As jamborees go, the recent three-day 85th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress (INC) at Raipur in Chhattisgarh was a great success. About 15,000 Congress leaders from all over the country reportedly went there to discuss and prepare the party’s grand strategy for the coming years.
The ruling party at the Centre allegedly did everything possible to scuttle the session. One of its chief ministers sent his police to arrest a Congress leader who was about to board the plane because he had a “slip of the tongue”.
Nobody found anything objectionable, let alone ‘arrest-able”, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to “Mohanlal”, instead of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, while addressing an august gathering.
On another occasion, he mistook a Gujarat leader for Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The Assam Chief Minister had himself committed similar faux pas in the past. In the new normal, Modi is a holy cow against whom nothing should be said, no matter what he had said about Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Sashi Tharoor in the past.
One reason why the Congress could hold the session in a grand manner was the fact that Chhattisgarh is ruled by the Congress and it did not leave any stone unturned to make the session a success. There is a reason to do so.
In a few months, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the Congress is in power, and Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, where the party has a chance to capture power, will go to polls. One does not have to mention how crucial the elections are for the grand old party.
Age may not be on the side of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge but he has already proved, both inside and outside of Parliament, that he was not a pushover. The BJP used all the tricks up its sleeve to corner him on his statement that the Sangh Parivar had no role in the freedom struggle but he stood defiantly because the truth was on his side.
What’s more, he asked a bit matter-of-factly, “how come the people who pleaded for mercy during the freedom struggle are asking for apology from those who fought for freedom?” For starters, “Veer” Savarkar sought and obtained clemency while he was jailed in the Andamans. In contrast, hundreds of freedom fighters preferred to die in the Cellular jail.
Affectation is certainly not Kharge’s hallmark. If he did not become a chief minister in Karnataka, it is not because he was incapable but because he was not a careerist.
Finally, Kharge stood his ground and the ruling party had to withdraw its demand for an apology. This was one of the finest moments in the recent history of the Congress.
No doubt, he remains one of the tallest leaders of the country, whose educational qualifications have never been questioned. He never uses derogatory terms like “mauni baba” against his political opponents.
Nor does he shy away from meeting journalists and answering their questions, whether written or extempore.
Kharge never cooks up stories about his poverty. He does not have to invent a non-existent railway station to sell imaginary tea to invisible passengers! His life is like an open book and there is no bar on asking any questions about his family or his degree.
Kharge’s stamp is visible on the decisions taken at the Raipur session. It was, perhaps, the fear that if elections were held for the Congress Working Committee, there would be more disunity than unity in the party that restrained the leadership from going ahead with the elections. In any case, a steering committee is already in place, though it has deadwoods.
Within days of the Raipur session, the results of the elections in three Northeastern states and by-elections in five states came out. As I write this, I have before me Friday’s newspaper which shows a huge picture of Narendra Modi being garlanded with a jumbo-sized garland.
There can be no dispute that the BJP won Tripura and Nagaland. Does that warrant such a garland? Take the case of Tripura where the party returned to power on its own. The party lost 10 per cent votes, compared to the votes it secured in 2018. There is a fall in the number of seats it won, also. Yet, how did it return to power?
There was virtually a three-cornered contest in Tripura. When the Congress was in power, multi-cornered contests always benefited the ruling party. And when the Opposition fielded a single candidate like the late Sharad Yadav in Jabalpur in the mid-seventies, the Congress lost the battle. Now this benefit goes to the BJP.
Tripura witnessed the continuous fall of the CPM. Its alliance with the Congress did not benefit the party. Ultimately, the Congress was able to win three seats from the zero seats it held in the outgoing House. The situation would have been different if the CPM, the Congress and the Tipra Motha Party had together contested against the BJP. After all, the TMP was led by a former Congressman. Yes, there are no ifs and buts in elections.
For all its victory in Tripura, let us see how the BJP fared in Meghalaya. The National People’s Party (NPP) led by Conrad Sangma was in power with the support of the BJP, which had won two seats last time. The BJP had high ambitions and it felt that it should get at least 50 percent seats.
Sangma knew that his hold on the people had not waned. He did not succumb to the pressure tactics of the BJP. The BJP was only too glad to break the alliance and contest for all the seats on its own. Of course, the trump card the party wielded against the NPP was corruption. Both Modi and his deputy Amit Shah campaigned extensively in the state. In any case, it has no constraints on money.
