Seventh-Year Hitch

It’s crisis time for Congress alright, but is it willing to accept it?
Seventh-Year Hitch
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Seventh-Year Hitch

Script Gone Awry

  • Opposition’s JPC demand on 2G scam wipes out winter session of Parliament
  • Manmohan Singh's “Mr Clean” image hit by 2G and Supreme Court rap
  • Appointment of new CVC P.J. Thomas balloons into major row
  • Bihar assembly results show diminishing returns for Rahul Gandhi
  • Two key states in 2009 victory, Andhra Pradesh & Maharashtra, look wobbly
  • Andhra citadel breached by Jaganmohan Reddy's revolt and exit
  • Washout in UP panchayat poll, coming in behind BSP, SP, BJP brings grim forebodings
  • Slew of scams led by CWG, Adarsh dent social schemes, hurt image among urban middle class
  • Trouble brews with key ally DMK in Tamil Nadu ahead of assembly poll. Ties with NCP tenuous.


It has been a terrible November for the Congress party. Just as soon as US President Barack Obama departed from New Delhi on November 9 after telling MPs that this was a great country that deserved a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, India under Congress watch began to look like a Scam Republic. The scale and stench of the 2G scandal spread further, the PM’s apparent inaction was questioned by the Supreme Court and the winter session of Parliament lost in the din of an opposition determined to draw more blood. The Congress appeared to be consumed by chaos, corruption and crises.

Tainted CVC ‘Palmolein’ P.J. Thomas is a bugbear
Then the political signals from the states started coming in. The grand old party failed to make any gains in Bihar; five days later, on November 29, the Congress citadel in Andhra Pradesh (which currently sends 33 party MPs to the Lok Sabha) was breached when Jagan Reddy finally quit the party. Sharp and successive kicks in the shin that are more ominous for the party than the image crisis confronting the Delhi leadership. A Congress leader summed up the situation: “We should be worried, but we also believe we will weather this (stormy) season. After all, the Opposition has no leader of the stature of Atal Behari Vajpayee. If someone like that was around, then yes, we would be in trouble.”

So it’s actually by default that the Congress believes it could continue to be the nation’s pre-eminent political party. That is why another leader quips: “Don’t worry too much about the Congress crisis. We are not that worried. We have the core group to handle issues, around it the buffer group, and then the duffer group that makes up the bulk of Congress leaders!” So no panic buttons have been pressed, and life goes on as usual in the Congress. Sources say that a cabinet reshuffle is on the cards and the choices made in that will give an indication of how the PM plans to address his own image crisis. Between December 18 and 20, the Congress will also have a plenary session on the outskirts of Delhi where the articulation of concerns and priorities by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi will give greater clarity on the political direction.

“We have a core group to handle issues, around it a buffer group, then a duffer group!”

But then in a sign of typical Congress laxity, party sources reveal that there is no certainty if the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and all the state committees will be constituted by then as should ideally be the case. Indeed, the over-dependence on Sonia and Rahul making all the decisions is one of the great structural defects in the DNA of the party. That in turn contributes to the failure to develop strong state leaders. When there has been strong leadership in the states, such as Sheila Dixit in Delhi or YSR in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has thrived. Lately, the party has struggled to find good leaders both for states and even for the organisational revamp.

Consider what happened in Bihar. In the tidal wave called Nitish Kumar that swept the state, the Congress was left looking rather foolish, down to four from nine seats in the 243-member assembly. To add insult to injury, its great national rival, the BJP, had clambered on Nitish’s back to bag 91 seats, up from 55. A result that gave the nda an adrenaline boost which, it is being said, could begin the process of altering the national political chemistry.

Heir to fore? Rahul Gandhi with Manmohan Singh

For the Congress this meant that its great plan to rebuild its shattered bases in the Gangetic basin was coming undone, and perhaps never really took off in Bihar. Rahul Gandhi’s 16 meetings in the state (Sonia addressed six and the PM just one) apparently made no dent on the electorate as the party candidates lost their deposits even in seats represented in the Lok Sabha, for instance, by Congress stalwarts like Speaker Meira Kumar. A senior party leader says: “We have to accept that there is now a generation in Bihar that does not recognise the Congress symbol.” What’s more, in the internal analysis, state leaders have told the high command that the party gave tickets to 47 Muslims, which put off the upper castes who then turned around and supported the BJP.

