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The Congress must create its own narrative

If you are old enough to remember Indira Gandhi, then you probably remember one of her most famous lines: “Main Kehti Hoon Garibi Hatao. Woh Kehte hai, Indira Hatao”.

It was an accurate summary of the opposition’s position. From 1969 when Mrs. Gandhi came into her own after splitting the Congress till 1984 when she was assassinated, all of Indian politics revolved around her.


She lost only one general election --- in 1977 following the Emergency --- but even then, she retained her South Indian base: the Congress and its allies won 127 seats in the South (including Maharashtra). And you could argue that the Congress’s landslide victory in the 1984 General Election was, in some ways, her victory too.


   During that period, the Opposition came up with no narrative of consequence, focusing instead on Mrs. Gandhi herself, going on and on about what a terrible dictatorial person she was, how she was ruining lndia, and how she had to be defeated.


   The Congress, on the other hand, never made the mistake of focusing its policies around the need to remove one person. Even when the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA defeated the BJP in 2004, there was no personal attack on AB Vajpayee. In 2009, when the UPA won again, the Congress wasted no time on attacks on LK Advani who had taken over from Vajpayee as leader of the BJP.


   All that has changed so much over the last few years that it is hard not to cast Narendra Modi in the Indira Gandhi role and the Congress in the part that used to be played by Mrs. Gandhi opponents.  At the last General Election, for instance, Rahul Gandhi’s primary slogan was “Chowkidar Chor Hai” and attacks on the Prime Minister’s integrity were routinely mounted. Even now, the basis of the Congress narrative is, to put it bluntly: “Narendra Modi is evil. We must get rid of him.”


   We sometimes forget how much of a departure this is for the Congress, which, throughout its history, never ever framed the narrative in terms of opposing a single individual.


   Smart political operators know what Mrs. Gandhi recognised: if your entire appeal is about the removal of one individual, then you had better be ready with an alternative to put in his or her place. The opposition never had anybody of Indira Gandhi’s stature and so, the more it attacked her, the bigger she seemed.


   Something similar has happened with the Congress and Modi. Every time the attack is framed in personal terms, voters ask: okay, if we do get rid of him, then who do you suggest we put in his place?


   Each time, the Congress gives the same answer: Rahul Gandhi. And each time, the voters shake their heads and vote for Narendra Modi anyway.


   The reason this avatar of the Congress has not been able to see how feeble and counterproductive the We Hate Modi strategy is because Rahul Gandhi and his advisors in the party really do feel strongly about Modi and about what they believe he is doing to India. They genuinely and intensely feel that he is the problem. And their policies are guided only by this conviction.


   But you don’t win elections by feeling intensely. You win them by getting voters to feel as intensely as you do. And by offering them an alternative.


  Till now, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress has no compelling narrative and no compelling alternative to Narendra Modi. And so, at election after election it goes down to humiliating defeats. And Modi gets stronger.


   It is the story of Indira Gandhi and her opponents all over again with the roles reversed: the Congress is making the same mistakes as Mrs Gandhi’s opponents. Over the last month, however, and after the last round of electoral humiliations, we finally have some signs that the Congress has decided that it has been humiliated enough. It needs to do something different.


  "The problem is that in this avatar of the Congress, there has been nobody willing to implement even those things that seem commonsensical or self-evident."

   One sign of the new resolve has been the return of Sonia Gandhi to the centre of the stage. She is more visible now than she has been for some years: speaking in parliament, issuing statements, writing articles and holding meetings with her party men and with leaders from other parties.


   This is not good news for the BJP.  By now, the BJP’s social media team has ensured that Rahul is seen as Pappu, an entitled but not very bright dynast who returns to India between foreign holidays to play politics.


   This characterization is grossly unfair. But politics is about perception. And this, for better or worse, is the public perception. It is one reason why Modi and Amit Shah want Rahul to lead the Congress; they believe they have fixed him.


   Sonia, on the other hand, is much more difficult to caricature. She brought her party to power in two elections and continues to defy the Modi wave; she won her Lok Sabha seat in Rai Bareli when nearly everybody else lost. All the old negative characterizations ---- foreigner, dilettante, dynast, etc. --- have been tried and they have failed. If Sonia becomes the face of the Congress party and puts many experienced leaders on its front bench, then all that stuff about Pappu and his entitled pals will lose its power.


   But is that what will happen?


   I am sure Sonia knows the answer to that one. But nobody else seems to. However, we can guess at her strategy from her first few moves. She has tried to create an opposition consensus, focusing on fighting communal hatred, the one issue that unites nearly every non-BJP party (though perhaps not AAP, judging by its refusal to join in) ; she is talking about alliances; and she has reached out to Prashant Kishor.


   Kishor’s relationship with the Congress is interesting. He has worked with the Congress before, came back to be the party’s strategist for the UP assembly election campaign five years ago but was constantly undermined from within the Congress itself . He has been talking to the Congress about working together again for the last 15 months or so with no tangible result.


   That Sonia should reach out to him is significant because it is widely believed within the Congress that she was the one who was not very keen on allowing him in. In her view, the Congress should be run by people who have given their lives to the party and not by outsiders, no matter how talented they are.


   Kishor’s opponents call him a BJP mole and point to his years with Modi to back this up. This is not very convincing.


   Why would a BJP mole want to humiliate the BJP in the West Bengal election? If Modi did not mind that Kishor had previously worked with the Congress, and used his services in the 2014 campaign then why should the Congress hold his time with Modi against him?


   The real objection to Kishor within the Congress is fear. Too many people in positions of power within the party feel that he will reorder the hierarchy and threaten their positions. That objection will only die down once Sonia gives her go ahead.


   Will Kishor’s inputs make a difference? Judging by what he has been telling interviewers, his ideas seem sound and sensible. Some are simply commonsensical. And yes, the Congress must create its own narrative.


   The problem is that in this avatar of the Congress, there has been nobody willing to implement even those things that seem commonsensical or self-evident. The induction of Kishor could change that.


   But finally, the Congress has to ask itself the existential question: can things get any better as long as it continues down this path? One definition of madness is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result each time.


   So if the Congress has to save itself, it must be open to change. Things are so desperate that any chance is worth taking. Perhaps Kishor has some of the answers. Perhaps he doesn’t.


   But the party needs only to look back to its own history: to the experience of the Indira years. When politics becomes all about attacking one person then it makes that person stronger. And his or her opponents weaker.


   So, if the Congress is hesitant about listening to Prashant Kishor, it can just go back to the lessons that the party learned from Rahul’s grandmother.


   Love her or hate her, Indira Gandhi knew a thing or two about politics.



Posted On: 21 Apr 2022 10:30 AM
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