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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2003 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Congress must introspect the rout in assembly polls
By S Ubaidur Rahman

The comprehensive defeat of the Congress in the just concluded assembly elections in three out of four states has once again exposed the Congress party’s weakness in planning an electoral fight. Despite the fact that the Congress party was better placed than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the four north Indian states that went to the polls namely Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi where it was the ruling party it lost badly in three important states. Delhi was the only consolation where the party won due more to chief minister Sheila Dixit’s clean image and the common people’s confidence in her. Even the gimmickry of Chattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi to implicate the former union minister of state in a bribery scandal didn’t help. It later came out that instead of making a negative impact against the BJP it dented Jogi’s image itself. 

Madhya Pradesh was the only state where the BJP and psephologists alike had predicted a victory for the Bhartiya Janata Party. They were counting on the lack of developmental work in the state and precarious condition of electricity and deteriorating condition of roads all over the state to help the BJP dislodge the 10 year old Congress government in the state. BJP was more sure of Congress’ victory than the Congress itself in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the state governments were being credited for improving the overall economic condition of the two states. Just a fortnight ago an internal survey conducted by the BJP in Rajasthan had predicted that the Congress party would again come to power in the state and the BJP should concentrate on constituencies where it had more chances of winning than focus on the whole state. Ajit Jogi’s strong condition in the state was never doubted by psephologists and political analysts alike. 

But that very overconfidence of the Congress coupled with extremely bad poll strategy wiped out all the chances of the Congress in the three states. Congressmen in Rajasthan where the party was comfortably placed were a week before the state was going to the polls confident of its outcome. In Chhattisgarh it was Ajit Jogi all over the state. He had overshadowed all the issues. And this tactic of making himself the only issue and the Judev episode destroyed his sure chance of winning the election in this tribal dominated state. 

But the most important thing that destroyed Congress chances in the so called semi finals was very poor poll management and the inept team that the Congress brought forward to fight the polls. When the BJP used the best faces in its arsenals like Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, young and energetic faces like Vasundhra Raje Scindia, Sadhwi Uma Bharti and used Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and his deputy LK Advani to full advantage Congress party scored poorly on this count. The only weapon in its armoury was Sonia Gandhi who can never be as effective as Vajpayee and Advani. Sonia has so comprehensively destroyed the second rung leadership of the party that there doesn’t seem to be any leader of substance in the central Congress team. There are chamchas all around who don’t seem to follow any logic in giving rational advice to her on issues confronting the party. Instead they seem to have developed a protective wall around her where she doesn’t seem to get the right feedback on issues of importance to the country and the party. People like Ambika Soni who have taken an unusually important role in the affairs of the party are not known to be either effective managers or planners. 

Leaders like Ambika Soni try to keep the Congress president in a make believer world. Even now the party leaders anxious to protect the party president have so easily embraced the anti-incumbency doctrine to lay down the loss of three states to the inadequacies in the performance of the state governments. This is in total contrast to what the party had projected when it won the previous round of assembly elections. The party had attributed its victory in previous state polls to Sonia Gandhi’s growing popularity. The same chief ministers who are defeated now were being showcased as performers and it was projected that they would dodge the anti-incumbency factor. But to project the same chief ministers now as responsible for the electoral debacle was necessary to protect Sonia Gandhi’s image. Several top leaders in the party believe that the loss of persona can hurt the party which is already finding it difficult to find allies. 

To be true, a number of political parties that could have become natural allies of the Congress have distanced themselves from the party due to Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue. A number of important party leaders have left the party due to the same issue. These include people like Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma who still make a lot of difference in their respective areas. Mulayam Singh Yadav of Samajwadi Party, Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party, Jayalalitha of the AIADMK and several others have refused to align with the Congress due to this very issue. Another important flaw that is quite natural is the fact that the Congress president is not able to communicate with the people in the same way as Narender Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Advani and Vajpayee talk. People in most of the places are not able to relate themselves to Sonia Gandhi due to her foreign origin and language. Her language is still a problem. Though she is a crowd puller, she is not able to impress the audience. 

Now with the semi-final over and the final just five months away the Congress seems to have been placed in a very precarious situation. The BJP is sure to project Vajpayee as successful statesman who was able to run a successful coalition government despite all odds. The BJP is also all set to project Vajpayee’s dominating stature compared to Sonia Gandhi. The BJP is preparing to launch a campaign in the same style as presidential campaigns are carried on in the US. This fight will be between two personalities and the BJP would pitch Vajpayee against Sonia. BJP would try to make Sonia a great punching bag. 

But all said and done everything is not lost. Congress can always retrieve its formidable vote bank among minorities, Dalits and forward castes by some good planning and homework. It can use leaders like Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot, AR Antulay, Kamal Nath and others very effectively. Antulay, Diggy Raja and Gehlot have a clean image and a team like theirs with help from some young faces like Jyotiraditya Scindia can always click. Allies are another factor on which it would have to work. Good luck Soniaji.

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