Challenges galore as Congress fights for survival

Lack of money and fissures within the opposition are hurting the party

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS-VOTE Southern comfort: Congress supporters in Wayanad, where Rahul Gandhi is the party candidate | AFP

On April 3, when Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge walked into the narrow lanes of Usmanpur in North East Delhi to launch the party’s ‘Ghar Ghar Guarantee’ programme, it was also a trip down memory lane.

If Modi wins this time, too, democracy will be in great danger. Therefore, one or two seats are not important for the Congress now. We have made maximum sacrifices to reduce the BJP’s seats. ―K.C. Venugopal, senior Congress leader
When the Income Tax Department has charged such heavy penalty on the principal opposition party, free and fair elections are not possible because the level playing field has been denied to us. ―Ajay Maken, Congress treasurer

It was in this very area nearly five decades ago that the Congress’s hand symbol was used in an election for the first time. It was for a byelection from the Ghonda assembly seat―wherein Usmanpur lies―to the then Metropolitan Council in 1978. After the Congress split in 1977, and when the Devaraj Urs faction took the ‘cow and calf’ symbol, Indira Gandhi chose the hand.

And if she was looking to make a comeback after her loss in 1977, the Congress finds itself in an even more critical situation now.

Take, for instance, North East Delhi. The constituency of slums and resettlement colonies was once a Congress stronghold. It now votes AAP in the assembly and BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP has once again fielded popular Bhojpuri singer and actor Manoj Tiwari from the seat, which is home to a sizeable population of migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

But with the arrest of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the Congress sniffs a chance to win back the constituency. Hence the decision to launch its ‘Ghar Ghar Guarantee’ programme from the area. As part of the outreach effort, the party is distributing guarantee cards that list the party’s five main poll promises. While Kharge launched the initiative in Usmanpur, Rahul Gandhi did so on the same day in Wayanad, from where he is contesting. This, said a senior Congress leader, was done to balance north and south.

As part of the programme, party workers will go to eight crore households with the guarantee cards. The idea behind the campaign is to mobilise the organisation and enthuse the workers.

The same senior leader also pointed out that, this time, the manifesto was released in fairly good time. In 2019, it was launched just four days before the first phase of elections, which meant the organisation did not get enough time to popularise the promises.

31-Congress-president-Mallikarjun-Kharge Looking for capital gains: Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, with Jairam Ramesh and other party leaders, launches the Ghar Ghar Guarantee programme in Delhi | Rahul R. Pattom

‘Nyay Patra’ was made public on April 5, and, for the first time, the Congress held rallies to release the manifesto. While Kharge, alongside Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, launched the manifesto in Jaipur―where the party failed to retain power in the assembly elections in December―Rahul, with Chief Minister Revanth Reddy and senior leader K.C. Venugopal, released it in Hyderabad; the Congress won Telangana in the last round of elections. “The aim behind the flurry of activity over the manifesto release and the Ghar Ghar Guarantee programme is to signal that our morale is not down,” said the senior leader. “It is meant to deny the narrative that the Congress is on the defensive in the backdrop of the action taken by the Income Tax Department and the constant harping by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the BJP will cross 370 seats and the NDA will win more than 400.”

Over the past one-and-a-half years, the Congress has attempted to remedy what were seen as its problem areas. The election of Kharge as party president, for instance, was seen as an effort to blunt the BJP’s ‘dynasty party’ attack. Rahul undertook two cross-country yatras to reestablish the party’s connect with the people and also redeem his own image as a leader. The Congress has made compromises and sacrificed seats to stitch alliances. And it has also tried to think of game-changing ideas to counter the BJP’s hindutva-plus campaign; it hopes its emphasis on the caste census will help.

The party’s messaging focuses on the perceived economic and social distress people are in. The basic narrative is about only a few people becoming more prosperous while the majority deals with issues such as unemployment, price rise and social inequity. The party had first used the term guarantee in its successful campaign in Karnataka, and then in Telangana.

The Congress hopes that people will see the past ten years as a time when their lives became worse and their aspirations took a hit. Said P. Chidambaram, chairman of the manifesto committee: “Reversing the damage spans all sectors of the polity and the economy. It spans the economy, particularly on growth, jobs and inflation.”

32-Sonia-Gandhi-and-Priyanka-Gandhi-Vadra Uneasy alliance: Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a public meeting in Jaipur | PTI

Countering the BJP’s pitch on welfarism―which hinges on Modi’s perceived track record as a leader who delivers―will not be easy. The Congress’s guarantees are pitted against ‘Modi ki guarantee’. The BJP is banking on its success in delivery of welfare measures such as free food grain, cheap gas cylinders, housing subsidies and direct benefit transfers.

