A mission-driven zeal to win votes at any cost has not been part of the Congress’ otherwise chequered history. Take the Rajiv era, for instance: when a single-party government had won a brute majority, the PM and Congress president lost power in states while making ‘earnest efforts’ to resolve trouble spots in Assam, Punjab, J&K and Mizoram.
Journalist and Author
The Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) decision to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is political and fraught with the danger of boomeranging, unless the grand old party launches a massive nationwide political awareness campaign. Given the Congress’ track record, launching counter-offensives or holding door-to-door campaigns are not its forte.
As a young reporter, I was witness to it when the then Prime Minister and Congress president PV Narasimha Rao had directed Naval Kishore Sharma to lead a march from Faizabad to counter the BJP-VHP build-up on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid, months before the mosque demolition. A motley crowd was seen raising some slogans amid mockeries from the local youth. Similar scenes were witnessed when a protest against Roop Kanwar’s sati was organised in Rajasthan in 1987 to counter a massive Chunri Mahotsav. Even though under the glare of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Rajasthan Congress Chief Minister Harideo Joshi had lacked courage to turn the heat on sati supporters. In more recent terms, Rahul Gandhi’s move to launch the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ campaign against PM Narendra Modi and the thrust on alleged wrongdoings in the Rafale deal was based on whims rather than ground-level feedback.
Some scholars travel back to nearly a century ago when Mahatma Gandhi’s much-publicised Khilafat Movement had fizzled out. The Khilafat Movement was aimed at cementing Hindu-Muslim ties and, initially, it did receive an overwhelming response. It had even prompted a known Gandhi critic like BR Ambedkar to say, “In taking up the cause of Khilafat, Gandhi achieved a double purpose. He carried the Congress plan of winning over the Muslims to its culmination. Secondly, he made the Congress a power in the country, which it would not have been, if the Muslims had not joined it. For there can be no doubt that this was an act of great daring.”
However, once Mustafa Kamal abolished the Khilafat movement and turned Turkey into a secular nation state, its continuation in India lost purpose and direction without having officially being called off.
On the vexed issue of the CAA and NRC, the Congress, much like the ruling NDA and the rest, is clueless. No one, including those occupying North Bloc, are clear about the procedure of identifying an Indian citizen and negotiating the tricky last mile. The opposition to CAA is largely political and intricately linked to the NRC, but protagonists are not asking pointed questions. Rather, a sweeping façade is sought to be created. Perhaps, both sides are aware of the difficulties in arriving at a clearer image, so a certain ambiguity is coming handy.
From the Congress point of view, a cynical bid to oppose anything and everything initiated by Narendra Modi-Amit Shah makes immense political sense, just as the top BJP leadership has been wantonly disregarding everything done by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. The problem comes in when the Congress tries to convince voters who are not Congress party members or vocal sympathisers. The assumption of the electorate, wary of Modi’s polices or actions, opposing or voting against, without being influenced, is a void that grand old party is unable to address.
At another level, the Congress is unable to bring non-NDA parties and other groups on board. There is great deal of trust deficit which can be easily measured from the absence of the Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from a meeting in New Delhi to decide on the joint anti-CAA-NRC strategy. Perhaps, the combined opposition is unable to grasp how a section of the youth, cutting across region, caste and religion, wants to protect constitutional values.
To be fair to the Congress, a mission-driven zeal to win votes at any cost has not been part of the party’s otherwise chequered history. Take the Rajiv era, for instance: when a single-party government had won [for the first and only time] over 50 per cent votes and brute majority in both Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister and Congress president lost power in states while making ‘earnest efforts’ to resolve trouble spots in Assam, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Mizoram.
Rajiv’s Rule by Accord saw the Congress handing over power to the Asom Gana Parishad in December 1985. The AGP’s victory had made Assam the fifth state to be ruled by a regional party and eighth to be lost by the Rajiv-led Congress. In 1986, Laldenga was brought from Britain and made Chief Minister of Mizoram. Mizoram was given full statehood too. In 1986, Rajiv signed an accord with Farooq Abdullah, leading to the exit of a key Congress leader in Kashmir Valley, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed from the party. In protest, Mufti, who was a Union minister in the Rajiv cabinet, floated the Peoples’ Democratic Party.
In Punjab, after Darbara Singh, a secular Chief Minister, was sacked by his own political master, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi held state polls in September 1985 that saw the formation of Akali Dal government. Looking back, Rajiv Gandhi’s gamble to forego power did not make many of these accords stable, but it was based upon realism and quelling unrest.
Perhaps, the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Working Committee is weighing more heavily towards constitutional propriety rather than being driven by mere headcount. The Congress stakes are low in the Delhi Assembly polls and in the next two rounds of Assembly polls in Bihar and Bengal, it has a rather inconsequential role. Still, the party would do much better in consulting the chief ministers of Congress-ruled states and summoning an All-India Congress Committee (AICC) session to hear voices from rest of the country.