In little less than a month, five states go to polls and in a little more than seven months, the country will vote in the General Election. The battlelines are drawn and the two principal parties of the country — the Congress and the BJP — are readying for the showdown. Barbs are being exchanged on a daily basis, verbal blows traded between Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, both in the real and the virtual world.
However, in this see-saw match, the balance seems to have tilted to one side. It has not been a good fortnight for India’s oldest party. Pitted directly against Modi’s high-octane, no-holds-barred election rallies, from Kanpur to Patna, where he speaks with the assurance of a man comfortable with the power he “will enjoy”, the Congress presents a stark picture of a party stumbling in a dark alley, unsure of how to pick the gauntlet.
From Modi’s taunt of Rahul Gandhi as the “shehzada”, to the Gandhi scion harping on the legacy of his family, bringing in a misplaced reference to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) scouting for recruits among the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots, Rahul appears to be on the backfoot. At the same time, another subtext has been developing within the Congress itself. As one party veteran puts it, it is not Rahul versus Modi alone, but also Rahul versus the Congress — at least for the old guard.
Both the BJP and the Congress made a generational shift last year. While the Congress revelled in the political and metaphorical bloodbath, preceding the ascension of Narendra Modi, little did it realise that its own transition would be so confusing and painful. While the BJP has rallied behind the one man it realises is their best shot at glory, the cobwebs in the Congress grow thicker.
So why is the party in such chronic disarray? A young minister of state in the UPA-2 offers a somewhat filmi but spot-on parallel. “Have you seen Agneepath?” the minister asks, in an obvious reference to the 1990 Amitabh Bachchan cult classic (not the Hrithik Roshan one, even politicians have taste!). “In one scene, Amitabh tells a character that when a powerful storm is blowing, one should hold on to his pugdi or else the wind would blow it away.” Seeing the quizzical look on our faces, he explains, “Currently, the situation in the Congress is the same. Everyone feels it is best to think for himself and protect his own feet. Nobody can really tell you what the collective strategy of the party is. The only strategy is to go solo and stay alive in 2014.”
The minister is not the only one who feels that way. The confusion has started to permeate to the lower rungs of the party. Senior party members are unsure of their status in the current dispensation. What’s worse, nobody really knows what the dispensation really wants. It is this lack of clarity that has caused senior leaders in the party to avoid leading the political discourse and provide an effective rebuttal to the BJP.
For all practical purposes, Rahul Gandhi is the man steering the Congress’ ship. In this, he is being guided and advised by his ‘team’. Some advisers close to Congress President Sonia Gandhi have also been included in this team. Interestingly, this has meant chaos and one-upmanship at all levels.
According to Congress watchers, this sense of drift started with Sonia Gandhi’s decision to limit her role in the daily push-and-pull of the party. Her decision was prompted in part by her ailment and in part, by her desire to see her son taking centrestage in the party’s affairs. When she was at the helm of affairs, neither Sonia nor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a hack’s delight. She was often silent on many issues, sometimes exasperatingly so. But, at least one thing was clear: everyone knew who was boss. Moreover, with a seasoned team by her side — Pranab Mukerjee, P Chidambaram, AK Antony, Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi — there was no dearth of stalwarts, who could articulate the party’s position on any issue. Though at times, even this team failed to rise to the occasion. The 2G spectrum allocation case, the mishandling of the Anna Hazare and Lokpal Bill movements, the coal block allocation issue, the Parliament deadlock, etc, are some of the issues that perhaps necessitated this sense of an urgent need of a fresh look in the party.
However, not in a single instance — or for that matter, not a single party member — could fault Sonia for a lack of political astuteness. It was this acumen that helped the Congress hold its own on many an occasion. Her speech on the Food Security Bill, forcing home the inevitability of such an Act, drew loud applause from the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha. But, even then, one thing was getting increasingly clear: due to ill health or by choice, she was not as dominant a player as she was during UPA-1. The ‘Team RG’ cries could not have been timed better — or so it seemed. Not many in the party question the timing so much, it is the direction, or the lack of it that worries them. Even after his anointment as Congress Vice-President at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir in January 2013, Rahul was conspicuously absent from the party’s important meetings; this vacuum was to prove costly later. The “shoot-and-scoot” style of politics of the Gandhi scion has left almost the entire leadership flummoxed.