In what is reflective of the compromises the Congress has made to build alliances, and what also indicates its diminished presence on the national map, the party is likely to contest only around 300 seats. This is the lowest in Lok Sabha elections since the first one.

“There are complaints from our workers that the real share, which the party deserved, has not been given to us,” said Venugopal. “But our goal is bigger. If Modi wins this time, too, democracy will be in great danger. Therefore, one or two seats are not important for the Congress now. We have made maximum sacrifices to reduce the BJP’s seats.”

The party is looking to maximise its seats in the south, where it had won 28 in 2019. The aim is to at least double it. The bigger challenge would be to win in the north, where it has to contend with hindutva and Modi’s popularity. There is already a worry that the decision to stay away from the Ram Mandir inauguration could backfire.

33-Mamata-Banerjee Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Kolkata | Salil Bera

In 2019, the Congress and the BJP were in direct contest in 186 seats. Of this, the Congress won only 15. The BJP had nearly swept the Hindi heartland. Congress leaders, however, say that as the BJP had won the most it could in 2019, their party’s tally can only go up. Also, the party hopes the promise of a caste census would help it to counter not only the hindutva narrative, but also Modi’s influence among the OBCs, especially the less empowered section. But with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who carried out a caste census in Bihar, having become an ally of Modi, and the issue not working in the recent round of assembly elections, there are doubts about its efficacy.

Then there is the big challenge of ensuring that the alliances prove to be effective on ground and transfer of votes takes place. In states like Maharashtra and Kerala, the alliances―Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi and the United Democratic Front―are now known brands. The campaign is also for the alliance and not so much in the name of the party. However, this is not the case in most other states.

Also, the opposition alliance is not quite what was originally envisaged. The exit of Nitish was a huge embarrassment for the alliance as it was he who had declared he would bring the opposition together. And parties like the Trinamool Congress and the People’s Democratic Party fighting on their own while being part of the alliance―setting up triangular fights in their states―goes against the very idea of the INDIA bloc. There is also the curious case of the Congress and the AAP allying in Delhi but fighting each other in Punjab. The left is an important part of the national alliance, but in Kerala its leaders have been attacking the Congress over the candidature of Rahul and Venugopal.

Congress leaders, however, insist that the alliance was always bound to have state-specific scenarios. “In the beginning itself we had said some parties will have a pre-election alliance and some will have a post-poll alliance like in 2004,” said Venugopal. “Everybody knows that the Congress and the CPI(M) cannot go together in Kerala. The AAP and the Congress cannot go together in Punjab. In West Bengal, Mamata ji cannot go with the CPI(M). We tried to form an alliance with Mamata ji, but she did not agree to give even minimum seats to the Congress. Only one thing happened in between, which is Nitish Kumar’s exit. But we are getting reports from Bihar that his move to the NDA will not have much impact on election prospects. We are expecting a big number of seats from Bihar.”

Also, unlike in 2019, the opposition parties are making an effort to be seen as a united front on the national scene. This, they hope, will act as a force multiplier.

Moreover, the arrest of Kejriwal and Hemant Soren, while affecting their parties’ campaigns, could also help the parties and the alliance by tapping into public sympathy. It is hoped that Soren’s arrest could bring in tribal voters in Jharkhand and outside, and Kejriwal’s arrest would find resonance with the middle class and the impoverished, who have largely supported him.

However, a big cause for concern for the Congress is the lack of funds after the IT department froze its accounts. According to a senior Congress leader, by now, the party ought to have put up hoardings in all prominent urban centres, but it has been unable to do so. It has placed only three advertisements in newspapers. Earlier, 20 to 25 per cent of the publicity budget was dedicated to print media, but that would be around 10 per cent this time. The party could even go for crowd-funding.

“When the Income Tax Department has charged such heavy penalty on the principal opposition party, free and fair elections are not possible because the level playing field has been denied to us,” said Congress treasurer Ajay Maken.

Though the odds seems to be stacked against the Congress, party leaders say the elections will be much closer than what has been predicted. “We do not want to get into the numbers game,” said Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in charge of communications. “Although it is not a free and fair election and action is being taken against opposition parties and leaders, we will get a clear majority.”

Two decades ago, the Congress countered the Vajpayee government’s ‘India Shining’ claims with the successful slogan, ‘Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath (The Congress is with the common man)’. This time, it is ‘Haath badlega halaat (Hand will improve your life)’. The sentiment is similar to 2004, and the party hopes there is a repeat of what happened then.