And again, it’s time for the Congress party to introspect on the reasons for its defeat in yet another set of Assembly elections. With the exception of a consolation victory in Tamil Nadu, aided in great measure by the popularity of a formidable senior alliance partner – the DMK – the Grand Old Party failed to wrest power in Assam and Kerala while it was completely decimated in Bengal and even the union territory of Pondicherry that it ruled till two months ago.
The reasons for the party’s defeat in the polls, despite a spirited campaign at least in Assam and Kerala by Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and sundry other leaders, are many. These will, no doubt, be commented upon ad nauseam over the next few days. However, there are some immediate lessons that the party’s former chief Rahul Gandhi can take away from the results if he seriously wishes to return to the Congress’s helm next month.
Among the key excuses that Rahul has repeatedly offered to justify the crumbling edifice of his once grand and now atrophying 136-year-old party is the capture of all institutions by the BJP. In his interactions with the press, students, academics and public intellectuals from around the world, Rahul has often said that he needs institutions like the judiciary, election commission, media, investigating agencies, etc. to function independently instead of being reduced to look like an extension of the BJP/RSS. His comments suggest that Rahul firmly believes that his party’s electoral revival is actually incumbent on the BJP’s willingness to let go off its alleged vice-like grip over these institutions.
To be fair to Rahul, his allegation isn’t baseless. Over the past few years, the impression that several constitutional bodies and institutions have been saffronised by the BJP has only grown stronger and there are more examples than one can possibly recount that will attest to the truth behind such claims. However, insinuating that the Congress stands a chance of revival only if these institutions either unshackle themselves from the grasp of Narendra Modi or if the Prime Minister and his party, in an uncharacteristically generous mood decide to restore the autonomy of these institutions only shows Rahul’s political naïveté. Worse, it makes him look like a bad loser who desperately searches for excuses to justify his failures.
The one resounding message that Mamata Banerjee’s victory in Bengal or even MK Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan’s triumphs in Tamil Nadu and Kerala respectively, send out is that it’s the support of the electorate and a strident campaign to earn it that guarantees a political party its electoral longevity and not institutions. Among the first announcements that Banerjee made after her party’s spectacular victory today was her plan to take the Election Commission to court over what she and her party – and indeed large number of people – believe is unambiguously partisan conduct.
Through the assembly poll campaign, as during any other period when the BJP feels particularly threatened by a rival party or its leaders, there have been countless incidents when the EC and sundry other so-called independent and autonomous bodies came to the saffron party’s rescue. The tax raids at the premises of Stalin’s son-in-law, the CBI’s summons to the wife and sister-in-law of Banerjee’s nephew and Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee or the ED’s claims of Vijayan’s alleged role in the gold smuggling case all fit into this modus operandi. As for the EC’s conduct in recent years, particularly under chief election commissioners like AK Joti, OP Rawat and Sunil Arora, the less said the better. The same goes for the media and some members of an institution one can’t name for fear of being hauled up for making contemptuous remarks.
Rahul needn’t even look at what’s happened to his colleagues in the Opposition who have, despite the many pressures, enticements and intimidations, soldiered on. His senior colleagues, P. Chidambaram and DK Shivakumar spent days in jail at a time when they were either capturing public imagination for their criticism of central policies or for standing up to save their government from being toppled or their party legislators from being poached by the BJP. Neither Chidambaram nor Shivakumar have, however, used the excuse of compromised institutions to stop criticising the BJP, its politics and policies.
Banerjee fought the BJP in Bengal against as grave personal odds as the Congress has faced in recent years. Her most trusted lieutenants of decades left her for the BJP, she was personally under attack by various leaders of the BJP – including her former confidante and now electoral rival Suvendu Adhikari – in the most vicious ways and her nephew was made out to be a greedy commission agent just as Rahul’s brother-in-law Robert Vadra has been over the years. Irrespective of the merits – or the lack of them – behind the allegations that have come Banerjee’s way and the numerous Judases she discovered within the Trinamool over the past few years, the Bengal chief minister did what followers expect from their political leaders. She fought and she gave her all to the fight. She took no leisurely sojourns but invested heavily in reaching out to her electorate while simultaneously carrying out her chief ministerial duties as well as combating the BJP, both personally and politically. The result was for all to see today.
Of course, Rahul personally deserves all the credit for fighting the BJP and its ideology every step of the way. Often, he seems to be the only Opposition leader doing so relentlessly. But then there are the long leaves of unjustifiable absence that he has shown a proclivity for. Add to this the fact that despite two consecutive routs in general elections and humiliation in various state polls, Rahul and his lieutenants have done little to actually rebuild the party at the grassroots. This is not to say that the entire blame for the Congress’s current morass lies with Rahul or that his party was flourishing before he arrived to take command of it – directly for a while and then by proxy. His mother did little to strengthen the Congress organisation for the 10 years that the UPA was in power at the Centre. In states like UP, Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu where the Congress has been a fringe entity for decades, Sonia made no effort for rebuilding the party at the grassroots. Rahul inherited a mammoth organisation with a glorious legacy which, in recent decades, had been eroding from within. He simply made it worse.
Be it Banerjee, Stalin or Vijayan, these satraps faced, fought and ultimately triumphed against their own set of personal, political and social challenges. None of them sat down to lament the lack of support from institutions or intimidation of colleagues and comrades. That’s the biggest lesson Rahul needs to learn from his fellow stalwarts in the Opposition space if he hopes to make a success out of his imminent second innings as the Congress’s chief steward. His deep involvement in the poll campaigns in Kerala and Assam, irrespective of the unfavourable results, as well as his persistent critiques of the Centre’s mismanagement of the ongoing Covid tragedy and the country’s economy prove that he can muster the perseverance for a political fight when he chooses to. What he needs to realise though is that perseverance can’t be episodic.