Sonia Gandhi runs the risk of becoming Bahadur Shah Zafar of the Indian National Congress, feels Surendra Kumar
Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last recognisable face of the Mughal Empire that lasted over 300 years. Poet at heart, moderate and secular in his outlook, he was popular even among non-Muslim Indians. No wonder, he was invited to lead the first war of Independence (the Sepoy Mutiny) against the East India Company in1857. Sadly, the Mughal Empire had shrunken so much by the time that his writ didn’t run beyond the famous Dilli Gate! The mutiny was crushed; he was deposed, arrested and exiled to Rangoon.
One hundred and thirty year old Grand Lady of Indian politics, the Indian National Congress, was reduced to 44 seats in Lok Sabha in May 2014. Following successive electoral debacles, it has lost power in17 States; Karnataka remains the only major State where it still holds power. But if the elections were held in Karnataka today, the Congress is likely to meet the same fate as in Assam and Kerala!
Given the Congress is much younger than the Mughal Empire and its longest serving President, Sonia Gandhi, is much younger than Bahadur Shah Zafar, yet if Congress’ steep downturn is not arrested soon, her political hold might have shrunken more than that of the Mughal Emperor! After all, in the last Delhi election, the Congress couldn’t even open her account.
The Congress is passing through the biggest existential crises since1885. All talks about their Chintan, Manan, revamp, new blood and new ideas produced nothing except the threat of imminent induction of Rahul Gandhi as the president and Priyanka’s plunge into UP politics!
Such sound bites might be music to the ears of legions of sycophants in the party but it can’t help her. Its top leadership still suffers from an ostrich syndrome. It’s the problem rather than the solution. It fails to see the writing on the wall; political transformation underway in India: how lotus has bloomed in Assam for the first time and how its buds are now visible in Kerala.
Two years back, in my article ‘Sycophancy Thy name is Disaster’ in the Telegraph, I had stressed that the well honed culture of sycophancy in Congress insulates its leadership from seeing what’s visible to the rest of the country. If it aspires to survive and bounce back in reckoning, it must discard the shroud of sycophancy.
Its leaders must get the political cataract removed from their ageing eyes to regain sharp sight and take a hard look in the mirror. What do they see? Weather-beaten, wrinkled visage of a 130-year-old nani with sparse crop of coarse grey hair, hard of hearing, incapable of looking far and faltering in speech! Sure, you must love and respect your nani, but can she prepare you to face today’s politics, which has become aggressive, frenetic, digital and competitive?
Those genuinely concerned about Congress’s future should ask themselves a simple question: What is more important for India – the Congress party or the Family that seems to have usurped Congress’s IPR?
Arguably, the family has played an active part in taking the party to the zenith of power, but today it has touched its nadir, suffering setback after setback. When a team loses several matches, the Captain is changed, when a company makes huge losses, its CEO goes. It’s that simple and logical. The party must ask its top leadership to step aside and let a new leadership run the show.
The mother-son duo could follow the example of Nelson Mandela: don’t get involved in the day to day nitty-gritty of running the party but remain available for consultations and advice if sought.
Three years back, when Dr Narayana Murthy inducted his son, Infosys suffered a son-stroke. But Murthy made a swift course correction, he imported Sikka from the Silicon Valley as the CEO, and now Infosys is flying high again.
So, a change of guard could be a harbinger of good health for the Congress. It could open doors for new, innovative and imaginative ideas, strategic thinking, bold and alternative vision, doable, practical measures to connect with the masses, media savvy marketing and focused but timely execution.
There is no place for sentimentality in politics. In 2014, the BJP showed Machiavellian ruthlessness in showing the door to its patriarch, LK Advani and declared Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Obviously, in their calculation, he was the horse most likely to win. And he did. The Congress should draw lessons from the BJP -- party interests must be paramount, if it demands sacrifice of some leaders, so be it.
Perceptions matter a lot in politics, and the scams tumbling out of UPA II’s closet, one after another, is only strengthening the perception that the Congress party was reeking of corruption in 2014, otherwise it would have won 100 seats more in the parliamentary election. The National Herald case, Vadra’s real estate acquisitions and Agusta helicopter deal are all reinforcing the view that corruption still remains Congress’s Achilles heel.
Recently, Jairam Ramesh reportedly said: Modi is a problem! Well, he isn’t going anywhere? So, what do you do? Discover or invent your Modi to defeat Modi!
Who in the Congress party can match Modi’s extempore oratory in Hindi, connect with masses and work 24x7 tirelessly? He addressed more election rallies in 2014 than Rahul and Sonia put together. As he has no son or daughter living with him, allegations of nepotism don’t stick. And he is never shy of interacting with the youth, using twitter as a powerful medium for popularising his policies/decisions, seeking suggestions and creating a huge impact. If the Congress wants to connect with people it can’t afford not to share information; landlines and fax numbers are passé.
What should be the USP of Brand Congress? A party not hungry for power but ready to fight for those who have no voice and supports policies which help create a politically and economically stable, prosperous, inclusive, law abiding, environment- friendly, modern, safe society that meets basic needs of masses and fulfils aspirations of the youth: a democracy with dissent and growth.
In extempore oratory, hyperbolic claims, selling dreams, ability to connect with people and clean image, Kejriwal can match Modi. Mayawati, self proclaimed messiah of the Dalits, is a formidable leader with a mass base. Mamta Banerjee’s hold in West Bengal remains unchallenged. Even Modi and Amit Shah couldn’t shake her. Nitish Kumar is an able administrator but hampered by the Lalu factor.
If the Congress dreams of beating Modi in 2019, it must think the unthinkable: bring Maya, Mamta, Nitish and Kejriwal under its umbrella. They bring in huge experience and strong constituencies of support. By joining hands with Congress they instantly become pan-Indian parties with infrastructure across India. But will they come together? Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas? Any takers? Only time will tell.
The Congress will have to offer roles befitting the stature of these leaders. Its leader? Collective leadership following the coalition dharma of AB Vajpayee? It’s mascot? Big B? Why not? Loved across India, blessed with a baritone, he can beat Narendra Modi in Bhashanbazi. Ratan Tata, Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji and Sunil Mittal can be faces of India Inc. Youth mascots: Virat Kohli, Sania Mirza, Priyanka Chopra, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, Shradha Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kanhaiya Kumar. The RSS sent 150,000 workers to Assam. This coalition will need 1 million volunteers, their fingers on smart phones, committed for three years to create a credible challenge to Modi. Its name: Aapki Congress!
Vir Bhogya Vasundhara!
-- Surendra Kumar is a former ambassador and author. Views expressed here are his personal