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A SHOT IN THE ARM

A SHOT IN THE ARM
31 Dec 2019

Congress has much to gain from the ongoing protests, but needs to brace itself for big challenges lying ahead

As the Congress party observed its 135th foundation day, celebrations were muted and the grand old party seemed to be in the mood to introspect. In the last year, the party has gained some of its lost ground in state assembly elections but even that has come with its own share of problems. From being a major player in key states, the Congress finds itself relegated to the status of a junior partner to regional parties.

The party’s second worst historic defeat in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year led to a leadership crisis with the departure of Rahul Gandhi and the reinstatement of Sonia Gandhi as Congress chief. However, talk of bringing Rahul back at the helm has not lost currency and remains a possibility in the near future.

With widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Congress is hopeful of using the anger against the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to its advantage and emerging as the primary challenger to the ruling government.

Senior Congress leaders have renewed their attacks on the BJP in recent days. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary K.C. Venugopal accused the Prime Minister and the Home Minister of being contradictory while giving statements on the NRC, the CAA and on the National Population Register (NPR).

“The government has put itself in a bind on these issues with the PM, Home Minister and Raksha Mantri making contradictory statements on different occasions. The CAA proposes to flout the guarantees of Article 14, in contravention of the Constitution of India,” he said.

Venugopal also said that the government’s move to announce the NPR updation amid protests over CAA and NRC and to divert public attention from unemployment and economic gloom, have raised suspicions about their motives.

“Amidst massive public outrage, the government decided to take a step further and announced the updation of NPR exercise, on December 24. This has again raised hackles and suspicion because of RSS-BJP’s long hidden agenda to implement NRC following completion of NPR exercise amid historic unemployment and the pall of economic gloom,” he said.

He said that his party is committed to save the Constitution.

According to Venugopal, the “Congress Party will rise to every occasion when there is a challenge to the Constitution of India and any effort to derail the country from its path of progress”.

The Congress believes that public anger at the police excesses and the state crackdown during the protests, especially in Uttar Pradesh, are a golden opportunity to build its own campaign and corner the BJP government. 

In the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was decimated in the state but is now using all its might to take on the Yogi Adityanath government and re-emerge as a player on the state’s political landscape.

Weakened by factionalism, the Congress needs to regroup and infuse new energy into the party in order to sustain any campaign against the BJP. A major challenge lying ahead of the Congress is to catalyse the public anger against the ruling party into a bigger movement against the BJP.

The party decided to undertake flag marches named “Save Constitution – Save India” across the country to mark its foundation day. Despite criticism against the BJP government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains popular and the Congress does not have a leader to take him on at a national level. The party also needs to strengthen its own organisation instead of relying on alliances in key states.

In the past, the party has dilly dallied on critical issues of national interest instead of taking a firm stand. Even the ongoing CAA protests were led by student activists and not the main opposition party. Rahul Gandhi faced a lot of criticism for going to South Korea when critical anti-CAA protests broke out.

In his absence, it was sister Priyanka Gandhi who sat with protestors to show solidarity with her teenage daughter.

While the Congress did raise its voice against the CAA, there was a conspicuous absence of high voltage action in protests across Congress-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even in Maharashtra.

In the coming year, elections will be held in Bihar and Delhi. In Bihar, the Congress will fight beside regional giant Rashtriya Janata Dal against the Janata Dal (United) and in Delhi, the party will fight against incumbent Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal led Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP.

Sonia Gandhi may be leading the Congress for the time being but cannot remain chief for too long because of her advancing years. But Rahul’s return will suit the Congress as much as it suits the BJP. With a Gandhi at the helm, the Congress will be able to keep some of its flock together while the BJP will keep discrediting the “shehzada” and his party.

Instead of focussing on issues like unemployment or economic distress, Congressmen have been focusing all their efforts towards defending the Gandhi family. There is renewed talk at the party’s official headquarters on Akbar Road in Delhi of Rahul Gandhi returning as party chief.

But for many in the country, Rahul is still seen as an entitled prince whose claim for the post of Congress chief is based on a simple and singular fact that he is a Gandhi scion whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers of India.

The Congress may be dealing with a leadership crisis but its downfall is also rooted in the erosion of trust after a series of scams under its watch and a complete disconnect from the grassroots. Critics believe the party needs a tectonic shift in order to remain relevant and script a revival of its electoral fortunes.

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