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When the Congress formed the government in 2004, everyone was quick to credit the victory to Sonia Gandhi and to the support of Left Front and DMK. Let us look at a few facts about the 2004 election which will explain the pathetic situation that the Congress is in today.
- Congress won only 7 seats more than the BJP. All the pre-poll surveys indicated that the NDA would easily come back to power.
- India Today survey carried out in Feb 2003 predicted more than 300 seats for the BJP while the Congress would get only 110-120.
- India Today magazine carried out a cover story just 6 months before 2004 elections saying that Sonia Gandhi had shrunk the Congress, that it was afflicted with organisational atrophy and its state units were in complete disarray.
After the results, the media was quick to credit Sonia Gandhi and the Congress high command shamelessly hogged the limelight for a victory that was never theirs to claim. It conveniently forgot the hard work of a leader from erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh who was instrumental in sending 36 MPs (29 Congress+7allies), which proved crucial in Congress outrunning the BJP by just 7 seats.
YS Rajasekhar Reddy was the opposition leader in 1999 when Chandrababu Naidu was the chief minister. Naidu was called high-tech CM; he was a globetrotter who put Hyderabad on the world map. He built the iconic cyber towers, which ultimately led to the software boom and made Hyderabad a rival to Bangalore. He was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bill Clinton and Bill gates. At one point, he was even planning to bring Formula One to Hyderabad, back in 2002-2004.
Naidu, along with Ramoji Rao, the media baron of Eenadu group which had monopoly in Andhra Pradesh, discredited opposition and any criticism about Naidu was rubbished. The state Congress then was suffering with infighting and factionalism. There were multiple power centres with senior leaders coming from all the three regions (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Rayalaseema) declaring themselves as CM candidates and claiming to be loyalists of the party high command. At the same time, Telangana Rastra Samithi (TRS) was floated by K Chandrasekhara Rao (popularly known as KCR) demanding separate statehood for Telangana.
At this juncture of uncertainty among the opposition, in April 2003, YSR embarked on a ‘padyatra’ (journey by foot) across the state of Andhra Pradesh over a period of two months and covered 1,500 kms which not only changed the political situation in the state but also at the Centre.
- During the ‘padyatra’, YSR was able to highlight the plight of the farmers, severe drought conditions and erratic electricity supply. Basic health facilities were not available to people who were below the poverty line. This made him launch free health services under ‘Rajiv Aarogyasri’ when he ultimately became CM. The success of this scheme made many states emulate it; even Modi’s ‘Ayushman Bharat’ is similar to it.
- Not just ‘Aarogyasri’ many schemes like ‘Pavala Vaddi MSME’ scheme, ‘Indiramma illu’ housing scheme, ‘1 kg rice for Rs 2’ and many more were based on his experiences during ‘padyatra’.
- More importantly the ‘padyatra’ increased the stature of YSR manifold. It galvanised the party under him in the state. It made all the opposition parties come together under Congress in the state to take on the might of Naidu. The tremendous success of YSR would not have been possible if he was not proactive and was simply banking on anti-incumbency.
Gandhis never won votes apart from the strong 20% vote bank which traditionally belonged to the Congress. The failure to acknowledge this fact is the main reason for its dismal performance in 2014 and 2019. In order to prove itself as an alternative to the present-day government, it must do its duty as opposition first.
- A journey by foot across the length and breadth of India might be impractical. But identifying at least 100-150 constituencies where it has direct fight with the BJP would be a start.
- Go to the people in constituencies with the aim of just knowing what the problems are.
- Let people decide whom they want to vote for. The main purpose should be to give your time and lend a listening ear.
I would like to end with an excerpt from an article published in Indian Journal of Political Science 35 years ago:
“In order to perform its duty as opposition, it should be strong, viable, responsible both in quality and quantity. Otherwise, Government would become apathetic towards public grievances and disgraceful towards the views of opposition.”
These pieces are being published as they have been received – they have not been edited/fact-checked by ThePrint.