When asked what was the one thing that he would want to change in the party, a young Congress leader, who is close to party vice president Rahul Gandhi, said he wanted decisions to be taken fast. He was voicing his frustration with the grand old party, which seems to take forever to effect any change.
The party's good performance in the Bihar assembly elections, however, has yet again given rise to an anticipation of some definitive changes in the party. For the first time after the humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, there is renewed hope of the much-talked-about revival plan being rolled out. The party seemed stuck in a rut in the past one and a half years.
Soon after the Lok Sabha elections, senior leader A.K. Antony was entrusted with the task of preparing a postmortem report on the defeat in the polls. This has become somewhat of a ritual, with Antony preparing a report after every major poll debacle. His report, while outlining the reasons for the defeat and suggesting some remedies, did the primary job of insulating the leadership from any blame. This was crucial at a time when Rahul and his inner circle faced criticism for the defeat and some leaders openly spoke about the need for Congress president Sonia Gandhi staying on at the post.
In the line of fire, Rahul undertook an elaborate exercise of holding discussions with party leaders to figure out the reasons behind the defeat. He met some 300 leaders from all over the country and sought suggestions on what could be done to re-energise the party. The discussions threw up a range of issues. An action plan was readied and discussed by the Congress Working Committee.
In the beginning of the year, Sonia sent letters to party general secretaries and state chiefs, telling them that she was in approval of Rahul’s action plan for revival. But it is yet to be rolled out. In fact, it appeared to have been dropped down in the list of priorities, as a few months ago the CWC decided to extend Sonia's term as party chief by a year. A revamp of the All India Congress Committee and the state units is learnt to have been put on hold. The organisational elections have been postponed till 2016 and the party has not made any headway in its membership drive.
This development, coming as it did at a time when an active and involved avatar of Rahul had taken centrestage, gave rise to confusion on the leadership issue and the future of the revival plan. Doubts were expressed about any large-scale change happening in the organisation in the near future.
With the Congress giving the credit of the Bihar victory to Rahul, saying he was the architect of the Grand Alliance, there is a renewed clamour for him to take charge as party president. “It is a desire of the Congress workers that Rahulji should become Congress president,” said C.P. Joshi, AICC general secretary.
Congress leaders dismiss talk about Rahul being hesitant to take up the leadership role. At the moment, they say, the Sonia-Rahul duo is working fine for the party, and the timing of Rahul taking over will be decided by him and Sonia. But, there is also a theory that Rahul is not being allowed to get on with his plans because of the resistance from the old guard. Rahul is said to have been upset that his revival plans were seen as an effort to rid the party of the old generation leaders. “It is about the party and not about individuals. The two main things that Rahul Gandhi wants to bring into the party are transparency and accountability,” said a leader who is close to Rahul.
The action plan suggests an organisational revamp and giving a fair chance to those who are loyal to the party ideology, thereby ending the nomination culture. It also recommends elections at all levels. The expectation is that new state chiefs of the party would be appointed soon and young leaders would find place in the AICC. “The impression that he will make his own team and discard old people is wrong,” AICC general secretary Shakeel Ahmad. “He is not the leader of a group but that of the whole party. And, the party is a blend of young and experienced.”
According to Jaiveer Shergill, a Congress leader in Punjab, the recovery from the 2014 debacle had to take place at two levels—to consolidate and motivate the cadre and to take the message to the public. He said it had already started. The young leaders, however, are getting restless at the slow pace of change. Even the changes that Rahul effected in the state units have not been without resistance from the senior leaders. When Haryana’s young PCC chief, Ashok Tanwar, spoke at a rally in Delhi protesting the Union government’s proposed changes in the land bill, he was booed throughout by supporters of former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. It was worse for Partap Singh Bajwa. Rahul had appointed him president of the party in Punjab, but senior leader Amarinder Singh flexed his muscles and threatened to leave if he was not made party chief.
Rahul’s leadership abilities have been tested by rebellions in states like Assam, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. There has been criticism on his handling of the situation in Assam. It is said that the frustration with the attitude of the national leadership made senior leader G.K. Vasan split the party in Tamil Nadu.
There are, however, some bright spots for the Congress, and they lie in the Narendra Modi government making political blunders. There is a sense of satisfaction in the party succeeding in putting the BJP on the back foot on the land acquisition bill. Then the win in Bihar for the Grand Alliance has boosted the sentiments in the party. However, defeats in the assembly elections in the next two years will take that sheen away.