The Representation of the People (Second Amendment) Bill or the ‘nonsense’ Ordinance is a classic case in point. Much has already been written on the Ordinance and how it found its way to the “dustbin” for it to be documented here. But, purely for academic interest, the ‘strategy’ might have earned praise in some quarters as a ‘political masterstroke’; the incident, however, left even the most die-hard Congress leaders stunned: at least, two senior Union ministers are still reeling under its effect. They call it “the Kalidas moment”, of cutting the very branch one is sitting on.
Once Rahul had aired his opinion of the Ordinance on live television and how it should be “torn up and thrown in the dustbin”, the Cabinet decided to dump it. It was left to Finance Minister P Chidambaram to convey this decision to the media. According to sources, he flatly refused. Party insiders also allude to this episode as an example of Rahul’s politics and his disconnect with reality. You can showcase you are different, but not at the expense of your own party and government, they feel. The challenge for Rahul, therefore, is obvious. He has to combat incumbency, criticise the government in a credible way and present himself as a fresh face of the party, but he will have to think of a more nuanced way to do it.
Party seniors — the old guard as they are now known — also feel that the Congress Vice-President’s remarks about Muzaffarnagar becoming a favourite recruitment ground for the ISI after the September communal clashes also stems from this arrogance. This ‘no-holds barred’ outburst might have been intended to show what he really thinks, but look at what it has achieved: more embarrassment for the party, that too at a time when the BJP’s prime minister hopeful seems to be making all the right noises in his rallies. “When Modi finishes his rally, his cadre is buoyed,” says a Congress leader on condition of anonymity. “When our leader finishes, we scurry for cover.”
However, young ministers, considered close to Rahul, downplay the divide. According to Milind Deora, Minister of State, IT & Communication, like every organisation undergoing a transitional phase, the Congress too is going through a similar transition. “The important thing is that we should be mindful of the wisdom of elders and not get carried away by the recklessness of youth,” he says. “This is the real challenge before any party going through a transitional phase. I think we are doing well in this regard. We are constantly consulting our elders and they are going out of their way to take us along. It is a healthy and mutual respect. It will happen automatically.” This is as close to a reconciliatory tone as it gets.
“You have to understand that this is not happening for the first time in the Congress,” says another leader close to Rahul. “When Rajiv Gandhi took over, Indira Gandhi’s advisers were also phased out. The likes of Rajeev Dhawan, Makhanlal Fotedar and Yashpal Kapoor were replaced by Arun Singh, Oscar Fernandes and Ahmed Patel. So this transition keeps on happening all the time. It is not that they are kicked out of the organisation, only the position changes.”
Unfortunately though, not many are buying this argument. It is telling of the befuddlement in the party ranks that a majority of them feel the party is on an auto-pilot mode and that most senior leaders are keeping their own counsel. Old structures are being dismantled, but no new ones have come up. No one knows who the Team Rahul Gandhi is; who make up his ‘war room’; who designs the strategies; who are they reaching out to within the party, the allies or the media; who even writes his speeches, does anyone even write them?
But, most of all, what is his new vision? Is it something the party can rally around? A senior Cabinet minister says he felt hopeful when Rahul had said that his government would be “a government of the young”. It’s a theme he could have built on, instead it has gone nowhere.
Nowhere is this lack of a coherent strategy felt more than in countering Narendra Modi’s campaign. It is perhaps nothing short of astounding that in such an important election, the Congress still hasn’t hit upon a plan to expose the BJP strongman and cut him to size, a given in any election anywhere in the world. Even more astonishing, no one knows if it has decided to even take him on! Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh has been talking of a list in his possession of the 100-odd lies of Modi for the longest time, but the party has refused to either own it or will not put it out. Singh has been letting it out through personal tweets, but without the party putting its weight behind such claims, it just becomes a personal rant.
