Will Congress rise like a phoenix?

The response to the Yatra and Rahul has got political rivals worried, and we are seeing a different Congress emerging, slowly and surely. No wonder, everyone is sitting up and taking notice.

A few months ago when the Congress Party rejected political strategist Prashant Kishor’s offer to chart its future course, there were many who got frustrated with the Grand Old Party and wrote it off. Many, like me, castigated the party for ignoring the writing on the wall and single-handedly destroying any chances the country had of having a credible opposition to the ruling party, which is vital for a vibrant and healthy democracy. That was in May. Cut to September and we are seeing a different Congress emerging, slowly and surely. And everyone is sitting up and taking notice.

It all began with the Grand Old Party raising relevant points connected to the common man’s woes. Even though trolls tried to brush aside the timid attempts by a totally decimated party to rake up pertinent issues like joblessness, price rise, unprecedented hike in petrol and diesel prices, women’s security or the lack of it, farmers’ woes, and so on, the party did not give up. They kept at it tenaciously and as a result, this time the Parliament Session saw a much more confident and outspoken party, willing to hold the ruling dispensation accountable and not be silenced.

But what really surprised Congress watchers was the way they came out to defend an ailing Sonia Gandhi when she was called for grilling by the ED in the National Herald Case. One may or may not approve of the mayhem they created on the streets of the national Capital and the fact that they were seen to be behaving as obstructionists, but it was certainly interesting to see the way the party, which over the years seemed to have become lethargic owing to repeated humiliations at the hustings, was galvanized into action. They sat on dharnas on the streets, took beatings and detentions, and called out Delhi Police and the ruling party, but they did not back down. This side of the Congress was certainly not seen in a long time.

When Rahul Gandhi was grilled by the ED relentlessly for inhumanly long hours day after day, the whole nation watched with bated breath. Most thought that someone who has grown up in a protected environment in the lap of luxury could come undone after sustained questioning by the hackneyed and seasoned officers of the ED, but he always came out at the end of the day, looking tired and haggard but calm and composed. In a way, the experience with the ED was Rahul Gandhi’s baptism by fire, and he seems to have come out of it stronger, more confident, responsible, and dignified.

And now there is the much-talked-about and keenly-watched ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ which has seen the Gandhi scion come out of his comfort zone and connect with the masses. The outpouring of love and support from the aam aadmi for a party that seemed to have lost its relevance in national politics and become distanced from the grassroots has been an eye-opener for many cynics, Congress baiters, trolls, political commentators and political rivals. So much so, that rival parties which had written off the Grand Old Party, have been compelled to resort to the kind of gimmickry that one has come to expect from them by raking up frivolous issues to distract from the real narrative. The good thing is that for once the senior leaders, spokespersons and particularly the IT cell of the Congress are not comatose and they are exposing detractors and shutting down controversies that are sought to be created.

However, the party and those who plan Rahul Gandhi’s schedule would do well to do background checks on the people the Gandhi scion meets, the clothes he wears, and the questions he asks because he is under public scrutiny like never before and even a little misstep is magnified and turned into a controversy. For instance whoever set up the meeting with a controversial pastor with even more controversial questions to be asked of the man certainly doesn’t have the best interests of the Congress at heart. Plus, whoever slipped the Burberry T-shirt into his suitcase and Rahul’s image managers should be fired for the lack of sartorial advice. Good that the Congress shut that bit of controversy down as fast as it came up, but considerable damage was done by then.

Take a page out of the book of some other politicians who have cultivated their images with so much effort over the years. Plus the Congress’ media machinery that seems to be rusted has to be oiled again. Remember it’s all about the perception and photo ops. Here again, the Congress would do well to learn from some past masters in the game of the perfect photo ops.

Hopefully, so many days into the yatra the Congress would have realized how controversy factories work and what close scrutiny the yatra, yatris and particularly the Gandhi scion is being subjected to. One thing is clear, the response to the yatra and Rahul has got political rivals worried. He can’t be taken lightly anymore and seems to be set on reviving the fortunes of the party which had become tired, old and far from grand in the eyes of many aspirational regional netas with their eyes fixed on Delhi. It’s no coincidence that Mamata Banerjee, who had declined to align with the Congress, is now thinking about burying differences with the party. And this revelation came from none other than a stalwart like NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, an astute politician who is known to measure his words. Speaking to reporters in Mumbai recently, Pawar had said TMC chief Banerjee is “ready to bury her differences with the Congress in the national interest and come together to form an anti-BJP front before the Lok Sabha polls.” According to her own party leader Sougata Roy, “Sharad Pawar is a very senior leader of the country, and I don’t think he has made the remarks without consulting our party chief.”

