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Beset by crisis, Congress has to win the perception war to stay relevant

The writer is a former ambassador
Published : Jul 10, 2019, 2:28 am IST
Updated : Jul 10, 2019, 2:28 am IST

Rahul has every right to remain steadfast in his values and his idea of India.

Rahul Gandhi
 Rahul Gandhi

In politics, sometimes perception matters more than reality. The public perception prior to the 2014 parliamentary elections was that the last phase of the UPA 2 government had been marked by “policy paralysis”. Post the humiliating defeat in 2019 elections five years hence, how is the 133-year-old Indian National Congress (INC) perceived by the public?

Bereft of leadership? Still in the grips of an ostrich syndrome? Betraying a death wish? A rudderless ship whose passengers don’t know where it is going? Can such a party perform the role of the principal Opposition in the Parliament and keep the government on its toes?

By officially announcing his resignation with a four-page emotional farewell letter with no successor in sight, Rahul Gandhi has plunged the party into a deeper crisis. So is the party over for the Congress Party?

Well, not really.

So many times, premature obituaries of political parties have haunted their authors. Ironically, the unbelievable rise of the BJP is the most obvious reminder of this fact.

While some of the broader issues which Rahul has raised and the devilish picture of the RSS and the BJP he paints might have some resonance with the so-called liberal sections of society, his perceptions aren’t shared by a vast majority of voters. Or else, how could Narendra Modi have been returned to the Parliament with such a huge majority? As former Congress minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government Arif Mohammad Khan points out: How can one question the intelligence of over 37.4 per cent of the electorate who voted for Mr Modi?

Rahul has every right to remain steadfast in his values and his idea of India. But if he wants the people of India to embrace his ideals, he will have to convince the masses that they are the right ones for this country. At every election rally, he did share his vision but his message fell flat in the court of the people. So, was the message wrong or the messenger?

The three greats of tennis, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who have won a staggering 53 Grand Slam titles among themselves, have dropped below world no. 10 rank more than once in their careers on account of injuries but have always clawed back to the top, thanks to their self-belief, hard work, sharp strategy and hunger to win. It’s time the Congress draw inspiration. But to rise from the ashes as it were, the party must do the following.

  • Wake up and accept the reality that it has suffered the worst electoral defeat in public recall. To top it off, the absence of the Congress trinity of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, whatever the reason of it might be, at a time when the Congress and the JD(S) alliance is imploding in Karnataka and Kamal Nath’s chair is shaking in Madhya Pradesh may prove costly. Congressmen are resigning left and right and there is no second-in-command to keep the flock together. It will be a disaster for the party’s national image if the governments fall in Karnataka and MP. An existential crisis is staring it in the face; unless it gets back on its feet and starts walking, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo will consign it to the dustbins of history.
  • Take swift, decisive and bold actions: cut off the deadwood, cleanse clogged arteries, seek blood transfusion and take visible, practical steps. Convey to the people that it is still alive; it shouldn’t be counted out.
  • The time for complaining against Mr Modi and the BJP, accusing him of promoting corruption with the Rafale deal and failing to fulfill his promises is over for now. The public has given him a second chance and will check his report card again after five years. The next five years is a do-or-die phase for the Congress.
  • Shun all sycophants; they insulate one from ground realties.
  • Keep spent forces at arm’s length. Unwarranted remarks like chaiwala and neech complicate matters.
  • Parties can lose elections but shouldn’t lose heart. Thirty years agp, the BJP had just two seats in the Parliament as compared to the 302 today. Why not focus on assembly elections coming up in some states, where one can increase one’s tally, solo or in alliance with regional parties?
  • Amethi’s vote against Rahul after sending him thrice to Parliament thrice was a clear message that he hadn’t done enough to retain their trust. His decision not to visit Amethi for a month after his loss for a month reinforced it. But unless he wrests back Amethi from winner Smriti Irani, he won’t be seen as a battle-hardened warrior in Indian politics.
  • The fact that in Uttar Pradesh which has produced four Congress Prime Ministers, the Congress now has just one seat. Without winning Amethi and UP, the Congress party cannot be perceived as a credible alternative to the BJP.
  • The Congress’ executive committee is full of those who haven’t won the Lok Sabha election in years. Are they qualified to advise others on how to win elections? Those who have won with a wide margin in trying times should be given prominence in the executive committee; those who have lost should recede to the background. Taking a leaf from the BJP, the Congress needs to place all 75 plus leaders in an exalted “Marg Darshak Mandalam” of its own.
  • By resigning from his post and not having his sister step into his shoes, Rahul has risen in the esteem of millions. If you believe in inner democracy and welcome fresh blood, finding a new leader is easy. If Sonia Gandhi sends an email to all presidents of the district and state Congress committees and all the elected Congress legislators and MPs asking whom they prefer as the new president (excluding the Gandhi family), she can have the verdict of the Congress Party in 24 hours!           

The INC has to beg, borrow or create a Modi of its own. The Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on the vote of thanks is an example of what a huge difference a single person can make. The party should make use of the oratorical skills of leaders like Shashi Tharoor and Jyotiraditya Scindia to challenge government policies and decisions. Where are the Smriti Iranis, Nirmala Sitharamans and Kirron Khers of the Congress? Its use of social media is still very modest. Winning the perception war on a war footing is a must for the Congress.

Finally, there is no alternative for the Congress leaders and the cadre to working at the grassroots level and winning back the public’s trust and respect by flagging problems, addressing them and helping in their resolution.

Tags: indian national congress, rahul gandhi