The recent five-state assembly elections have thrown up an urgent question for the nation’s future. India needs a strong Opposition to rescue the country from getting sucked deeper into a despotic polity. Despite many willing to sing its requiems, the Congress is the party most suited to play the role of the rescuer.
The trouble is that the Congress has been going down the hill. Today, it seems, to have little political clout, diminishing intellectual capital, ineffective leadership and a lethargic organisation to take up the responsibility.
According to a report by the National Election Watch (NEW) and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 222 electoral candidates have left the Congress to join other parties during polls held between 2014 and 2021, whereas 177 Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) quit the party. These defections led to the loss of the party governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Puducherry and Manipur. The Congress has only two state governments: Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Besides it is sharing power with the Shiv Sena (SS) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra.
So a huge amount of effort is needed to resurrect the Congress. The first thing it needs to do is to believe in itself. It has to recognise the task at hand and convince itself that it is equipped to handle the responsibility. The party can take strength from the fact that after all setbacks, it still has 87 MPs — 53 in the Lok Sabha and 34 in the Rajya Sabha. Moreover, the party has 753 MLAs in different states, which is only second to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has 1,443 MLAs.
The big question, though, is whether the present leadership of the Congress can rejuvenate the party? Most people outside the party are convinced that someone other than the Gandhi family should lead the party. As a result, some political commentators have gone to the extent of asking the Gandhi family members to retire from politics.
At the first Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting held after the massive defeat of the party in the state elections, president Sonia Gandhi had offered that she and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would resign from the party posts (Rahul Gandhi does not hold any post in the party at present). The highest decision-making body of the Congress, however, unanimously rejected Sonia’s offer.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has become the centre of dissident activities in the party, had a one-on-one meeting with Ms Gandhi a few days back, and was categorical in saying that no one in the party had any objection to her continuing as the president till the organisational elections, scheduled to take place in August, are held.
But August is four months away and the issues debilitating the party need to be tackled immediately.
Second, Sonia Gandhi should also be looking at the challenges faced by the Opposition. She needs to initiate a dialogue with other Opposition parties to evolve a consensus on a joint candidate for the post of the President of India, for which elections are scheduled to be held in July. Even if there is little chance for a joint Opposition candidate to win against the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s candidate, the Congress president must attempt to put up a strong Opposition candidate such as NCP president Sharad Pawar.
If Pawar is willing to contest, he can put up a formidable challenge to whosoever would be the NDA’s nominee. Pawar can rustle up decent numbers as he has a good equation with Congress members as well as non-Congress leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, MK Stalin, Jagan Reddy, Chandrashekar Rao, Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, heads of the Left parties, and, of course, Uddhav Thackeray.
If this Opposition unity can be brought about, it can also serve as a good beginning for working out anti-BJP electoral alliances for the 2024 parliamentary elections.
The Congress president should also constitute a “shadow cabinet” on the lines of the British system, even though there is no legal sanction for such an entity in India. The Congress has leaders who have served as chief ministers and Union ministers. In consultation with senior party leaders, Ms Gandhi can find 30-odd party leaders who can track the performance of the Modi government on several crucial fronts such as the economy, foreign policy, infrastructure, health and education and come out with white papers to highlight the government’s shortcomings.
If the Congress has to play a meaningful role in the national politics, it would have to rededicate itself to its ideological beliefs of secularism, nationalism, social justice, and empowerment of women, minorities, Dalits, and tribals.
The Modi government has faulted on many fronts in the recent past – the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccination drive, abandoning migrant workers and forcing them to walk back hundreds of miles to their homes during lockdown, loss of jobs and livelihood for lakhs of people, downgrading of India on global human development indices, security lapses on borders with China, the Pegasus spyware imbroglio and purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft – to name just a few.
Rahul Gandhi and some other Congress leaders have raised these issues and several others in order to build pressure on the central government. They also demanded that the suffering masses be urgently given food rations directly along with monetary help. But they failed to negate the government’s false claims.
The primary reason for this seems to be the lack of effective communication.
First, the party would have to frame all such issues in a language that is understandable to the masses and then have a nationwide network of dedicated workers to take the message to the grassroots.
Second, the party would also have to stop factionalism within the organisation and improve internal communication so that the party’s stand on issues and programmes, decided by the top leadership, is effectively conveyed to the party workers at the lowest levels.
To improve communication with the outside world and across the party organisation, the leadership should not shy away from engaging management agencies that specialise in these areas.
The party would also have to have a clear position on the increasing role of religion in politics – so assiduously promoted by the ruling party — and shift the conversation to people’s welfare and development. For that it would need to regularly interact with NGOs, civil right groups, Adivasi activists, and academics in order to frame messages for the electorate. It would also have to use media, including social media, in an effective way to take the messages to the masses.
Askari H Zaidi is a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal