What if we contested the growingly popular notion that the Congress party is dying,or dead already. What if we said, instead, that we have two Congress parties now in place of one. The bitter power tussle between them will determine whether the party rejuvenates, dies, or resurrects itself subsequently.
One Congress is what we all see most of the time. On news TV channels, obliging op-ed pages, New Delhi’s Lodhi Garden and, India International Centre (IIC) being among the more favoured spots. Most members of this hallowed club have secure Rajya Sabha berths, the really powerful ones in their third or fourth uninterrupted terms. Most haven’t contested an election of any kind ever, others haven’t after losing one more than a decade ago.
They dominate the party’s internal decision-making bodies, including the Congress Working Committee, but more importantly the two durbars, chhota at Tughlaq Lane and bada at Janpath. Since studying of body language is much in fashion, if you want to see their importance, ask poor TV crews who wait outside the two palaces. Cock of the walk, is a reasonable, if unoriginal description as each one arrives or leaves. It’s also realistic, given the power they enjoy in a party looking more like a feather-duster.
The other Congress lives in faraway places, out of sight and out of mind for the Dilli durbaris. It is the party’s seven surviving chief ministers, and other leaders who still keep its flock—and leftover vote banks—together in the states. In fact, since the northeastern states are really much too small, and Manipur and Meghalaya are on skids, let’s just count three remaining chief ministers: Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh and Harish Rawat in Uttarakhand. Why should they be so important, you might ask, because between them their states send only 37 MPs to Lok Sabha. You might see it differently if reminded that the Congress has only 45 there. Besides them there are leaders such as Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra, still licking his wounds, Amarinder Singh in Punjab, still uncertain if he-or who- is coming or going. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana, Orissa, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have almost no one left.
Each of these has exported its best old talent to powerful sinecures in Dill Durbar, in most cases after they had seen the party wiped out under their leadership. Their talent is too valuable to be wasted in the electoral battlefield and they won’t let anybody come up in their states.
The most apt comparison of the Congress party today would be with the Mumbai Indians’ IPL squad, which has more eminent, highly-paid veterans in the dugout dispensing gyan as the team’s performance declines. Trick questtion: who are the Congress party’s three most visible leaders in Madhya Pradesh, a state the party should expect to win back, at least after three defeats? Globally, the prospect of somebody winning a fourth term is less than one in seven, so the party should have a chance to unseat the BJP here. Of course, no prizes for telling us who the most prominent “national” Madhya Pradesh leader is in Delhi.
With the exception of Rajasthan, the party has not seen the need to empower anybody in any of the states where it might have a chance of recovery. Even for Kerala, the power rests with A.K. Antony who has a permanent seat in Rajya Sabha and the innermost core of the durbar. You’d presume he is valued so greatly—and deservedly—for the consistency of his advice which we can safely guess: do nothing. Poor Oommen Chandy is unlikely to speak the truth, but do ask him who messed up his government by forcing it into its two stupidest decisions: prohibition and the action against Italian marines. Both were unsustainable and had lose-lose written all over them. But the second Congress, or let’s call it Congress-B has no power to question Congress-A.
You think I am overstating my point, ask Amarinder Singh if he was asked before Kamal Nath was thoughtlessly put in charge of his state. He was forced to defend a truly stupid decision, which was reversed, and the angry state pretty much gift-wrapped for Aam Aadmi Party. Ask him again, if he was asked before the party chose its Rajya Sabha durbaris from the state? He is brave enough to say no. His own choices were ignored even though he had made public commitments.
A truly brilliant statement was made to me earlier this week by a state satrap of the Congress (you will know who next week). He said he isn’t taken so seriously in Delhi probably because “I am just a field-general, not a Field Marshal.” That should not need translation. Nevertheless, it means that those that work in the field, get votes and seats have no voice or power. The brass-hats who hang out in ceremonial regalia in the party headquarters decide their fate. Needless to add, the “field-generals” have to win enough seats in state assemblies to get the dadas their Rajya Sabha. Who is gifted these Rajya Sabha seats they are not asked, or dare not speak. Even when they speak, they are overlooked. Please do check with Siddaramaiah. He may tell you even the BJP takes its state units much more seriously or Nirmala Sitharaman wouldn’t be forced to change her state despite being one of Narendra Modi’s more visible younger ministers. The Congress is now dying rapidly because Team-B is rebelling. Jagan Mohan Reddy, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Ajit Jogi, the list of deserters is growing. There will be more in months to come. They will all make similar complaints, although Himanta spoke his mind more forthrightly when he charged his party bosses with having a blue-blood fixation.
Please note that last week among the new members the BJP admitted to their national executive were two recent migrants from Congress, Himanta and Vijay Bahuguna from Uttarakhand. Each one tells the story from different sides of the same coin. Himanta left because he saw no empowerment, no respect, and then no future as another dynasty was coming up in his state. Bahuguna had been planted from outside, his only real attribute being genetics: son of Late Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, brother of Rita Bahuguna Joshi (who is a key leader in UP). He was made chief minister over the head of “field-general” Harish Rawat who is still furious at the humiliation. You’d bet he laughs secretly at how stupid his party’s top leaders must feel seeing a Bahuguna, their own Bahuguna, rise in BJP.
Watching a flurry of interviews given by Jairam Ramesh to various TV channels last week, one line stays with me. Why had all these state leaders left the Congress? Because they grew personally ambitious, he said, and when the party could not give them what they wanted they left.
Now, you can give a long answer to this, or just quote a father and son duo, Devi Lal and Chautala who made identical public statements when asked something like this: “arrey bhai, have we come into politics for dharam-karam or tirthyatra?” (Have we come into politics for spirituality or pilgrimage?)
Staying with Haryana , let’s check out what philanthropy or nostalgia motivated Kuldeep Bishnoi (late Bhajan Lal’s son) to return to Congress. And if political ambition was such a bad thing and Congress such a party of renunciation, why was he admitted and the state’s own, loyal leaders hung out to dry? Then you ask how did your candidate lose the Rajya Sabha poll. At this rate, you may lose much of the rest too.
Also read: Burdened with Indiranomics