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MANISH DUBEY | 15 MARCH, 2017

Congress Revival Starter: Do Not Remove RG, But Declare Another PM Candidate


NEW DELHI: The Congress might draw solace from some of the recent assembly election results – the triumph in Punjab and single largest party status in Goa and Manipur - but it is impossible to argue that the party overall is any better placed now than it was in 2014 to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In fact, the BJP, especially after its spectacular show in Uttar Pradesh (UP), is already being seen in some quarters as a shoo-in in 2019. That the principal opposition party in the world’s largest democracy is so emasculated is hardly good news. (Yes, for all its woes, the Congress is the party which threatens the BJP most. It’s the reason why prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah want a Congress-mukt Bharat.)

What could the Congress possibly do to give itself a fighting chance in 2019, besides acknowledging the crises it finds itself in and talking about the need for organizational strengthening?

First, not succumb to demands for Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Vice President (VP). It may not be ideal for inner party democracy to continue relying on a single family but prevailing political circumstances leave little choice.

Festering ideological confusion and political wilderness mean that the First Family is the only glue binding the Congress currently and were it to take a backseat, the party would come apart and vacate the principal opposition space at a time when the prospect of single party hegemony in the country is real. Also, the First Family remains in the best position to handle any upheaval following serious organizational changes.

Second, declare a prime ministerial candidate – and it cannot be Rahul Gandhi. There is a case for him retaining an important organizational position but there are problems, at least at this point of time, in pitching him (or him being perceived as the Congress candidate) for the top job against Narendra Modi.

If PM Modi is widely seen as the visionary chaiwallah-outsider working tirelessly towards systemic change and national glory, Rahul Gandhi for all his recent exertions, is commonly viewed as the entitled insider representing status quo-ists. Whatever the truth behind the contrasting images, it’s not much of a contest as far as voters go and is likely to remain so for a while given the heavy baggage the Congress vice-president carries.

It is perhaps time then for the Congress to declare a prime ministerial candidate. A non-Nehru/Gandhi prime ministerial face, whether it is Shashi Tharoor, Sachin Pilot or someone else, is likely to be an ambiguous and much-needed signal of the Grand Old Party’s intention to change and shed the debilitating dynastic party tag. The declaration alone will trigger a certain buzz (being so uncharacteristic of the Congress) and give party cadres and the public at large someone to look at as a foil to PM Modi.

And the best time to make such as announcement is now. An advance announcement will give the candidate time to ease into the role, strategize her/ his campaign, connect with the cadres and like-minded opposition leaders, assemble her/ his own crack team, sink into the public consciousness, share her/ his vision for the country and views on the issues of the day and outline how they contrast with that of Modi and his sarkar. Delays in making the announcement will only allow the TINA sentiment to grow. (A similar approach – assigning charge of the campaign and party affairs to younger leaders - is needed at the state level. The wind direction could change quickly if the Congress puts up a decent show in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.)

Third, recognize that the challenge to the BJP has to be constructed from the bottom-up and cannot be confined to targeting PM Modi.

With the Prime Minister having earned the image of a nationalist with a dream and strong sense of purpose, any Modi-centered criticism of his agenda risks being interpreted as motivated and detracting from national interest. It is why the opposition’s words against demonetization and the cross-border surgical strikes – both pointed to as illustrative of an absolutist mindset – have not only failed to stick but backfired.

To resonate therefore the opposition attack rather than targeting PM Modi needs to draw on – and amplify (including via deft use of social media) - the micro and meso level fallouts of the Modi sarkar’s decisions, particularly how they worsen or fail to address lived experiences of distress and insecurity. The changed tack would mean not targeting Modi for his decisions but targeting his decisions in a manner than exposes Modi.

At the macro level, there is also the need for engaging the Congress’ brightest voices to shadow the Modi cabinet. It’s something the Congress started and discontinued but voices like P Chidambaram on the economy or Tharoor on external affairs will carry the necessary credibility to interrogate the Modi sarkar’s narrative.

None of this going to be easy. The idea of announcing a non-Gandhi/Nehru as a prime ministerial candidate and a similar advance chief ministerial announcement in key states is bound to generate worries about parallel power centers and disgruntled elements leaving the party. But it is time that the Congress signaled it’s preparedness for a future where the First Family shares the top rung with others and young, ambitious and hungry elements are given the platform and latitude to perform.

As for disgruntled elements leaving, that only needs to be seen as an opportunity to purge the party of fence-sitters. All said and done, it is time for the party to bite the bullet.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer with an interest in politics, cinema and cricket)

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