After a low key response to BJP’s projection of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the Congress has suddenly upped the ante. This is clear from the way P Chidamabaram lampooned Modi’s “growth” figures given out to an NRI audience.
So far, Congress leaders were trying to stress that Modi was not a big deal; the party would not fight on the Modi turf, but pursue its own agenda — showcasing its rights-based achievements for the deprived.
Evidently, the party has now decided to “rebut every unsubstantiated” claim made by Modi, though it does not want to make him larger than life. A difficult task since Modi is already the talking point in 300 Lok Sabha constituencies.
Some argue that Modi’s elevation is the “best thing” that could have happened to the Congress. That it will facilitate a UPA III — led or supported by Congress — in power. They base their optimism on the minorities rallying behind the party. But the Muslims will vote tactically for the candidate best placed to defeat the BJP, without benefitting the Congress in states like Bihar and UP. The BJP’s geographic constraints in most of the South and East, they hope, will halt the Modi juggernaut. They calculate that the regional parties in UP, Bihar and West Bengal will find it difficult to support Modi, even if the BJP emerges as the single largest party. The SP, BSP, RJD, JD(U), Trinamool Congress and the Left depend heavily on Muslim support and will be facing elections in their respective states not long after the general elections (Bihar in 2015, West Bengal in 2016, and UP in 2017).
These parties may not want to jeopardize their chances by backing a Modi-led government in Delhi.
The Congress’s travails come from several factors. First, the absence of a general to lead the army into battle. It’s all very well to argue that this is not a presidential election and that in parliamentary democracy, the battle is between parties. Middle class India—responsible for the Congress surge in 2009 — wants a strong and a decisive leadership today. The one time darling of the aspirational classes, Dr Manmohan Singh, is now seen as an ineffectual, hands-off, weak chief executive, who allowed drift and indecision to mark UPA II, its problems compounded by coalitional pressures and factional war within the Congress.
2009 had represented a window of opportunity for Rahul Gandhi, but he missed that moment. Four days before the 2009 poll outcome, the late JD(U) leader Digvijay Singh predicted a UPA win. “Every BJP leader I have spoken to admits that their children have voted for the Congress!” he said.
It has since been an uphill struggle for Rahul. The Congress has been waiting for him to take charge. It’s still waiting for the Delhi-Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan-Chhattisgarh outcome to decide whether Rahul will be THE “face” of the party, without being its prime ministerial candidate.
If the party does badly in the state polls — one of the building blocks of the Congress’ 2014 strategy — Sonia Gandhi will once again lead from the front.
For, the Congress knows the battle is increasingly becoming a Modi versus a faceless Congress. Besides, he has an enthusiastic party cadre behind him while the Congress has to deal with its rank-and-file demoralization, which is likely to deepen if the party loses the forthcoming state polls.
The trouble is that Modi represents more than just himself. He is exploiting the prevalent mood in the country, stepping into the Congress’s leadership vacuum.
Besides, the Congress is dogged by its loss of credibility in the last four years. The endless stream of scams, and the government’s inability to control prices have hurt ordinary people beyond measure. The connection between politicians making mega bucks and their unending economic miseries isn’t lost on them.
With the middle classes angry, the Congress is trying to consolidate its hold among the poor, by focusing on the rights-based framework, particularly the recently enacted right to food, and on cash transfers. But is the strategy working?
There’s however a clear ideological polarization between a left of centre, secular Congress and the rightist BJP in the choices offered to the country.
The Congress is equally handicapped by its lack of a killer instinct. As if the party has thrown in the towel as far as 2014 is concerned. It’s not fighting to turn around the situation, like Sonia Gandhi did in early 2004, but “preparing for a 2016”. The party has held workshops to select, shortlist, train a new set of younger spokespersons from all over the country and you can see them on TV screens. But that exercise should have happened last year and not when the battle is underway.
Fighting with its back to the wall, can the Congress still salvage an extremely difficult situation in what is going to be a vicious battle for the Delhi throne?
Can it counter Modi’s ‘chemistry’ by its own ‘arithmetic’? This could mean new alliances, say, with the likes of Nitish Kumar.
More important, the Congress could utilize its politically savvy state leaders and chief ministers to the hilt, to mount a counter-offensive. But this envisages a decentralized model of functioning with the central leadership playing a policymaking and peacekeeping role. Without it, the Congress may lose both the battle and the war.
The writer is a political commentator