What Ails the Congress?

While addressing his coalition partners at the UPA government’s fourth anniversary, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “In these past four years, our government has sincerely sought to implement the National Common Minimum Programme, and in fact try and do more when possible.”

Even if critics dismiss this statement as a run-up to next year’s general elections, or an appeasement of the Left Front, Singh’s statement is well validated by the various programmes – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, National Rural Health Mission, Bharat Nirman, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, The Mid-Day Meal Programme – initiated and implemented by the Government in the past four years. This year has witnessed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme being universalized to cover all districts of the country. Recently, we also saw the ‘historic’ Women’s Reservation Bill being passed in Parliament, after being in contention for almost ten years. Indeed, the UPA has achieved a lot.

But in the light of these triumphs, the Congress’ loss in the assembly elections since the beginning of the year is quite an the antithesis. The fact that the BJP had lost fourteen assembly elections prior to 2004 is also noteworthy, especially since the party lost the following General Elections too.

But coming back to the situation at hand, where has the Congress faltered, and what lessons should it learn from these losses?
Analyzing the Congress’s defeat in the Karnataka and Gujarat assembly elections, what stands out is the party’s obscure campaigning and bad (or rather lack of) marketing. The Congress’s campaigns have essentially focused on the shortcomings of the opposition, rather than the solutions it could offer. What the party really needs to do is market its own strengths and achievements, in order to redress the lost electorate votes and not just identify and highlight the opposition’s flaws.

The Congress must realize that apart from being a secular alternative to the BJP, it also has the advantage of a futuristic and educated outlook – quite evident when we compare the academic credentials of a Chidambaram with those of a Yashwant Sinha. But the Congress suffers from a paucity of leadership at the state level, multiplied with the lack of accountability. The party is also subject to the internal friction caused by its henchmen whose proximity to 10 Janpath becomes a cause of concern for 7 Race Course Road!

However, the Youth Congress seems to have understood this, and is making its affairs increasingly corporate, under Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhi scion has devised a new system of making party appointments – one based purely on merit. The process comprising a series of interviews and written examinations is a highly rigorous and competitive one. Candidates are evaluated on the basis of their educational achievements, contribution to the party, involvement in local affairs, and so on. That they shouldn’t not belong to a family affiliated to politics is also a criteria. Over the past two months, Gandhi has interviewed almost 125 candidates, of which only seven qualified to the final round. Dubbed a reality show, the first winner Anil Choudhary has been assigned to head the Delhi Congress after scoring a 92% in the final round!

Great! Impressive, Mr, Gandhi, but then, the Congress also needs to iron out the differences with its coalition partners, as a result of which, the government has been subject to great uncertainty in the past, as also the present. If the seating arrangement at the fourth anniversary party is a credible indicator, the Congress seems to be working towards improving its ties with its allies. The next general elections are around the corner, and the allies need the Congress as much as the Congress needs them. But the Congress should take advantage of being the largest political party in Parliament and not succumb to the unnecessary pressure inflicted by its coalition partners on its day-to-day functioning.

However, in the face of the current problem of inflation, none of the above measures will really enable the Congress to win an election. Singh spoke of inflation saying “the UPA government ensured that the rate of inflation was brought down from 6% in about 2003-04 to about 3% in 2005-06. The current increase in prices is due to the steep increase in global commodity process, especially oil and food.” The inflation in 2003-04 was precisely the factor that led to the end of the NDA government, despite its (in)famous India Shining campaign. World over, nothing affects an electorate more than a hole in the pocket. So, will inflation be the cause of the demise of this current government? Or will a good monsoon come as a breather for the government? Only time will tell.

With a good beginning and an impressive middle, a good finish would have been perfect, but sadly that hasn’t been the case for the UPA. “Well begun is half done”, they say. If only this were true for politics!

Rohan Sandhu

[Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattlogelin/177650762/]