Monday, January 26, 2009

WILL THE CONGRESS DO BETTER WITHOUT SONIA AND RAHUL?

The Prime Minister, whose heart was always in the right place in any case, has got its plumbing done too. He is now good enough to lead the Congress party into the next elections and the nation for five years thereafter. Dr Manmohan Singh is the face that has been the saving grace of the government, the UPA and the Congress party during the last five years. Despite having been appointed Prime Minister rather than having been elected as one by popular vote, he has emerged as the most respected and least controversial leader of the country by far.

Everyone knows that over the last couple of years, the performance of the Congress party in various state elections and by-elections to the Lok Sabha has been dismal, even disastrous in some cases. Its only major saving grace has been its unexpected victory in Delhi for which the credit goes solely to Sheila Dikshit's performance as Chief Minister.

Rahul Gandhi was launched as the party's star campaigner in the elections held in UP in 2007. Amidst saturated media coverage and a carefully constructed 'wave' that was visible only in TV studios and news papers, it was expected that the Congress party, under the leadership of this youth icon would visibly, if not dramatically, start its recovery in the home state, the 'karma bhoomi' of the Gandhis, where it had been virtually wiped out. What was it that actually happened? He could get his party victory in just six of the carefully selected 108 or so constituencies that he campaigned in and the party wound up with less than eight percent of the vote share and just 21 seats, a performance that was worse than in the previous election.

Right till the results started showing the bitter truth, the imaginary wave and better performance of the Congress were being attributed to Rahul Gandhi by hyper-excited media personalities like Prannoy Roy, Barkha Dutt etc. who appeared to be have keen personal interest in pushing the young Gandhi into the top leadership slot. But, the moment the disastrous results showed unambiguously that he had failed to catch the imagination of the voters, both he and Sonia Gandhi nonchalantly put the blame for the failure squarely on the local leadership of the state.

Exactly the same thing happened in Gujarat where, in addition to vigorous campaigning by Rahul Gandhi, the electoral battle became an almost personal one between Sonia Gandhi and "maut ka saudagar" (merchant of death) Modi, as she famously described him during the election campaign. Modi routed the Congress - there was no state level leadership worth mentioning - and the mandate was again immediately dismissed as polarised and communal.

In Karnataka too, Rahul Gandhi was sent in as the star campaigner of the party, its Prime Minister in future. There the party was sure of winning. So, it did not want anyone other national leader to take credit for the expected victory. So much so, even the Prime Minister was not allowed to address a public meeting. His one appearance was a speech to a small number of people in a auditorium. In the event, the BJP won, increasing its vote share by 5.6 per cent while the Congress lost, with a loss of 0.7% in the vote share. The blame, you guessed it, was put on the local leadership again.

The story in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and, recently, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and J&K was the same. In Rajasthan, where the Congress 'won', it needs to be remembered that it got 96 seats against the 78 that the BJP got despite 60 rebel candidates, of whom as many as 27 won.

The Congress has a long standing tradition of not naming a Chief Ministerial candidate while going to the polls in a state. What is the real reason behind what appears to be a bizarre strategy that has been failing the party repeatedly? It is so straightforward that it is surprising that no one outside the Congress has exploited it so far. Within the Congress, the complete absence of inner-party democracy does not permit any one to question what must be questioned for the health of the organisation. But why has no one outside the Congress asked?

The non-naming of any state-level leader is simply because the Congress has always asked for a vote in the name of the Family alone. When you vote Congress, you vote for the leadership of Nehru/Indira/Rajiv/Sonia/Rahul. Period. They were/are the real and only leaders of the party. The Chief Ministers that they appoint/remove are little more than 'worker bees' picked solely to execute the Family's policies and directions. They are not leaders of the people; they are mere followers of the real leader!

Out of this tradition has flown the tradition of attributing all the credit for success anywhere in the country to the Family and all blame for failure to local leaders. Nothing adverse is ever allowed to stick on the Family whose position is well above, distinct from and greater than the party. It is by this simple expedient that its pre-eminence and unchallenged status has been artificially sustained for decades. The party, as a result, is now little more than a family enterprise with managers appointed solely to look after its private estates across the country. It is due to this vice-like grip that the grand old party is suffering reversal after reversal and is slowly but surely dying an inevitable death.

Many believe that Rahul Gandhi, despite his youth, does not represent any change at all; he is the same old wine in a new tumbler. That is why he has not been able to excite and enthuse a very young India looking for genuine change.

Despite all this, no has yet asked the question that would have been asked a thousand times by now if the Congress party had been not been led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The question is not academic. It is based on the twin pillars of performance and accountability, without which no edifice of any stability or strength can be built.

As the recent elections in the US have proved once again, people are excited by and vote for leaders, not just parties. Who could have imagined that an unknown Barack Obama would wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton and then go on to become President? Conversely people also vote against leaders who fall short or are thrust into that role for reasons other than their own ability.

Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party has begun to resemble the Mughal Empire as it was during the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The influence of the Gandhis has now effectively shrunk to a small but powerful coterie that has the whole party in a vice-like grip, and a similarly disconnected lot of media personalities who have a vested interest in promoting the Emperor-with-no-clothes, as it were.

It is only a question of time before the pretence of the empire is shattered. The vultures are already beginning to hover. Sharad Pawar, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Yadav, all leaders of the UPA, have already spotted the carcass that will be theirs to feast on after the elections. They are not going allow a dying Congress to place Rahul Gandhi in the PM's chair ahead of them, come what may. Unless a miracle happens between now and the elections, they all can see that Congress is going to find itself considerably weakened when the election results come in.

Is there any way to stem what appears to be the impending decline, even fall of the Congress?

Should Sonia Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi resign from their positions in the Congress party and give a real chance to other leaders to rejuvenate it by wringing in some badly needed changes that are visible to the people and will attract them to the party?

What do you think will happen if Dr Manmohan Singh is made the Congress President and the Chairman of the UPA, and asked to lead the party and the alliance into the coming elections as its clear, unchallenged leader? Dr Manmohan Singh may have not fought any election yet. But undoubtedly he is the tallest and most respected political leader in the UPA today, despite everyone knowing that he is somewhat of a puppet under compulsion. The popular and correct perception that the real centre of power is not the PM has not helped the Congress at all. If anything, it has and will cost it dearly.

So, if the 76 year old Dr Manmohan Singh leads the Congress into the elections as its supreme leader, relieved of the faded magic/burden of Brand Gandhi, will the performance of the party and the UPA suffer or improve? Will such a move strengthen other pretenders to the throne or will it put them firmly in place? The Congress has consistently performed poorly under the leadership of Sonia and Rahul. There are many who believe that the party will perform much better with eyes firmly focused on a new future rather than remaining stuck in a past rooted firmly to the achievements/failures of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Often, disruptive and unexpected moves yield disproportionate dividends. Status quo invariably yields little, if at all. Is the Congress party ready to take the big step that may well usher in the much needed change in the fortunes of the party? Or will it do so after the elections, when it might be a bit too late?
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1. Congress sounds war cry - really?
2. Congress defeated; deception contnues
3. NDTV makes a mockery of exit polls
4. Mayawati and dalit power
5. It's yesterday once more
6. Can Rahul do a Gandhi?