Talk to veteran Congress leaders, and they are quick to point out the track record of the younger lot. “I understand there is a generational change, but you cannot rubbish everything that has been in the party’s collective wisdom and say that only your team can bring in good results,” says a senior party member. “Look at the results of the only two states where Rahul and his team have worked for more than seven years.”
The old guard has been insistent that issues like ticket distribution in a large party like the Congress cannot be done — in an obvious dig at the Congress’ white-collared war room — on the basis of power point presentations and excel sheets alone. They say that politics is the art of mapping the people’s aspirations and technology can only do so much, but after a certain level, a political nose is what you need. Local leaders in the states, who have been working for the Congress for more than 20 years, are denied tickets because they are considered too old. This has dented the party’s reach in a country where most leaders are considered to be in their prime after 60. Pensioning them off will only hurt the Congress’ chances like it did in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls.
Ironically, this is what Rahul has been aiming to do, when he talks of infusing new blood and introducing merit into a hitherto feudal system of handing out tickets. But like other areas, here too, he has to do it gradually, working alongside on newer strategies of how to turn it into a winning formula. Without that, he only stands to antagonise party loyalists. No one backs a losing horse.
Other decisions have also not found favour with many in the party, be it the announcement of Capt Amarinder Singh as the CM candidate of Punjab in a rally at Tarn Taran in 2012 or letting Vijay Bahuguna become chief minister of Uttarakhand, when the party’s choice was Harish Rawat. Despite the spectacle that followed, Rahul did not even intervene, let alone reconsider his decision.
Even after becoming Vice-President of the Congress in January 2013, in the first organisational reshuffle under his watch in June, he made two important changes. Madhusudan Mistry was made in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and Ajay Maken replaced Janardhan Dwivedi as the media head. Six months later, both decisions have started to hurt the party. While Mistry, allege party workers, does not understand the pulse of a state as vast as Uttar Pradesh, Maken was a compromise choice, inspired in part by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Maken was promised the post of the Delhi Congress president, but Dikshit did not want another pretender to her throne, and she prevailed upon Congress President Sonia Gandhi to rethink the decision. Maken was made a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and entrusted with managing the media.
Maken got a taste of what was to come in the first meeting he convened. Of the 36 senior Congress leaders invited for the meeting, only 12 showed up. Others were conspicuously absent from the meeting as they felt Maken was “too junior” to order them around. Maken has since worked on his strategy and has, to a degree, been able to chart a course on how Rahul should handle the media.
Mistry, on the other hand, is perceived as too elitist for Uttar Pradesh. Party workers complain that he not only communicates to them only through the district chiefs, but also that he talks to them in English! Nothing could be farther removed from reality in a Hindi-speaking state, where most party workers are not too comfortable with the language.
This complete lack of communication within the party is even more worrying than all the charges of corruption levelled against it. Worryingly, it has not even been able to communicate the UPA-2’s achievements to the voters. Instead, what it is perceived to be doing most of the time is responding to the jibes made by the Modi brigade. Despite repeated attempts to reach out on social media like Twitter and Facebook, the Congress is still far behind the BJP in terms of communication. The frustration can be felt among the partymen — both senior and junior. Whatever it is that Rahul is doing, he seems to be doing it alone, flying solo.
Even the die-hard Congress supporter admits that Modi’s communication strategy is much more impressive than the Congress’. The BJP leader has put together a professional team to spearhead his election campaign. Mumbai-based Rajesh Jain, founder of the India World web portal, and Bengaluru-based BG Mahesh, founder of Greynium Information Technologies (which owns One India, India’s first regional news website), have hired more than 100 techies to run Modi’s campaign across social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Modi was among the few politicians to have switched to the digital media to reach out to voters early in the game. This headstart has not only proved to be beneficial in showcasing Gujarat’s achievements to the world, it has also dwarfed the Congress in promoting the prime ministerial candidate. In 2009, public relations firm apco was hired to promote ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, Modi’s development showpiece. A few days later, a newspaper reported that “APCO’s brief was not restricted to building Gujarat as an investment destination alone… will also gauge the tonality of coverage and identify journalists who can further be media ambassadors for Gujarat”.
