Rahul’s primaries face secondary hurdles

The new old faces Ghulam Nabi Azad and P Chidambaram
The new old faces Ghulam Nabi Azad and P Chidambaram. Photo: AFP

As management gurus say, change in an organisation is acceptable and effective when the organisation is at its peak. Not for the Congress. Changes within the party organisation are happening at a time when it finds itself at its weakest. In the past two months of a bruised UPA-2 government, a number of decisions have courted controversy. Many within the Congress feel that these controversies are being created so that certain individuals within the organisation can stay relevant. However, these are only damaging the Congress’ chances in the upcoming election.

The latest controversy is the issue of primaries in the Congress to select candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In the recently concluded AICC session on 17 January in New Delhi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had announced that 15 out of the 545 seats will be thrown open to primaries, after the fashion of the primaries for the US Presidential Elections. The rationale being that such an exercise would strengthen inner-party democracy. The idea was hugely appreciated as a pathbreaking move in the current electoral arena. Since Rahul has joined the Congress organisation, he has been instrumental in bringing institutional changes in the National Students Union of India (NSUI) and the Indian Youth Congress (IYC). He now wants to try something new for the Lok Sabha polls.

The concept of primaries goes like this. Voting for a candidate will first be held in the constituency, following which the winning candidate will be declared the Congress candidate from that constituency. The Electoral College will consist of all members of the Congress and organisations affiliated with it, who come from the particular Lok Sabha constituency. Ordinary citizens can also register themselves for the primary election.

Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was given the responsibility of shortlisting the 15 constituencies where the primaries will be held. The general thinking within the Congress was that this experiment would be limited to the seats that the party lost in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. On 29 January, a list of 14 seats was put up on the party’s website, which included Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, the constituency represented by Meenakshi Natarajan, who is considered a Rahul protégé. Natarajan volunteered to contest the primaries in her constituency. The other seat in Rajasthan is of the late Union Labour Minister Sis Ram Ola.

The surprise came when the list was increased by two seats to 16 by the afternoon of 30 January. Now, it included the constituencies of two Cabinet ministers. Within hours of the names coming out, they were withdrawn and general secretary in-charge of Delhi, Shakeel Ahmed, said, “The decision regarding the primaries on the Delhi parliamentary seats has not been finalised yet.”

The new development sent rumour mills into a tizzy. It was amply clear that an idea, which was supposed to bring in participation and candidness, had turned into an opaque process. Clearly it had not been properly communicated to the MPs; the backtracking was indicative of this. To compound matters, Gurudas Kamat, MP from Northwest Mumbai and currently general secretary in the AICC, offered his seat for the primaries. Ajay Maken, MP from New Delhi, also a general secretary, offered his seat too. Finally, it was decided that all the Delhi MPs would meet with general secretary in-charge Shakeel Ahmed and Ghulam Nabi Azad, in-charge of primaries, to finalise the seats in Delhi. In accordance with an age-old Congress tradition, all seven MPs volunteered to give their seats for primaries. The final decision in this regard is now to be taken by Rahul Gandhi. Interestingly, the criterion for choosing these 15 seats is still not known to anybody.

The other interesting development was the release of the list of senior spokespersons. In the past couple of years, the Congress has come in for sharp criticism over the way it has projected itself in the media and the ability of its spokespersons to convey the party’s view in the media. This was particularly evident on television channels, where often to counter a statement issued by a BJP leader of the stature of Arun Jaitley, the Congress would send Meem Afzal.

The new list of spokespersons has five names, including AICC general secretary Mukul Wasnik, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma.

Impressive though the roster may sound, here too, it is difficult to comprehend the logic behind the selection. Azad does not own a mobile phone, making it virtually impossible for reporters to get in touch with him. He has hardly spoken at AICC briefings in the past couple of years. Wasnik has been a spokesperson during UPA-1 in 2007, but did not even conduct a single official briefing. Anand Sharma has not spoken much since 2009. Not only is it difficult to contact the commerce minister, he has also never been a part of the Group of Ministers on Media. Chidambaram is accessible but is handicapped with his limited proficiency in Hindi. Khurshid, being the foreign minister, is mostly travelling or is busy in his constituency of Farrukhabad in UP. Also, one cannot remember the last time the first three were seen in a television studio defending the Congress or the UPA government. So, the entire purpose behind the exercise remains, at best, unclear.

Also, only two women feature in the list: Shobha Oza of the Mahila Congress and Rita Bahuguna Joshi from UP. Notable misses include former environment minister and spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan and general secretary Ambika Soni. What’s more, other leaders who have been defending the party have also been inexplicably left out, including Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh.

Adding to the inexplicable decisions, Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily has announced that CNG and piped gas prices would be reduced by as much as 15 a kg, a decision that is being seen as a sop given to the people just before the General Election. The explanation given for this drastic cut is price fluctuation. Congress leaders feel this could send a very wrong signal. For five years, when prices were heading north, the government did not intervene and now with elections just round the corner, it has decided to bring fuel prices down. This, many feel, can certainly not be attributed to price fluctuation alone, but will send out the impression that the government was wilfully harassing the general public, when it could have chosen to do otherwise. They fear it could backfire.

The question of who to nominate to the Rajya Sabha has also been hanging fire, and is now threatening to snowball into another full-blown crisis. The party’s nominations have only opened the floodgates for fresh criticism. Sanjay Singh, Digvijaya Singh and Kumari Selja have been nominated. While Digvijaya and Selja are both sitting MPs, Sanjay’s nomination from Assam has already caused quite a flutter in the party’s state wing. Moreover, neither Sanjay nor Selja was involved in the party’s organisational work, so it would be tough for them to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Selja has admitted, “I will strive to take all groups together in Haryana.”

This promises to be a very difficult election for the Congress, which is in danger of not even breaching the 100 mark and getting less than 20 percent of the vote share. To bolster the cadre to ready for the tough fight ahead, the party high command will need to send out clear and precise signals. As it happens, the antithesis is happening now. All the cadre is getting are mixed signals, what with the senior leadership scurrying for safe havens and getting embroiled in unnecessary controversies. With powerful adversaries like Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, the Congress needs to be going full steam on all cylinders, not unwittingly batting for them.

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