It is somehow typical of the mess that Rahul Gandhi finds himself in these days that on the rare occasions when he is completely right, the world still thinks that he is wrong. Take the recent attacks on him from leaders of regional parties over his speech at the Congress Chintan Shivir.
On the concluding day of the Shivir in Udaipur, Rahul Gandhi said, “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will talk about the Congress. It will talk about Congress leaders, will talk about Congress workers, but will not talk about regional parties because they know that regional parties have their place but they cannot defeat the BJP. Because they don’t have an ideology.”
As political assessments go, this was spot on. Even though the Congress goes down in defeat after defeat in election after election, it remains the primary focus of the BJP’s attacks. Hundreds of crores have been spent over the years in campaigns designed to portray Rahul Gandhi as a fool; as a ‘Pappu’ whose idea of a party is a disco party.
Rahul poses no threat at all to Narendra Modi. Nor is this avatar of the Congress a potent political force. So why does the BJP spend more time and money on attacking Rahul and the Congress than it does on attacking regional parties?
The short answer is: when it comes to forming the government in Delhi, no single regional party matters. Assume the Trinamool Congress gets 40 seats. That is still not a significant enough number to worry the BJP.
On the other hand, if the Congress is revived, then the BJP could be in trouble. There are 150 to 200 seats that are direct BJP-Congress fights. That’s where the Congress has been more or less wiped out in the last two Lok Sabha elections.
But what if it gets its act together?
That’s a much more potent threat than any single regional party.
What Rahul said at the Chintan Shivir is not very different from the sort of thing that Prashant Kishor has been saying in his many recent interactions with journalists. Kishor has argued that the only way the BJP can be defeated is if the Congress revives. He concedes that there may not be enough time for a full-fledged revival that will lead to the BJP’s defeat in the next election.
But, he argues, even a semi-revived Congress will cut into the BJP’s majority and force Modi to rely on allies—something he is not comfortable doing.
Even the stuff Rahul said about regional parties having no ideology—which regional leaders are so agitated about—is largely accurate. Most regional parties are identity-based. They win votes because of caste or ethnicity factors. Ideology does not have much to do with it. If Trinamool’s ideology was so powerful, then it would sweep Uttar Pradesh just as it swept Bengal. Similarly, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) wins Tamil Nadu because it is a Tamil party not because of an ideology that threatens the BJP.
So, despite the abuse he has received, Rahul is right. Only the Congress can defeat the BJP. Regional parties, on their own or even as a Third Front, cannot do it unless it backs them.
Is Congress ready for the Kishor model?
I have no way of knowing whether Rahul reached this conclusion on his own or if he was influenced by Kishor’s presentations. But a lot of what was decided at the Chintan Shivir seemed straight out of the political strategists’ playbook. For instance, the national yatra scheduled for October takes forward Kishor’s recommendation that the party must start campaigning for the next Lok Sabha election right now and not after the election is called.
Even the return of Sonia Gandhi to a more central role accords with Kishor’s plans. So does the patient hearing Sonia gave delegates at the Chintan Shivir, going up and sitting at their tables at dinner time to make everyone feel that they had access to her. It is the sort of thing Kishor had advised.
The problem with all this is that while the Congress has shown itself willing to act on many of Kishor’s recommendations, it has—so far at least—shown itself unwilling to follow up on the basic thrust of his strategy.
Kishor’s view is that the Congress should position itself as the natural party of government. Despite the recent juvenile antics of some of its leaders, the party has the managerial depth and political heft required to handle the difficult task of governing India. But the mistake the Congress makes, he says, is of copying the Modi model of ‘one party, one leader’. The moment the battle becomes one between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the Congress has already lost.
The solution he suggested to the Congress was to present India with a whole slate of leaders. Sonia Gandhi would be the chairperson-like figure but at least half a dozen Congress members would be projected to remind the country that the party has both charismatic and experienced leaders. There was room for Rahul Gandhi in this model. He could become, perhaps, the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha. (Kishor believes Rahul has not received enough credit for his parliamentary skills.)
Once the Congress adopts this approach, it eliminates the straight Rahul-vs-Modi battle that the BJP always wins. But more importantly, it also provides Rahul Gandhi with a face-saver. He spends a lot of time telling us that he has no interest in power while refusing to actually cede even an inch of the vast power that he enjoys. The Kishor model offered him a chance to put his career where his mouth is and to work for the party in a role where he does not risk the regular humiliation that defeat at every election brings him.
While there appeared to be some enthusiasm for his proposal within the Congress when Kishor presented it, there was no mention of it at the Chintan Shivir. Instead, Rahul appeared to be second only to his mother, an extra-constitutional authority whose innumerable failures and defeats were to be excused because of an accident of birth.
Kishor had a second proposal: One which he says became the breaking point in his negotiations with the Congress.
The Congress was to set up a four- or five-member group to make decisions on party appointments and strategies. Kishor would be one of the members of the group. Others could come from anywhere in the Congress. They could be senior leaders like P. Chidambaram, Dalit leaders, minority leaders, etc. The Congress accepted the idea but refused to give the group any statutory authority. It could make its recommendations but they did not have to be accepted.
This meant, in real terms, that the group could make recommendations for say, Bihar. But the general secretary in charge of Bihar could ignore these recommendations. Or—and this is more likely—appointments would still be made on an ad hoc basis by Rahul on the advice of the coterie surrounding him.
Kishor says the Congress would not budge on this and so the conversation broke down and he walked away.
At the Chintan Shivir, there was talk of setting up mechanisms for party decision-making but eventually, nothing was decided. Kishor’s proposal was not even discussed. Instead, a diversion was created by focusing on a ‘one-family-one-post’ principle that had been suitably tweaked to ensure that it did not affect the Gandhi family in any way.
Biggest disappointment of Chintan Shivir
This takes us to the heart of the matter. Rahul says he knows that only the Congress can defeat the BJP. So why then doesn’t he realise that he is one reason why it hasn’t happened yet? Does he not see how badly he has screwed it up at two different parliamentary elections? Does he not think that the honourable thing to do would be to step aside?
He is a bright guy. He must know that none of the things he says he cares about (fighting ‘fascism’ etc.) will ever happen, simply because most people will not vote for him. Until he steps aside, the Congress can hold a million Chintan Shivirs and still, nothing will change.
That, essentially, was the biggest disappointment of the Chintan Shivir. It was a tiny step in the right direction. But it was nowhere near enough. As much as his fans applaud Rahul’s anti-RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) rhetoric, it is worth remembering that he has said exactly the same things for over a decade now, and it has not made the slightest difference to the Congress’ prospects. (Or to the RSS, for that matter.)
If the Congress is to recover, then it must be ready to make drastic changes. Incremental change has failed. Even Prashant Kishor, who recognised the need for drastic change, downplayed that somewhat knowing that it would not be accepted and offered the Congress a milder version, full of face-savers. But even that was not acceptable, mainly because the Congress has now taken the position that Rahul will remain the face of the party; the chap who pops up suddenly at Congress gatherings to lecture the faithful on the ‘evils of fascism’.
If the Congress does not deviate from this position, it is hard to see how any improvement in its prospects is possible. The party can’t take a few of Kishor’s proposals and implement them half-heartedly. It must understand the logic of the changes he proposed.
They say you can’t teach a pilot how to take off without also teaching him how to land. The Congress has the opposite problem. It is in thrall to an obstinate pilot who doesn’t even know how to take off. But he has certainly learned how to crash-land.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)