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What Could PK Really Have Done for the Congress Party?

Afzal Imam |
Congress is probably the only political party whose strategies are discussed, point by point, in the media. What’s the value of a strategy that gets discussed in public and ridiculed by the press?
What Could PK Really Have Done for the Congress Party?

The Congress party’s talks with election strategist Prashant Kishor (PK) failed right before it heads for a three-day “chintan shivir” or deliberation camp in Udaipur. Leaders from half-a-dozen committees set up by party president Sonia Gandhi are busy holding meetings at its “war room” on 15 Gurdwara Rakabganj Road. What these committees decide will be discussed in detail at the chintan shivir next month. Based on their recommendations, the party will prepare an overall roadmap.

An interesting aspect of these developments is the hue and cry in the media over the breakdown of talks with PK. The news media are making every effort possible to project the failure to induct PK as a big mistake committed by the Congress party. For two weeks, TV anchors and reporters have been revealing details of their deliberations—how many slides PK’s presentation to Congress leaders had, what suggestions it contained to revive the party, how it wanted to prepare the leadership for elections, and so on. They have dedicated much time and space to whatever PK and Congress leaders discussed, and even some to what they did not talk about. A presentation from a previous round of talks, which also failed, between the Congress party and PK has appeared in the public. Still more debates on TV and oversized news items in newspapers followed.

Congress is probably the world’s first political party whose organisational and electoral strategies are being discussed, point by point, in the media. But what is the value of a strategy that gets discussed in public and ridiculed by the press! Even when leaders of small and regional outfits make electoral preparations, they do not tell the world about it. However, it is correct that the Congress president had offered to make PK part of an Empowered Action Group (EAG), to be created for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, which he has turned down. He later advised the party on Twitter, “More than me, the party needs leadership and collective will to fix deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms.”

The point is, those who advocate PK’s entry into the Congress party say the same thing. According to them, PK is like a doctor for an ailing behemoth, who must get a “free hand” to treat his patient from within. PK’s sole condition to ‘assist’ the party was that he would implement his plans in his way. No party leader could raise questions, and he would speak directly, only with Sonia Gandhi. It is said this clause became the main reason for the breakdown of their talks, for no significant party leader wanted a professional from outside to tell them how politics is done. They also did not want anyone other than the party “high command” to have control over them. Indeed this is accurate, but the issue is goes way beyond these facts.

Since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it has been a matter of daily debate (in the drawing rooms of influential political and social faces) that all members of the Gandhi-Nehru family should step down from top posts in the Congress party. They believe that if a non-Gandhi leads the party, its fortunes may improve. When Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son, resigned from the post of Congress president after the Lok Sabha debacle in 2019, he had said the party could choose whom it wished as its president. But of course, the situation remains just as it was. There was talk about handing over the party’s leadership to Motilal Vora for some time. Then Mukul Wasnik’s name figured in discussions. Eventually, Sonia Gandhi took over the responsibility, but as interim president.

Sources say that PK wanted the party to appoint Priyanka Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi as the president instead of Rahul. He wanted someone from outside the family to be the working president. Not only this, he talked about changing the name of the United Progressive Alliance and that it should appoint a new president from a different member of the alliance every two years. In effect, PK rejected Rahul’s name for the post of Congress President and advised the Congress party to leave the command of the UPA. The Congress party’s leaders could not digest both these suggestions. It is generally believed there Rahul’s style and leadership have shortcomings, and his image has also taken a beating both within the party and outside. However, these leaders argue that the image of the Narendra Modi government and the Sangh Parivar have lost some of their sheen. They say that if Rahul did not have any power, why would the members of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP attack him the most in their speeches?

Secondly, these leaders say, PK included reams of statistics in his presentation and offered many fine suggestions for how the Congress party can propagate its message among voters. However, he gave no strategy for breaking the aggressive communal polarisation and majoritarianism that defines politics today. In this vein, they raised the question, what is PK’s ideological position? To what extent do his election programmes and strategies match the ideology of the party? There is ambiguity about these.

At present, the biggest problem of not just the Congress but most Opposition parties is that they are unable to find a counter to the politics of polarisation. Before this tactic, regional, linguistic, caste and class identities and their politics have also been marginalised, if not neutralised.

It is not that Congress has not made any effort to reach out to people in recent times. During the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, Priyanka Gandhi spoke about women’s rights with the slogan “Ladki Hoon Lad Sakti Hoon—I am a girl and I can fight” to break the narrative of religious polarisation. But her experiment was severely beaten in the Uttar Pradesh election. She also raised issues that concern Dalits, and supported farmers when peasant movement was on. The Congress organised some large public meetings and programs in support of farmers, but it could not gain from these even in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the epicentre of the protests.

As far as changes in the organisation are concerned, during the last five or six years, many new people have been given opportunities. There are new faces in the party, right from the All-India Congress Committee to the state and district levels. Leaders and workers from the Dalit and backward classes have also got fresh impetus within the organisation and in the state governments it runs. Despite tremendous opposition, the party made Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi Punjab chief minister. Even at present, the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are from backward classes. Yet, the truth is that all these remedies have proved unsuccessful.

In the kind of situation the country is in, all Congress leaders and those of other opposition parties have concluded that elections have turned into big ideological battles now. Those parties and people who still believe in secularism, democracy, pluralism and tolerance have to be clear about it, and present their alternatives with vigour. Sources say Congress party members will discuss their ideology at the Chintan Shivir, and not just organisational matters or future programmes and strategy. For several years, it has been noticed that when the party’s top leadership takes up a burning issue, it does not get support from the leaders downstream. Not only this, many Congress leaders have joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, this would not have happened if the party had withstood recent challenges to its ideology, so that is where it would need to begin improving its performance.

The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.

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