The relationship between the Congress and TMC hit an all-time low last year, after the latter had slammed the Grand Old Party as “incapable and incompetent”, which had gone into a “deep freezer.” Plus, in a major jolt to Opposition unity, TMC abstained from the vice-presidential election, as it did not agree with the process the candidate was decided upon without keeping the party in the loop. That Mamata is willing to mend fences with the Congress can only be attributed to the party’s rising political relevance and popularity with the masses in the States it is passing through. Of course, the South is its playground but still, it can’t be neglected.

Another positive development is the forthcoming Congress presidential poll. At long last, after two decades, the party will be getting a non-Gandhi as a president. Fresh blood in an organization always brings fresh ideas and rejuvenates those who are ambitious as there is hope for growth. Rahul of course will remain at the helm of things behind the scenes, much like his mother Sonia was for a very long time, but at least there will be a space for new ideas and democracy in the new organizational setup. With a non-Gandhi at the helm for the first time since 1998, the party can to an extent counter criticism over dynastic politics ahead of the 2024 General Elections.

Rajasthan Congress strongman and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, had thrown his hat into the ring for the presidential election and was also the High Command’s choice for the top job. However, his chances were marred by his over ambition and the unprecedented indiscipline and defiance shown by his MLAs in their bid to keep Sachin Pilot out of the Chief Minister’s chair. Now Gehlot is out of the picture entirely and his future as the Rajasthan Chief Minister, too, is in doubt. Even though it is good that the party High Command has come down heavily on this indiscipline but one wonders for how long will Gehlot nurse his wounds and what his next step will be and when.

All the high-octane drama over the election now leaves the charismatic Shashi Tharoor, the astute Digvijaya Singh and the dark horse (if sources are to be believed) Mallikarjun Kharge in the fray. Even though the Leader of Opposition had not formally thrown his hat into the ring till this piece went to press but his name was doing the rounds as frontrunner for the party chief’s post and that too with the blessings of the Gandhis. However, who will remain standing till the end, only time will tell.

Kharge or Digvijaya’s election to the top post will signal the party’s attempt to maintain a balance between the Young Turks and the Old Guard, whose rivalry within the party is legendary. On the other hand, if Tharoor is elected, it will send a very positive message that democratic values are still alive within the party (as opposed to Ghulam Nabi Azad’s accusations after quitting the Congress) and even a rebel can head the Congress and that one should have the courage of conviction to stand up for the good of the party if it is going in the wrong direction.

One wishes that veterans like Captain Amarinder Singh, Kapil Sibal, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Jyotiraditya Scindia were there to witness the change and maybe add to the list of contestants. But unfortunately, their time and patience with the Congress had run out and they parted ways. One only wishes that the party had made an effort to hold them back instead of declaring publicly that “whoever wants to leave can go.” Loyalty is not something that is easily found and these leaders were die-hard Congressmen who had put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for the party. Their loss at a time like this will be felt.

However, despite everything, the winds of change that are blowing within the party are good. Rahul may not be willing to don the mantle of the party chief anymore but there is no doubt about it that he has taken the dying Grand Old Party off the ventilator. But whether it results in the Congress getting into the driving seat whereas the Opposition unity chariot is concerned or whether it garners the party a larger vote share in the 2024 elections, only time will tell. But one thing is certain, no matter who becomes the next party chief, he has his task cut out for him. He has to find acceptance not only from the Gandhis but also within the rank and file of the party which is used to bowing to the wishes of the dynasty. He has to stamp down on factionalism in the Congress, and stem the exodus of party leaders, especially the veterans. He has to address the issues raised by the G23, end sycophancy and dependence on the Gandhis and he has to keep the fighting spirit and the momentum that the yatra has created alive and kicking, not just in the South but also in the rest of the nation, till the General Elections. Also, he should realise that if he can’t improve the party’s showing at the hustings, he won’t have the same protection that Sonia and Rahul had had and the blame would squarely lie on his shoulders. So the new party chief will need very strong shoulders indeed to take the party into its next phase. One wishes that the Congress would rise up like a phoenix because a stronger Congress only means a stronger Opposition in the country and Parliament. And that can only be good for India.