2024 polls: Congress goes back to the drawing board

Congress President Sonia Gandhi has formed an Empowered Action Group after reviewing a plan presented by poll manager Prashanr Kishor to revive the party. Kishor, however, has declined her offer to join the party,  reports Amit Agnihotri

Poll manager Prashant Kishor tried hard but failed to join the Congress and work towards the party’s revival ahead of the 2024 national elections.

“I declined the generous offer of Congress to join the party as part of the EAG (Empowered Action Group) and take responsibility for the elections,” Kishor tweeted.

“In my humble opinion, more than me, the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms,” he said.

The poll manager’s reactions came shortly after the Congress said he had declined an offer to join the party.

“Following a presentation & discussions with Sh. Prashant Kishor, Congress President, has  constituted an Empowered Action Group 2024 & invited him to join the party as part of the group with defined responsibility. He declined. We appreciate his efforts & suggestion given to party,” Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted.

The Congress response came 10 days after party chief Sonia Gandhi along with selected senior leaders reviewed a plan presented by Kishor to revive the party on April 16.

This means the Congress will now work out its 2024 strategy on its own. Party chief Sonia Gandhi has already set her eyes on the next national elections and formed an empowered action group for the big contest.

The panel will also work out strategy for the assembly polls that will take place over the next two years, namely in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka.

The grand old party will also convene a Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan’s Udaipur from May 13-15 where over 400 leaders from across the country will debate and finalize the broad roadmap for the 2024 national elections.

The Chintan Shivir will review the current political, social and economic challenges before the grand old party as also the trampling upon the rights of the weaker sections and minorities across the country and other issues affecting the people.

The Congress galvanized into action after the party’s poor show in the five recent assembly polls shocked and pained the leadership as well the workers across the country.

Noting the recent poll defeats in five states, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur were “both shocking and painful”, Sonia told the party MPs that the road ahead for the Congress was challenging more than ever before and unity at all levels in the party was paramount.

“Holding a Chintan Shivir is very necessary.  That is where the views of a larger number of colleagues and party representatives will be heard.  They will contribute to put forward a clear roadmap on the urgent steps to be taken by our party on how best to meet the challenges we are confronted with,” she said.

“Our revival is not just a matter of importance to us alone — it is, in fact, essential for our democracy itself and indeed for our society as well,” she said.

Soon after, Prashant Kishor made a detailed presentation before Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi on April 16 on how to revive the Congress party, following which the party chief reviewed the proposals with several senior leaders for many days.

Others who reviewed the proposals included AK Antony, Ambika Sonia, Mallikarjun Kharge, P Chidambaram, Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken, Mukul Wasnik, KC Venugopal and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

The group advised the Congress chief on the merits and demerits of Kishor’s plan and whether the party should induct the poll manager as a leader or hire him as a consultant.

Sonia also discussed Kishor’s plan with chief ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, respectively. Both Gehlot and Baghel are important in the Congress system not only because they lead party governments in the two key Hindi-speaking states, but also because Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will have assembly polls in 2023, a year before the national battle.

At present, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are the only two states where the Congress rules on its own. The party shares power in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

Before the meeting at Sonia’s 10 Janpath residence in the national capital began, Gehlot made an important remark that Kishor had become a big brand in the country.

“This is professional work. There are others also like him and we keep in touch with them also. But everybody is talking about Kishor today as he has become a big brand in the country,” Gehlot said.

“The opposition can benefit from his experience,” he said.

Gehlot’s remarks assumed significance as they came a day after party veteran M Veerappa Moily backed Kishor’s proposed entry in the Congress.

Moily claimed that Sonia Gandhi was keen to induct Kishor and dubbed those opposed to the idea as anti-reform. Interestingly, Moily was part of the group of senior dissenters (G23) who had written a letter to Sonia in 2020 demanding internal elections for all party posts.

A range of senior leaders like M Veerappa Moily, Tariq Anwar and Digvijay Singh backed the proposal to induct Kishor in the Congress, but noted that Sonia Gandhi would take the final decision in the matter.

Moily said he had suggested the idea to Sonia earlier, Anwar said that Kishor was ready to join the Congress without any pre-conditions while Singh said the strategist had made a nice presentation which was liked by the veterans.


The plan

PK’s plan 2.0 for the revival of the Congress ahead of the 2024 national elections was basically an updated version of the document he had presented before the party high command last year.

The reworked plan mostly drew from the last year’s plan, which had suggested that the grand old party should go in for a reincarnation meaning same soul but new body. The route to reincarnation would be through rebuilding the party and democratising it, says the new plan.

