The top leadership’s diffidence sends despondent signals down the line

In the futuristic planning processes currently unfolding in the Congress, politics does not seem to concern the now and the present.

Barring some concessions to the election season, such as the alliance in the process of being stitched up with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, the top leadership’s diffidence has sent despondent signals down the line in the run up to the polls, where the principal opposition party has mounted an all-cylinders-blazing campaign.

Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s sincerity in effecting “radical, long-term” structural changes is matched only by the stoicism with which the old guard is maintaining status quo.

In a meeting with representatives of the SC/ST/OBC communities on December 13, Rahul had declared: “Congress cannot be functioning in the same manner. Processes need to be blown apart and we need to transform the way the Congress has been functioning. I know people dislike me for it but I don’t care.”

Contrast this claim with the most critical structure in an election year i.e. the screening committee for candidate selection, which has shown no signs of restructuring.

The screening committee of the Congress still includes the AICC general secretary in charge of a particular state, an observer from the AICC, the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) and leader of the Congress Legislature Party.

No broad directions

And while suggestions to the effect of fielding 50 per cent of the Lok Sabha candidates below the age of 35 years had been floated at an AICC meeting on January 17, the screening committees have so far received no broad directions for candidate selection.

Team Rahul Gandhi wants to ‘democratise’ the candidate selection and the screening committees will soon get ‘guidelines’ on the process.

Sources in the Rahul camp claim the age-old system of leaders of various camps recommending names for party tickets will be stopped.

But the reality is that, as opposed to Rahul pitching for younger candidates, the party fielded octogenarian Motilal Vohra and septuagenarians Murli Deora and Viplove Thakur for the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections.

“We do not expect many seats. We would be happy if at least 10 per cent seats were given to Congress workers who are less than 40,” said a Youth Congress functionary.

At the same time, the urgency and hunger for victory are replaced by various experiments to overhaul the organisation.

While the BJP has closed ranks and announced “winnability” as the only criterion for candidate selection in every seat, Rahul has announced that in at least 15 Lok Sabha seats across the country, candidates will be decided through a referendum.

No urgency

“We seem to be fighting for a future election, perhaps in 2019. There is no urgency in the campaign or even a desire to win.

“We are conducting an NGO-style social justice exercise,” said a senior minister.

In States like Uttar Pradesh, where the party gained 22 seats in 2009, a number of Youth Congress functionaries are eyeing tickets for 2014.

But party veterans are against any experiment. “Already, we are on the back foot. This is not the time for experimentation. The party should put up sitting MPs to minimise the damage,” a PCC office bearer suggested.

There is little appreciation or patience among a number of elected MPs for the sincere effort taken in the preparation of manifestos, the wide-ranging consultations with women’s groups, minority fronts, SC/ST/OBC representatives et al that Rahul has conducted over the past few months.

Forming alliances

They feel that the same intensity should have been directed towards stitching up alliances and exposing the Opposition’s vulnerabilities.

“Elections are about harnessing your strengths and capitalising on the Opposition’s weaknesses,” said a leader associated with the Congress’s campaign and war-room strategy.

“Our strength is our wide appeal and secular credentials.

An alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would have helped us not just in Uttar Pradesh but in a number of States.

“Sadly, the focus is not on winning the elections but projecting yourself as a revolutionary within the system.

“The top leader cannot be a visionary outside the system when you have been running a government for 10 years.”

Confusing signals

For those running to win, these signals are confusing if not downright demoralising.

Rahul may have pitched himself as a revolutionary and the Grand Old Party as an agent of change but the subliminal signal that the political agents on the ground read is that the Congress has retired hurt from this election.

The BJP is right about that.

(This article was published on January 27, 2014)
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