dwivedi. In Maharashtra, pro-alliance Congressmen see a Congress-NCP tie-up as the only means to mutual survival. If they go to the polls individually, anti-incumbency could ensure a wipe-out in the state's crucial 48 seats. Now that the NCP has received a drubbing in Chhattisgarh, it might be more amenable to a reasonable adjustment, but will have to work hard to win over NCP-baiters like Prithviraj Chauhan. The alliance votaries in the Congress (S. Jaipal Reddy, Arjun Singh, Ahmed Patel) is even willing to go in for nda-style adjustments with marginal parties. Like the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti in Andhra Pradesh or the Gondwana Gantantra Party in Madhya Pradesh.
The biggest hurdle in the way of alliances, some Congressmen say, is Sonia herself. "You've to treat alliance partners equally. You have to be on backslapping terms with them. You have to be accessible," says a Lok Sabha MP. But there are those who encourage the Congress hubris. Says Khursheed, "Sonia Gandhi, who commands 28 per cent of the popular vote, can't go to them (potential allies) with a begging bowl."
Priyanka Vadra, playing an increasingly important backstage role, hasn't helped matters. Her antipathy towards the NCP's Sharad Pawar is well known.It's widely believed that the Congress-NCP face-off earlier this year, which ended badly for the Congress, was the outcome of a tantrum she threw at the so-called 'pro-Pawar lobby'. She also set up Mayawati's back with her antics in Amethi last year.
For all that, she remains the great white hope of the Congress. The advent of Priyanka as a campaigner and contestant in Lok Sabha 2004 will enable the party to sweep north India, Congressmen implicitly believe. Already titillating the media with juicy sound bites, Priyanka is increasingly becoming the focus of Congressmen's attention and harbinger of better times. Her induction is seen as inevitable, but the party rank and file would prefer it to be sooner rather than later.
Sonia's maternal reluctance to expose her children to security hazards is well known in the Congress inner circle. Added to that is the inescapable fact that Priyanka's induction will rapidly reduce Sonia herself to irrelevance. "Partymen will gravitate to the stronger magnetic force," a party leader comments wryly.
Some see the complete lack of national-level campaigners as a telling indictment of the way Sonia has run the party. "In the last three years, the Congress has been gaining, but it does not have the ability to make use of the turn of the tide," says Professor D.L. Sheth of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. He sees in Digvijay Singh's insistence on a 10-year political vanvaas a civilised critique of the fine old Congress tradition of bringing down any popular leader. "Why should a leader like Digvijay have to take orders from an Ambika Soni, who does not even have the stature to campaign for the party? The party's second rung comprises rootless wonders, precisely because in this neo-colonial party, a desi can only become a deputy."
So can "neo-colonial" Sonia take on A.B. Vajpayee? "The problem is not Atal vs Sonia. The problem is 'What is Sonia?' We have to figure out how we're going to package her. Do we want to project her perpetually as the wronged widow or are we going to get past that? We don't want the voters' sympathy, we want their trust and confidence," says Khursheed. Sonia will also have to shed her enigmatic maharani persona, learn to interact with the press, intervene in Parliament and think on her feet without being scared of making mistakes.
When it comes to the art of turning liabilities into assets (as in the case of Dilip Singh Judeo), the Congress clearly has a lot to learn from the BJP. But the party doesn't seem to be able to match the Sangh parivar's laptop brigade, which adores new technology. Ghulam Nabi Azad, sidelined during the current round of polls, has thus far proved their best election strategist. His stock may rise. So will that of Sheila Dikshit, who was the lone consolatiion for the Congress, having decisively conquered Delhi. Chief confidante Soni, having lost the two big states—Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—has suffered a serious setback. A reshuffle of the AICC may be on the cards. "Any changes have to keep Lok Sabha 2004 in mind, rather than punishment or rewards for the assembly elections," says Dwivedi.
Already, Congressmen are looking for silver linings. As the irrepressible Priyaranjan Das Munshi pointed out: "When opinion polls indicated it would be three-one in favour of the Congress, a senior BJP leader said a poor result in the assembly elections would work to their advantage in the Lok Sabha elections. Witness what happened in 1998 and 1999. Now, we can say the defeat in the assembly will benefit us in the general elections."