The office of Congress treasurer Motilal Vora is relatively quiet. The crowds that generally throng the party treasurer’s office when important elections are around the corner have receded, disappointed. The message has gone out from the Congress top brass that the state units have to fend for themselves as far as contesting elections is concerned. That is one reason why poll-bound states such as Madhya Pradesh have seen the return of Congress satraps like Kamal Nath—they are resourceful and have the ability to raise funds for the state units. In Rajasthan too, the party may depute senior leader Ashok Gehlot, recently appointed national general secretary, to lead the party in the run-up to assembly polls due in November. The Congress may not declare a CM candidate, but it is believed young state president Sachin Pilot may have to give way to his senior, two-time CM Gehlot.
Congress insiders are calling it the ‘Punjab model’, where the grand old party bucked the trend of losses in other states, with Captain Amarinder Singh leading it to victory in 2016 even as Rahul Gandhi kept talking about handing over the party’s reins to younger leaders. Amarinder was given a free hand by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, without much interference by the central leadership. Or, to be more precise, “Amarinder was given a free hand, but no money,” as a senior Congress leader reveals. “He was allowed to take charge of the state as he was the one funding the entire campaign, dwarfing all other state leaders. The Punjab model has evolved and is being successfully followed in Karnataka too, where CM Siddaramaiah has taken charge.”
The leader, though, is quick to clarify that Karnataka is a different ball game. “In Punjab or most other states, even if candidates have the money, they are unwilling to spend and look to the party to give them funds,” he says. “In Karnataka, however, the richer candidates are also willing to spend. There are leaders like (energy minister) D.K. Shivakumar, who can bankroll the entire assembly election. He is one of the richest politicians in India, with a declared family wealth of Rs 800 crore. Maybe in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan too, the party high command expects the state leadership to finance itself, but most states are tight-fisted.”
The central leadership has led the states to believe it doesn’t have much to offer and that they are on their own. The financial management of the party, therefore, is currently largely decentralised. “The party provides the mandatory Rs 5 lakh per month to each state unit for running the Pradesh Congress Committee office. Other than that, the state units and leaders have to fend for themselves,” rues a young leader.
With the Congress increasingly being known as “a poor party of rich leaders”, many members don’t hesitate to admit the party is indeed facing a severe shortage of funds. While the party led the UPA government from 2004 to 2014, it did not plan for when it would be out of power at the Centre, they claim. “In fact, the party couldn’t ever imagine it would have so few states under its rule,” says a veteran leader. “Whenever money was made during the government’s tenure, it went, perhaps, into individual pockets, unlike the case in the BJP, where these things are institutionalised.” The party top brass now expects the leaders to loosen their purse-strings.
Congress general secretary and Madhya Pradesh in-charge Dipak Babaria candidly admits that the party is short of funds and is thinking of ways to raise the money to contest elections. He also accuses the BJP of “threatening companies and industrialists” who want to contribute to the Congress’s kitty. “There are lots of people who are disillusioned with the BJP government, both at the Centre and in the state, and want to support the Congress, but they are scared of harassment by investigative agencies such as the the CBI,” Babaria tells Outlook.
He says the party’s core committee in the state has been trying to figure out ways and means of raising funds. “We have considered taking some sort of non-refundable application fee from ticket-seekers. We even thought we would give tickets only to those who can afford to contest with their own money. However, it is not right since there may be winning candidates from ordinary families who cannot afford it. We still haven’t been able to reach a decision,” he says, making it clear that relying on the central leadership is not an option.
Vora, however, tries to play down the fund crunch. “The Karnataka election is already under way and the state unit has financed it without asking us for money. Gujarat also managed on its own. Other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have not yet started the election process. Elections will be held in those states in November and so far they haven’t asked us for anything. If they do, we will see at that time,” he says.
Another state leader says that even if businessmen are able to contribute to the Congress without any fear, the party lacks the ability to liaison and follow it through. Maybe that’s why the Congress chose to fall back on warhorse Kamal Nath. His resourcefulness is perhaps the biggest factor that tilted the scales in his favour when it came to finalising the Madhya Pradesh Congress president as against 47-year-old Jyotiraditya Scindia, touted as one of the party’s brightest young leaders, and two-time chief minister Digvijay Singh. In a delicate balancing act, the party has not announced a CM candidate and Scindia has been made head of the state party’s campaign committee. They will take on the combined might of three-term CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
“For all Rahul’s past assertions about bringing young leaders to the forefront, he is finally being pragmatic about the real issues that impact electoral politics and the importance of the established leadership,” says a leader, who has been closely working with the Congress president. “The Punjab model is not only about the money. It is also about reliance on the established leadership. Rahul has realised that leadership in any state cannot be created in a short term. You cannot rock the boat of well-entrenched leaders, especially just months before the polls, and hope to win. At most, the young leaders can supplement the efforts of the deeper rooted ones.”
In Orissa too, the Congress changed the state party chief and brought back an old-timer, the 76-year-old Niranjan Patnaik, giving him just about one year to rebuild the party before the assembly and Lok Sabha polls. He replaced 54-year-old Prasad Harichandan, who is believed to have had Rahul’s backing. With the Congress sliding to number three position in the state, after the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP, in the past few years and losing even its traditional voteshare, the central leadership finally agreed to replace Harichandan.
Other Congress leaders insist that appointments like that of Kamal Nath and Patnaik are in keeping with Rahul’s statement at the plenary session, where he acknowledged the party requires the experience of the seniors. “Patnaik had launched an impressive campaign against the BJD government and enjoys the support of grassroot workers and the state leadership alike,” concedes a party general secretary. “Kamal Nath has spent the longest time in the Lok Sabha as a nine-time MP from Chhindwara. He is a people’s person, with good relations across the political and corporate spectrum, and the ability to take people along. In the current scenario, the party needs the experience of people like Patnaik, Kamal Nath and Gehlot.”
Though Gehlot was recently promoted as general secretary in-charge of the organisation, replacing veteran leader Janardhan Dwivedi, it has not ruled him out of reckoning for the post of Rajasthan CM. “It is not that Pilot is not doing good work. He has been working really hard for the past four years,” says the general secretary. “It is about caste equations. Being a Gujjar, Pilot has limited appeal in the state. The Jats and Rajputs will not go with Gujjars. As a community, the Gujjars are seen to be aggressive, and the Rajasthan contest boils down to Gujjars versus others. In such a scenario, Gehlot may have a wider appeal.” Clearly, the Congress knows these elections are the best chance it has to bounce back and wishes to leave nothing to chance. That’s why the return of regional strongmen.