Compare this with the shoddy infrastructure of the Congress. Maken is still struggling to fit into his predecessor Dwivedi’s shoes. Ego clashes between members have ensured that spokespersons and party panelists are not finding time to defend the party on crucial issues. Maken’s residence at 10 Pandit Pant Marg in the capital has been converted into the “media war room” where several senior journalists have been roped in to chalk out a strategy, yet the issue of the spokesperson is a sore point. “The official spokespersons are unable to defend their party and the government,” says a senior party leader. “Most evenings on news channels, it is Meem Afzal versus Arun Jaitley or Sanjay Jha versus Ravishankar Prasad. Other than being butchered they can’t do much and if it is happening day after day, then it’s sending a very wrong signal to the party.”
Deepender Singh Hooda, young Congress MP and son of Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, heads the social media cell of the party. An integral part of Team RG, it is Deepender’s responsibility to ensure that every tweet by the Modi camp gets an appropriate response. The “feku” barb was coined by this team as a response to “pappu” by Modi’s social media team. The party has high hopes from social media and wants to use it to the hilt in order to reach out to the youth. Unfortunately, here too, the impact is blunted because of the old guard-new guard divide.
“The younger lot wanted all leaders to be active on social media,” says a young member. “The idea was floated around a year-and-a-half ago and met with a lot of enthusiasm, but like everything in the Congress, nothing much happened.” This is pretty much the mood in the party.
“Barring Digvijaya Singh, Shashi Tharoor and a few others, the old timers consider Twitter and Facebook a waste,” says another young leader. Hooda, though, tries to downplay the issue. “It is a media speculation that Rahul does not get along with the seniors,” he says. “He knows their importance and they also advise him.”
However, Milind concedes that a lot needs to be done in terms of reaching out to people. “I feel we need to fine-tune our strategy,” he says. “As the government of the past nine-and-a-half years, we have much to be proud of. We just need to articulate it better so that our achievements are clear to every section of the society.”
Apart from media strategy, any talk of Rahul Gandhi inevitably veers towards Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Numerically, the importance of these states cannot be overemphasised. Yet the second you mention the Congress’ plans for Uttar Pradesh, you draw a blank. “Mood swing is what passes of as policy in the Congress these days,” says another senior leader bitterly. “One day you have Digvijaya who is in a permanent feud with Rita Bahuguna Joshi, another day you have 10 committees comprising MPs and other leaders, and then one fine morning, you scrap them. Instead of investing in Digvijaya or Madhusudan Mistry, why isn’t Rahul investing in the party?”
Sample this. On 9 October, Rahul was supposed to speak at a rally at Rampur. Embarrassingly, it failed to draw a crowd. To top it, at another rally at Aligarh, a fight broke out between Congress MLC Vivek Bansal and former MP Birendra Singh over who would address the audience before Rahul. Samajwadi Party minister Azam Khan taunted that more people come to see him than Rahul. The situation was so bad that the Congress cancelled the next two rallies, citing the festival of Karva Chauth as the reason.
The problem with Rahul is that steadily but surely he is acquiring the image of a “shoot and scoot” politician. From Bhatta Parsaul in Greater Noida in 2011, when J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted that Rahul should garland Mayawati’s statue for this opportunity, to the recent riots in Muzaffarnagar, the young Gandhi has had several chances to showcase his political acumen, but each time he has displayed an uncanny ability of landing the party in further soup. With every speech he makes, he raises another controversy, forcing the party to firefight afterwards.
These examples can be brushed aside as the pangs of “a transitional phase”, but even the ardent Rahul admirer would admit that there is precious little the young leader can be credited for in the past nine years the UPA has been in power. After four elections under his stewardship — two each in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — the Congress has only been decimated in these states.