Nor did it consolidate the other side: Muslim enthusiasm for the Congress has been on the wane after the Ayodhya judgement on September 30. Although it was the judiciary that delivered the verdict, it has curiously led to the growing belief in sections of the Muslim community that the Congress really can’t be trusted to guard their interests. The argument goes that the Babri Msjid fell under Congress rule at the Centre and a high court judgement loaded in favour of the temple advocates also came under Congress rule 18 years later. So why back this party, particularly as there is no immediate threat of a BJP takeover at the Centre?

For Rahul to take over, the party has to win UP. Was it a reason for Sonia’s Rae Bareli visit?

In fact, just a day before the Bihar sweepstakes were announced came reports that the Samajwadi Party had won two byelections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly and that the Congress candidates had done miserably. In Lakhimpur Kheri, for instance, the Congress nominee got only 14,000 votes, although his father is the sitting MP. A month earlier, the state witnessed the most fiercely-contested panchayat elections in its history. The reason for the fierce contest was the flow of NREGA funds in the village economy: panchayats now disburse crores. Although panchayat polls are not fought on party symbols, relatives of ministers, MLAs and MPs entered the fray and many showed their party loyalty on posters. Cash, liquor and incentives to voters flowed through UP. And the news from the ground is that the Congress did terribly, even in the Amethi-Rae Bareli bastions.

As far as the perfect script for a Rahul Gandhi takeover in 2014 goes, the Congress first has to perform well in the UP state polls in 2012. Right now, the going appears tough. Is that why, in the midst of multiple crises, Sonia spent three days in Rae Bareli last week? The official statement from the party said she had gone there to “evaluate development schemes”.

Stalled Parliament The Opposition demand for a JPC on 2G lapses has seen a whole winter session go by unfruitfully. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

This is a good time for stock-taking also because the horse has bolted from the stable that sent the largest contingent of 33 MPs to the Lok Sabha. A section of the Andhra Pradesh Congress leadership argues it is good that the young son of YSR has left the party. National party managers say that the manner in which the Telangana issue is handled will be more critical to the Congress future than Jagan’s exit. Yet there is also the realisation that in politics there are those moments when a meltdown begins. The other Congress bastion of Maharashtra (17 MPs) has also been afflicted by scams, a leadership crisis within the Congress and a constant tug-of-war with its ally, the NCP. The latest controversy involves the urban township of Lavasa that has been sent a notice by Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, while NCP boss Sharad Pawar is backing the township.

Uncommon Wealth Kalmadi put a Congress face on the CWG scam. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

There is an even larger political question hanging over Tamil Nadu where assembly polls are due next year. Sources say the last word has not been said on the alliance with the dmk and the possibility of switching to the AIADMK cannot be entirely ruled out as the ramifications of the 2G spectrum scandal and the Radia tapes continue to expand every day. Says a Congress strategist: “The 2G debate may redefine the coalition dharma and force all of us to rethink how we do business.”

Muslim support for Congress is also on the wane after the verdict on Ayodhya.

Meanwhile, the current strategy is to try turn the tables on an aggressive BJP. Says spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi: “Who are they to say anything about corruption? The demand for a JPC is a political demand so that they can shout about corruption every day. The disruption of Parliament is an unfortunate outcome. On corruption, the BJP does no better than a drama company.” Some party leaders also argue that the current climate cannot be compared to Bofors in 1987 as corruption is not a regime-changing issue any longer. As a veteran says, “Ironically, all these scandals are coming out because of RTI, which we implemented, and because NREGA is changing politics at the grassroots level though unfortunately we could not benefit from this in UP.”

Lost Moral The Adarsh Society scam cost the Congress its chief minister and caused a massive loss of reputation. (Photograph by Dinesh Parab)

By January, the party will get busy negotiating with allies and choosing candidates for elections in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. Life in the Congress will go on as usual: the PM will continue to shake hands with heads of state, Rahul Gandhi will occasionally venture out for his interactions with youth, Sonia Gandhi will make all the political decisions, the managers will airdash to try and put out the bushfires.

The Congress believes the ground cannot slip beneath its feet as the Opposition has a multiplicity of problems. But as the crisis in the Congress now envelops both the party as well as the government, the top leadership can remain complacent only at its own peril.

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