It will be a huge challenge to revive the party in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal even as the number of states ruled by the Congress has been reducing with every round of assembly elections. The party is in power in only nine states—Karnataka and Kerala in south, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in north and the northeastern states of Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The next round of assembly elections is unlikely to bring any gain.
The party also faces the danger of being outsmarted by newbies like the Aam Aadmi Party, which relegated it to the periphery in Delhi and threatens to rob it of a victory in Punjab in 2017. “The AAP may not have much in terms of an organisation in Punjab. But, it represents a revolution. For the Congress, it will have to rely on the charisma of one leader. So the choice for the voter will be between a revolutionary idea and the charisma of a leader,” said a Punjab Congress leader.
The Congress has to work out its social support base from scratch. As mentioned in the Antony report and the meetings called by Rahul, it is felt that the party has alienated the Hindu community by what is perceived as “appeasement of the minorities”. The party has to correct this perception. And Rahul, through the issues that he has taken up recently, has made clear his 'pro-poor, pro-farmer' tilt.
The plan, at the moment, is that Rahul will continue with his travels across the country and focus on specific issues. “We expect that in the near future, he will come out with an action plan,” said Tanwar. “And, he is already in action mode. He has been going on padyatras. He has been taking up issues of farmers, youth and weaker sections and issues such as land bill.”
While the Congress is playing the role of an active opposition by constantly attacking the Modi government, it will have to do a lot more to pose itself as an alternative. Party leaders are already talking about Mission 2019. Indeed, the party needs to pull up its socks because at stake is its political relevance after 2019.
THE WAY AHEAD
* Congress is comfortable with the Sonia-Rahul arrangement; but young leaders want things to move faster in the party
* With the party giving the credit of the Bihar victory to Rahul, there is a renewed clamour for him to take charge as party president
* The party might go for an organisational revamp, giving a fair chance to those who are loyal to the ideology
* New state chiefs are expected to be appointed soon and young leaders would find place in the AICC
* The party has to find ways to tackle the danger of being outsmarted by the likes of the Aam Aadmi Party in the assembly elections
* It needs to work out its social support base from scratch
* Correcting the perception that the party appeases the minorities is important in winning back Hindu votes
* Rahul is likely to continue with his travels across the country and focus on issues of farmers, youth and weaker sections
Interview/ Digvijaya Singh, Congress general secretary
Rahul is not hesitant at all
What changes have taken place in the Congress after the Lok Sabha election debacle?
Immediately after the Lok Sabha election, the A.K. Antony committee was set up to look into the causes of defeat and suggest what can be done to deal with those issues. Rahul Gandhi met around 300 leaders from different states, on the basis of which a paper was prepared and it was circulated to state presidents and general secretaries. On the basis of this paper, a plan was put up before the Congress president on February 28, 2015. After that, the Congress Working Committee has to prepare a road map to be approved by the AICC. About the changes in the functioning of the party, Rahul Gandhi is more accessible now. He is meeting more people. He is also more accessible to the media. He is participating more.
Has any action plan been drawn based on Rahul Gandhi’s meetings with leaders?
Some of the issues that came up at the meetings were discussed in the CWC. Rahul Gandhi is concerned about opening up the party. He wants to open up the election process and make it more democratic. He feels it is too closed a party. He wants changes in the membership drive. He wants to make the Congress party more accessible to people. He also wants selection of candidates for assembly and Parliamentary elections to take place in a more transparent manner.
Rahul Gandhi seems hesitant to take charge as Congress president.
He is not hesitant at all. A decision will be taken at the right time.
Is the party making efforts to reach out to its traditional constituencies such as dalits and tribals?
This is nothing new for the Congress party. It has always stood for the rights of the poor and the underprivileged. It has always been concerned about the socioeconomic development of the SC/ST, minorities, farmers, labourers.
Don’t you feel that losses in the upcoming assembly elections will raise questions about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership abilities?
Under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, we won the elections in 2004 and 2009—both Parliamentary and assembly. But that is overlooked. All right, he was not vice president, but he was general secretary.
It is being said that senior leaders in the party are apprehensive about Rahul Gandhi taking charge.
It is not correct. There is no senior person who is worried. It is the law of nature that when a young leader takes over, he brings with him his team of young people. But I am sure that there will be a mix of young and old people.