The new elements are the idea to focus on contesting 370/543 Lok Sabha seats alone in 2024. The other related point is that the Congress should go alone in big states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which send 120 seats to the Lok Sabha, while forging alliances with like-minded regional parties in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

“It is about Winning India in 2024,” the new plan said.

It listed reasons like failure to capitalize on legacy and achievements, structural weaknesses and lack of connection with the masses as being responsible for the grand old party’s slide from 1984 to 2019.

One of the key recommendations in the earlier plan also finds place in the new suggestions. This relates to the high command and mentions that while Sonia Gandhi should be at the helm of the AICC, Rahul Gandhi should take charge of the Congress Parliamentary Party. At present Sonia heads the CPP.

On the need for a non-Gandhi as party chief, the new plan suggests that such a person may be appointed a vice president or a working president to silence the critics of the Gandhi family, especially the BJP, which often slams the grand old party over dynastic politics while conveniently practicing it.

On re-strengthening the party, the new plan suggests that the Congress needs to reclaim its founding tenets and create an army of grassroots leaders and foot soldiers.

Among other suggestions include the creation of a new Congress for the masses, protecting its values and core principles, destroying a sense of entitlement and sycophancy, fixing the alliance conundrum, follow one family, one ticket rule to counter prevalent nepotism, reconstituting organisational bodies via elections across all levels, fixed term and fixed tenures for all posts including Congress President and Congress Working Committee, identifying and meaningfully engaging 15,000 grassroots leaders and activating 1 crore foot soldiers across India.

Kishor had made a similar presentation last year before the Gandhis and suggested a few ideas to revive the Congress and restructure the organization. The proposals were reviewed by select party veterans but did not go ahead.


The planner

Kishor is a well-known poll strategist and has worked with several parties in the past, including PM Modi in 2014.

He had joined the Janata Dal-United in 2018 after he helped party chief Nitish Kumar win the 2015 Bihar assembly polls. Kishor, who was appointed as JD-U vice president, was expelled in January 2020 due to his disagreement with the party over the Citizenship Amendment Act.

He was also behind YSR Congress chief Jagan Mohan Reddy’s victory in the 2019 Andhra Pradesh assembly polls.

In 2021, Kishor made a significant contribution towards chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s historic win over the BJP and quit the role of a poll manager immediately after the results saying he was looking for a change.

He also advised DMK chief MK Stalin in the 2021 Tamil Nadu polls.

For the past one year, Rahul Gandhi had been exploring ways to induct Kishor in the Congress. Kishor was poll manager for the Congress party in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh and Punjab assembly elections. While Punjab was a success, UP turned out to be a disaster.

Later, then Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh had appointed Kishor as his principal adviser for the 2022 assembly polls but the strategist had resigned saying he was taking a break from an active role.

Since then, Kishor has been focussed on the 2024 national elections.


Congress allies

The Congress lost the 2014 and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls to the BJP led by PM Modi and is desperate to dislodge the saffron party at the Centre in 2024.

Kishor, who played a key role in the historic third term win of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee last year against the BJP juggernaut, had expressed his desire to join the Congress and help the grand old party work out a strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls but the talks did not go forward.

Since then, the Congress has been trying to forge a coalition of like-minded opposition parties but has at times faced resistance from regional parties the TMC and AAP, who think they are more aggressive than the grand old party.

Recently, during the Goa assembly elections, the Congress had blamed both the AAP and TMC for contesting the polls in the coastal state but was in turn blamed by them for being too soft on the BJP.

The managers of AAP in Delhi and TMC in West Bengal believe they are more capable of defeating the BJP nationally.

With that thought, Mamata had even suggested a federal front of regional parties minus the Congress but NCP leader Sharad Pawar differed with her. Pawar argued that any such front was not possible without the Congress as it was the second largest party in the country.

The regional parties were flexing muscles as the Congress has suffered a series of poll losses since 2014. The Congress recently lost Punjab to the AAP mainly due to infighting.

Yet, the Congress thinks that it is the only natural anchor to any national anti-BJP front and must take lead in that direction. Prashant Kishor’s latest presentation was the next step towards that direction and suggested a host of radical moves.

The senior Congress leaders who reviewed Kishor’s plan suggested that the poll manager should sever his connections with the regional parties like TMC and TRS.

Kishor had a detailed meeting with Telangana chief minister and TRS president KC Rao, who later signed a deal with Kishor’s organization, the Indian Political Action Committee. TMC also has a similar contract with I-PAC for the 2024 national elections.

Rao said that Kishor was an old friend and that the two had been planning to bring about a change nationally in 2024. Recently, Rao has been attacking the Centre’s policies to counter the BJP’s growing influence in Telangana.