Both gave the impression that Meghalaya was like a ripe apple which they could pluck. Ultimately, the BJP could win only two seats, the same number of seats it won in 2018. Sangma knows that it can be troublesome if he keeps the BJP out of power when it has many agencies like the ED under its control. So he may throw a bone or two at the BJP to chew on.
In Nagaland, there is no doubt about who the victor is. It is Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). The BJP is like Sancho Panza to the Don Quixote of the NDPPA. Significantly enough, the BJP or its leaders did not mention the sacredness of the cow, one of the cardinal faiths of the Sangh Parivar, while campaigning in Nagaland.
Seen against this backdrop, the achievement of the BJP is not all that great, though one must admit that since politics is the art of the possible, what matters is whether a party wins an election or not. To quote Deng Xiaoping, “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
The BJP is the only party which can claim credit even when it wins only two seats in a House of 60 as in Meghalaya in 2018 and 2023! And its leader is the only one who can lend his neck to bear a gigantic garland!
The Congress suffered a setback in Meghalaya. It could win only five seats.
Worse, the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee could only win as many seats as the Congress. It may be recalled that the TMC had engineered a wholesale defection of the Congress MLAs to become the main Opposition party in the state. The strategy did not work.
It may also be pointed out that all those who won on the TMC ticket are virtually Congressmen. The defeat clips the wings of Ms Banerjee who has high ambitions of emerging as the united Opposition candidate against Modi in the decisive 2024 elections. Far more worrisome for the TMC is the defeat of its candidate in Sagardigi Assembly constituency in Murshidabad district.
The seat was wrested by the Congress from the TMC. In doing so, the Congress gets a nominal representation in the West Bengal Assembly. True, the Congress was supported by the Left Front. She has accused the Congress and the CPM of entering into an unholy alliance with the BJP to defeat the TMC.
While it is for her to explain how exactly the BJP helped the Congress to win the seat, the fact remains incontrovertible that the TMC’s vote bank is no longer intact. An increasing number of Muslims in the area have been getting disenchanted with the TMC. This will weaken her claim to provide an alternative to Modi at the national level.
The Congress should be thankful to the DMK and the Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray for the two seats it won in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. There is a lesson for the party in these victories.
While the presence of a third Front is in the interest of the BJP, the Congress cannot remain isolated from parties which are opposed to the kind of politics the BJP has been pursuing. In other words, there is a need for a grand alliance against the BJP so that in a one-on-one election like in Himachal Pradesh it is trounced.
Of course, this is easier said than done as there are Congressmen who are yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that the party is no longer its former self. Nobody considers the Congress as the party born to rule. It lost its appeal in states like Uttar Pradesh where a combination of Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim votes kept it alive till the eighties.
All of them have left the party in the pursuit of their own vested interest. The situation is such that there is no guarantee that Sonia Gandhi will get elected from Rae Bareli, if at all she decides to contest.
Even so, there is a large number of people in the country who believe that what the country needs is a party which appeals to all sections of the people, irrespective of their religious and caste identities. That is why when Rahul Gandhi went on his Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu to Srinagar in Kashmir, tens of thousands of people cheered him all the way.
Gandhi was accused of suffering from attention deficit syndrome but his Yatra proved beyond a shadow of doubt that he can indeed be focussed once he is stirred by the passion of remaining in touch with the common people. His speech at Raipur was indeed stirring and it revealed his new identity as a man of both action and words. His next Yatra from the East to the West would, hopefully, be the clincher.
The core ideals of the Congress — social liberalism, social democracy, civic nationalism and secularism — continue to appeal to a large section of the people. Some of them might have been misled by the fascist, communal forces but they will realise their folly, sooner than later.
What this reinforces is the need for the Congress to stick to its core ideals. It has done mistakes in the past like when Rajiv Gandhi started his election campaign from Ayodhya and Rahul Gandhi visited every religious shrine while campaigning in Gujarat five years ago. His grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru never visited any godmen, let alone encouraged mixing of religion with politics.
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Today, the Sangh Parivar is in power at the Centre and in most states. It has the capacity to set the agenda and it is in the Congress’ long-term interest not to fall in its trap. All it needs to do is to stick to its ideals, come what may. The people will return to its fold once they realise that there is a party which they can trust with the future of the country.
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