Mamata’s ambition dwarfed by Kejriwal’s Punjab triumph.
The drubbing in the five-state polls and its virtual decimation in Uttar Pradesh have perhaps made the word “National” in the name and style of Indian National Congress as derisive as the prefix “All-India” in Trinamool Congress. Since the Allahabad byelection of June 1988 there has been an uninterrupted downslide in the electoral fortunes of the Party of Freedom. The 1989 Lok Sabha drubbing was preceded by reverses in Tamil Nadu in January that year. Taking off from Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Zimbabwean capital Harare, eminent editor Dr Rajendra Mathur lampooned in Navbharat Times, “Harare se Harare, arrey kabhi to jita re” (one defeat after another, oh, win some time). Without any disrespect to the beautiful name of the African capital, Congress now seems to have become synonymous with harare.
Mamata Banerjee’s “all-India” ambition, fine-tuned by Prashant Kishor, took Trinamool to Goa. Its campaign was led by Didi and buttressed by the likes of Mohua Moitra, Derek O’Brien, Sushmita Dev—names that make headlines for their acerbic interventions in Parliament. However, while Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party made its debut in Goa by winning two seats, Trinamool’s ambition was halted. After winning Punjab, AAP has emerged as a leading pan-states party (a new preposition betwixt national and regional parties). Regional parties like Trinamool (which has MLAs, via defection, in Meghalaya), JD(U), which won seats in Manipur have pan-states presence, but are ruling parties in their respective states alone, unlike AAP, which has now notched Punjab. Congress remains notionally a national outfit, but its shrinking vote base is tending to make it similar to CPI and CPI(M), the parties which once dominated the national scenario and are now sidelined. CPI(M) has retained power in Kerala, just as Congress still has Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and is a junior partner in Maharashtra, Jharkhand. (In 2014, when the Modi tsunami swept it off at the Centre, Congress had governments in nine states.)
Manipur Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, who joined BJP from Congress in 2016, in a TV interview on 10 March, was asked the difference he felt in BJP. He promptly replied that BJP does not have a “hierarchy”—its topmost leaders answer phone calls and unlike in his Congress days when he went to New Delhi and returned to Imphal disappointed without meeting the party leadership, now he gets quick responses. He was echoing his Assam counterpart, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who too had left Congress on issues of self-respect.
The BJP victory celebration at its national headquarters on 10 March, addressed by Narendra Modi, was an occasion in which L.K. Advani’s comment of the 1990s, that BJP is a “party with a difference” was showcased magnificently. The event was held at the Deendayal Upadhyay Marg state-of-the art edifice—Modi was garlanded by party chief J.P. Nadda, who was flanked by three former BJP presidents, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari. Juxtapose this with a possible scenario if Congress had won: the dais would have had Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and possibly K.C. Venugopal, the Kerala politician elected to Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan. The difference would not end here—Congress is yet to move into its new building adjacent to the BJP office and still functions from 24, Akbar Road, a government bungalow whose rent arrears make headlines off and on. Indira Gandhi had laid the foundation for a new Congress headquarter adjacent to the Press Club of India on 3, Raisina Road—the building, Jawahar Bhavan, was completed in 1990 and Rajiv Gandhi’s political secretary, Jitendra Prasad and party’s principal spokesman, Pranab Mukherjee operated from there. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Jawahar Bhavan was turned over to the family-sponsored Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF). RGF does not play a key role in the Congress ecosystem. The party continues as a pariah in a government accommodation. Insiders say that the deaths in quick succession of Ahmed Patel and party treasurer Motilal Vora put the finances in jeopardy and the shifting was stalled.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, the most prominent among the G23 letter writers organised a meeting of his group soon after the 10 March debacle. The AICC spokesperson had the usual homilies and Rahul Gandhi “humbly” accepted the humbling. In 1969, the Congress split during the Rashtrapati election. Will history repeat itself? Many have left the sinking ship and those who are sticking around as their political careers predate the onset of Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka dispensation; seem to be vocal once again. In 1969, Indira Gandhi requisitioned a meeting of AICC—her party thus was called Congress(R)—requisitioninst—as against Congress(O), organisation. Much delayed party polls are due in September—will anyone in 2022 be able to muster the courage, and more importantly, numbers, to repeat a 1969?
P.V. Narasimha Rao was summarily asked to quit in January 1997 when a group led by Priya Ranjan Das Munshi told him point-blank in a CPP meeting, “Please go, resign”. Sitaram Kesari, who succeeded Rao, had a worse fate in March 1998 when he was roughed up while he went to toilet during a CWC meeting and humiliated. Sonia Gandhi took over the reins thereafter. Gandhi parivar is not akin to Rao or Kesari, ordinary party workers who rose from the ranks. Unlike BJP, which is now the sole “Bharatiya” (nationwide) party, grassroots workers in Congress know that their ambition is limited. The 1969 and 1978 splits catapulted Indira Gandhi to commanding heights, but the Nehruvian democratic culture was no longer subsumed.
When the states’ reorganisation took place in 1956, there were instances when AICC, Congress Party in Parliament, PCCs and Congress Legislature Parties had differing points of view—each one was deliberated. So much so that when West Bengal-Bihar border was discussed in Lok Sabha, Atulya Ghosh, who was late due to a flight delay from Calcutta, pleaded with the Speaker, M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, to allow him to speak as he represented the thought of WBPCC, which was at variance to AICC and CLP—he was allowed. Indira Gandhi pre-Emergency encouraged healthy intra-party debate. When the left-wing Congress Forum for Socialist Action mounted pressure, she juxtaposed them with right-wing Nehru Forum led by A.P. Sharma, a railway trade unionist. If G23 comes out of drawing room confabulations and hark back to party history, they may find some instances worth emulating.