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Is Congress betraying symptoms of a death wish?

The writer is a former ambassador
Published : Jun 8, 2019, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jun 8, 2019, 12:05 am IST

Unless Rahul Gandhi shows courage and wrests Amethi back from Smriti Irani, few will take him seriously.

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi (Photo: PTI)
 Congress chief Rahul Gandhi (Photo: PTI)

The comments of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at the meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) last week have made me wonder if the Indian National Congress (INC) is betraying symptoms of death wish!

Yes, Mr Gandhi did campaign valiantly, fearlessly and relentlessly and flagged several issues which he thought had agitated the hearts and minds of the electorate — an attack on the very idea of India and national institutions, sharpening of sectarian divides and intolerance, cow vigilantism and mob lynching, the aftereffects of demonetisation, the faulty implementation of the GST, lacklustre performance of the economy, increasing joblessness and farmers’ distress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gift to Anil Ambani in the Rafale deal, etc and his “gave his all” and “toiled day and night” for the Congress Party.

Unfortunately, his best wasn’t good enough to beat Mr Modi, who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Congress Party. Mr Gandhi should do what he has advised his elected party members to do — “introspect, look inwards, try to understand what went wrong and try to rejuvenate”.

If he does that honestly, the following thoughts might cross his mind:

a) His strongly articulated message didn’t resonate with the voters at large — it came unstuck! Why? Was the message wrong? Or the messenger didn’t endear himself to them? Most of the issues which he flagged were relevant but public negativity about them wasn’t as sharp as he had made them out to be. His frontal attack on Mr Modi — Chowkidar Chor Hai — made him look like a caricature of Arvind Kejriwal — many found it unbecoming of an individual who harbours ambitions to be the Prime Minister himself one day. Mr Modi cleverly turned the table — he told the chowkidars that Mr Gandhi was insulting them, not him!
b) All the opinion polls had indicated that Mr Modi was head and shoulders above every Indian political leader. So, in a one-on-one comparison with the two-time chief minister of Gujarat and the one-term Prime Minister of India, Mr Gandhi was bound to look lightweight, especially when his administrative and governance capabilities were still unproven and he wasn’t acceptable to several Opposition parties. Notwithstanding their disenchantment, most voters chose to give Mr Modi another chance rather than to try out someone who didn’t emerge as a credible alternative — they reposed “bharosa” in Mr Modi to try to solve their problems in his second innings.
c) Oversimplification causes ridicule and betrays frivolousness. Claims of creating an earthquake in Parliament with the revelation of corruption involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which never happened, challenging him to a debate on the Rafale deal and accusing him repeatedly of having given millions of dollars to Mr Anil Ambani exasperated many voters who thought he wasn’t serious and didn’t understand their concerns.

His reference at the CPP meeting to how the Congress Party fought the British is totally out of context. Firstly, even Mr Modi’s harshest critics will admit that the prevailing conditions in India today don’t have the remotest resemblance to the situation under the British Raj. Secondly, compared to the Congress stalwarts who fought against colonial rule, today’s Congress leaders look like mere dwarfs!
d) Questioning the efficacy of Mr Modi’s numerous people-friendly schemes was understandable, but to conclude that they had no impact was foolhardy. Even if their implementation wasn’t perfect and left a lot to be desired, there is no gainsaying the fact that initiatives like the Swachchh Bharat Abhiyanyan, Jan Dhan Yojana, Saubhahya, Ujjwala, Ayushman Bharat, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, etc schemes helped millions of beneficiaries, in whose eyes Mr Modi was someone who cared for them and tried to change their lives for the better and could possibly do much more in the future if he returned to power.
e) Though the Congress’ short film about the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay) was sleek, it had very limited impact as people didn’t understand its ramifications and even those who did, dismissed it as an afterthought to counter Mr Modi’s Samman — the high amount promised raised the question of where the money will come from.
f) Even before the results of the exit polls were out, the general impression was that the BJP will most likely return to power. The Congress’s prospects of forming the new government with allies were conjectured by the diehard flatterers and cheerleaders who never let you know of the unpalatable realities on the ground.

Mr Gandhi can learn some lessons from the trinity of tennis: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. When one of them loses in the fiercely contested, gruelling five-hour long five setter in a Grand Slam final, they compliment their rivals: He was just too strong! He was the better player today! He deserved to win! This is called sportsmanship! Mr Gandhi should come to terms with the results of the elections: Mr Modi was just too good!

But there are no full stops in politics. All is not lost. Indira Gandhi was hailed as Durga in 1971, but suffered a humiliating defeat in1977, yet bounced back in 1982! Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been laid off for months by injuries, fallen in world rankings below the first 10 but have slowly regained the number one ranking after arduous training, strategic planning, tireless practice and the efforts of their teams. They never lost their self-belief, nor their motivation and hunger to win. Mr Gandhi too can pick up the broken pieces and fight another day with better planning, better strategy, better preparations and higher energy with an army of dedicated, energetic and fired-up Congress workers determined to succeed. But is there a leader who can inspire and lead them today?

Mr Gandhi must stick to his resignation offer — it has raised his stature — it projects him as a leader for whom party interests are higher than his own. The Congress Party should demonstrate inner resilience to throw up a leader. Both Lal Bahadur Shastri and P.V. Narasimha Rao proved to be great Prime Ministers though they were not from the first family.

Mr Gandhi must get rid of all his chamchas — they insulate him from seeing the reality. They may be achievers and also well-meaning, but know very little about India’s politics.

Mr Gandhi shouldn’t waste time in seeking parity with Mr Modi. Jo jita wohi sikandar! For the next five years, neither the Congress Party can come to power at the Centre nor can Mr Gandhi become Prime Minister. So he should get on with building his party from the block and district levels upward while expecting modest results.

In politics, perception and credibility matter most. Unless Mr Gandhi shows courage and wrests Amethi back from Smriti Irani, few will take him seriously. After the election results, he should have visited Amethi, lest he is accused of having abandoned it for good.

And unless the Congress Party wins a respectable number of seats in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, it can’t be perceived as an alternative to the BJP.

Mr Gandhi’s rathyatra should begin in Amethi, pass through Uttar Pradesh and all other states where elections will be held and arrive in New Delhi in 2024, gathering support, strength and momentum on the way. For this yatra’s success, they have to discover their Arjun — Mr Gandhi can sit at the top like Hanuman. Doesn’t it sound like a fairy tale? Yes, it does. But as Steve Jobs said — one must never give up hope and never stop dreaming dreams!

Tags: sonia gandhi, rahul gandhi