According to sources, in Bihar, it was Rahul who had insisted that that there should be no alliances with either the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) or the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). Interestingly, both RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav and LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan were desperate for an alliance, but Rahul was adamant to build the Congress in the state at the cost of political pragmatism. Mehboob Ali Qaiser, a politician with a clean image, was elevated as Bihar Congress Chief before the 2010 Assembly polls, contrary to the mood in the party. As chief of Bihar Congress, Qaiser was also given a say in ticket distribution. The Congress could win only four of the 243 seats in the Bihar assembly; Qaiser too lost his seat. In typical Congress fashion, everybody took moral responsibility and resigned. Three years after that loss, the Congress still lacks a coherent strategy for 2014. With 40 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress’ chances are very slim, feel its leaders.
Similarly, in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh polls, Rahul started the Congress campaign well in advance from Phoolpur, the constituency of his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. It finally looked as if the Congress had got its act together for the state. Then came ticket distribution. Insiders blame the adventurism shown in giving tickets to leaders from other parties at the expense of well-entrenched Congress loyalists for the debacle.
Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, a 30-year-old young Congress leader, was seeking a ticket from his hometown Patiyali. Abdul had been president of the Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union and was a coordinator of the Indian Youth Congress, conducting several workshops across the country. But he was bypassed during ticket distribution. The ticket was eventually given to Vasu Yadav, 34, daughter of former SP member-turned-BSP leader-turned- Congressman Devendra Singh. In the end, the Congress finished at number four, leaving a disgruntled young Congress worker.
The scenario is no different in the pollbound central Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh for instance, party members say that Rahul went against the advice of mentor Digvijaya to declare Jyotiraditya Scindia the CM candidate. Although the decision seems to have been taken with a desire to introduce change by introducing youth, an astute assessment would have made sense to declare the chief ministerial candidate well in advance in order to give him more time to effectively build a campaign. In a state where the Congress is fighting factionalism and clawing to get back to power, that perhaps would have been the pragmatic thing to do.
If you thought Madhya Pradesh, with 230 seats and four-five factions, was bad, then Chhattisgarh, with just 90 seats is even worse. Barely seven months ago, there were almost nine groups in the party, and it is this disunity that benefits the BJP more than anything else. “It is not the BJP which wins, but the Congress that loses” is a common strain in Chhattisgarh. The extent of the factionalism can be gauged from the fact that even after one of the bloodiest Naxal attacks on any political rally on 25 May, which almost wiped out the entire top leadership of the Congress, it is hardly an election issue. Ajit Jogi continues to be the most powerful and divisive Congress leader in the state. Although Rahul has managed to rein him in by giving tickets to both his wife and son, the question is whether this will end factionalism in the state.
As if challenges from opponents and partymen were not enough, Rahul also faces an uphill task with allies like the NCP. Things apparently soured between the two allies, when a video of Rahul addressing Congress members in a closed-door meeting in Pune was leaked to the media. Rahul was heard saying that “if we win enough seats, we won’t need NCP kind of allies”.
This video caused considerable embarrassment to the party. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar said that Rahul is yet to prove his mettle in administration. Rubbing salt on the wounds, Pawar added that he would have preferred if Rahul “had joined the Manmohan Singh government, it would have been beneficial for him”. Shockingly, the video was obviously leaked by a Congress member.
Be it the ghost of the coal scam, or any other scam for that matter, there seems to be no thought given to a clear line of defence or even a semblance of resistance. A senior Congress leader, on condition of anonymity, recalls how he was approached by the PMO to articulate the government’s position on several occasions, but he had to turn them down, as he did not have the mandate to be the central voice of the party. How could he speak out of turn, he says, it would only end up ruffling his party colleagues. Another point riling the veterans is the condescending manner in which Team Rahul treats them.
With the 2014 General Election approaching — and Assembly polls even nearer — Team Rahul is faced with the rather daunting task of rallying support for a party riddled with challenges on several fronts. Rahul clearly has to chart out a coherent strategy to surmount these. But the single biggest challenge before him is to instill confidence among his partymen about his abilities as a leader and problem solver.
For that to happen, he will first have to clear the clouds of confusion that hover around the Congress. Will he do that in time? Or will this be a deluge?