There is also a broad consensus among those who are not loyalists that the Congress has not done enough to win back people.
For a party in the running to form governments on its own in four of the five states that go to the polls, the Congress has been denied its share of the spotlight. Whatever attention has been paid is not due to the conclusion that the party has refurbished parts of its tattered image. There is also a broad consensus among those who are not loyalists that the Congress has not done enough to win back people. Indeed, since the electoral rout in 2014, little has rolled favourably for the party. It lost state after state, mostly in elections and an odd one in Arunachal Pradesh to machinations of the ruling BJP. There is also a perception that the party leadership too, and specially its first family, has done precious little to get the party back in business. A huge questionmark remains on Rahul Gandhi’s political future, and assessment varies on his hunger for political power and keenness to commit 24x7 to a profession that brooks no part-timers.
Despite this, the picture does not appear so bleak for the Congress. To begin with, it is the incumbent in Uttarakhand and Manipur with a fair chance to return to office. Opinion about the party’s prospects remains divided in both states but few claim a rout is in the offing. In Punjab, the party is tipped to end up at least a worthy runner-up to the Aam Aadmi Party. A possible victory in Goa too will add to the jubilation. But the verdict in these states will pale into insignificance if the Congress returns its best performance in over a quarter-century in Uttar Pradesh. In 1989, the Congress won 94 seats (vote share 27.9 per cent) and thereafter its decline was steady. It never bettered its performance of 1991, when it secured just 46 seats with 17.3 per cent voteshare. The alliance with the Samajwadi Party and visible support for it indicates that the Congress stands a chance to return with its best performance since 1991. This would be a significant shot in the arm and enable it to mount a challenge to the BJP in other states — Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh initially, and the next parliamentary elections.
The decision to team up with the SP indicates to two significant developments. First, it points to a confident leadership, which does not shy from altering tack midway into the campaign. In July last year, the party anointed Sheila Dikshit as the party’s CM face, and this has been effortlessly rolled back. The second key development is the quiet emergence of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as party tactician and chief negotiator. This is indicative of her ambition and commitment to be part of the efforts to pitchfork the Congress back on centrestage. Her refusal so far to campaign more actively should not be considered a final decision.
The Congress has been in decline since 2010. Much blame for this must be apportioned on Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. As Prime Minister, the former needed to go beyond being a genteel chief executive who grieved about compulsions of coalition politics but did not act when corruption charges were levelled against colleagues. As Congress president, the latter displayed lack of ability to get the PM to act firmly and allowed the decline to become terminal. Mr Gandhi attempted to rectify the damage and declared in September 2013 that the ordinance to negate the Supreme Court verdict on convicted legislators was “complete nonsense”. But when no further support came, he beat a hasty retreat and could not emerge as the party boss. Entrenched groups publicise that Mrs Gandhi wants her son to take greater political responsibility but he displays disinterest. Mr Gandhi surely has several drawbacks like most, but no one can be expected to take greater responsibility without a corresponding increase in power.
From that standpoint, the ongoing Assembly elections point to an unambiguous change of guard. Whether her minimal involvement in decision-making and campaign stems from health reasons or is a ploy to ensure that her son’s decisions become a diktat, Mrs Gandhi has taken a long stride in detaching herself from active politics. Wisely, Mr Gandhi has paid greater attention to UP than other states. The problem the Congress faces in Uttarakhand stems partly from the leadership not applying pressure on Harish Rawat to be more accommodative towards party seniors. Despite campaigning in the state, Mr Gandhi’s message to Mr Rawat is that this is primarily his battle. Similarly, in Punjab, Capt. Amarinder Singh made little effort to mount a united campaign and instead pursued old animosities. Mr Gandhi’s delayed declaration nominating him as CM candidate garners brownie points for him: if the party loses Mr Gandhi can plead that he tried his best. If the party secures a majority, he can claim it was due to a late surge after Capt. Amarinder Singh’s selection.
The Congress cannot recover overnight. The party must regain lost glory step by step. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the party’s decline began with UP and if it wishes to stage a comeback, increasing its presence in UP is a necessity. If it is a happy augury for the SP-Congress alliance, Mr Gandhi would have hauled the party one significant step. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra remains a strike weapon once again. No better proof of her enigmatic charm was evident than at a SP election office in western UP. As loudspeakers blared that Akhilesh Yadav was to address a public meeting the next day, it announced that she too would address the gathering, when there was no such plan! Surely someone with a greater draw than the UP CM is awaiting an opportune moment. Whether she is the proverbial brahmastra only time will tell, but clearly the point has been reached when the Congress needs to be paid greater attention.