View: Rescue act for Congress needs to begin with state units, not by ‘rebranding’ dynasty

Navjot Singh Sidhu, cricketer turned BJP neta turned Congress politician, now appointed Punjab state chief, might have met a rather different fate in the age of Indira Gandhi. The original Mrs G, who lived by the Queen of Hearts’ dictum, ‘off with his head’, was imperiously intolerant of any show of strength by state leaders. India’s Iron Lady could demand unquestioned loyalty because she was her party’s supreme votecatcher.

But in 2021, unlike in 1970, Congress’s central leadership is fatally weakened. Today a relatively late entrant like Sidhu, a TV celebrity best known for his quirky Hinglish and oddball puns, can openly attack a veteran chief minister and get ‘rewarded’ for his defiance. The Punjab tug of war has shown the Congress ‘high command’ as neither ‘high’ nor in ‘command’. As Congress hurtles from crisis to crisis, the ageing over 100-year-old party has begun a dialogue with a 44-year-old political strategist. Enter Prashant Kishor.

His meetings with the Gandhi family have set off speculation. But can PK relaunch a party in an existential crisis? Congress hasn’t held leadership elections to its highest body – the Congress Working Committee – in over two decades. Repeated attempts at party elections have come unstuck. Party president-ship seems reserved for a single family which, unlike Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, can no longer win elections.

It has lost two consecutive general elections badly, its central leadership is unable to reinvent itself in the age of BJP dominance, cadres have evaporated, and state leaders have been systematically undermined. All democracies need an opposition, but without a Congress revival, the opposition in India is unlikely to be re-ignited.

Kishor has shared his expertise with almost the entire political spectrum. He arrived with Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign, has advised Nitish Kumar in Bihar 2015, Amarinder Singh in Punjab 2017, Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh in 2019 and Mamata Banerjee in Bengal 2021.

In most of these campaigns, he was dealing with regional parties, already equipped with cadres and locally-rooted party identities. In Modi’s 2014 campaign, Sangh cadres provided crucial organisational on-ground mobilisation. In Andhra, Jagan Reddy himself put in the hard yards with a padyatra that built public momentum.

Mamata Banerjee, an established mass leader, was already the winner of two hefty mandates by the time she engaged Kishor’s services. Yes, his ‘Duare Sarkar’ and ‘Didi ke Bolo’ programmes cleverly reconnected the didi brand, but before his entry, TMC already had energised ground-level cadres and a charismatic leader.

Rahul Gandhi is not Mamata Banerjee and Congress is not TMC. It is not a party with a single window leader; instead as the Punjab crisis shows there are wheels within wheels at every level of leadership. Neither does Rahul possess Mamata’s charisma and street cred, nor is Congress any longer embedded in local culture.

In UP and Bihar the party has almost ceased to exist. In fact, in 2017 UP polls Kishor failed to deliver for Congress. His campaign theme for Rahul and Akhilesh Yadav, ‘UP ke Ladke’, flopped badly.

A mere re-branding of Congress would be like sticking band-aids on many gushing wounds. There are more than 250 districts where the party does not have proper district committees. In direct fights against BJP, it is easily routed. In 2019 general elections, it won only a handful of the 180-plus direct contests against the saffron party.

Congress’s national spearhead, the family troika of semi-retired Sonia, untested Priyanka who hasn’t contested a single election, and Rahul who has even lost the family pocket borough Amethi, is no match for the Modi-led BJP machine.

However, in contrast to this sharp decline of Congress at the national level, there is another important statistic: In 7 states (Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Telangana, Bengal, and 1 union territory, Puducherry) current chief ministers are all former Congresspersons. If they had not left, the party would have had a big talent pool at the regional level.

It is also in state elections that BJP is now most vulnerable. In Vidhan Sabha elections since 2019, in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Delhi and Bihar (excluding Bengal) the average voter swing away from BJP was -16.2%. Therefore it is in states – not at the central level – where Kishor must work. It is in states where Congress has some potential to revive.

2022 will see several state elections in which Congress is the main contender against BJP. Given that the Modi factor is always weaker in states than at the centre, if Congress state units can be re-invigorated, Congress can save itself from being entirely swept away by BJP and regain some momentum.

Chhattisgarh is a good example of what a rebuilt state unit can achieve. In 2013 the entire Chhattisgarh Congress leadership was wiped out in the Naxal attack in Jhiram Ghati. But just 5 years later, Congress won office under a new leadership.

Which is why Congress needs to move away from a Delhi-centric ‘high command’ model which remains disconnected from the grassroots. Keeping up social media tirades against the Modi government, without offering alternative political strategies or templates of governance, is getting it no visible traction.

The best place to begin a rebranding exercise is not with a fifth-generation and tiring dynasty weighed down by too much historical baggage. Attempting a bottom-up overhaul in which Gandhis become gradually irrelevant and state leaders become the faces of a ‘new’ Congress, should be Kishor’s starting point.

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