The Defeat

The Indian Express : Wed Mar 07 2012, 01:25 hrs

Can this jolt the Congress into action or is it another chapter in Rahul’s political science primer?

If there is a story that is common to the verdict from the states, it is this: the Congress was not able to seize the moment, or the anti-incumbency vote, mainly because it lacked, even disdained, a local-level leadership and organisation. First, take a look at Punjab. In the run-up to polls, it was the state that had returned successive decisive verdicts against the incumbent. The Shiromani Akali Dal, it was assumed, would not be able to survive this rote law of anti-incumbency. Yet, if the SAD has stayed on, and most decisively so, it is not only because it managed to change the subject to development and showcase its government’s initiatives — an enormously impressive achievement for a party that had been till recently identified with a panthic agenda and anti-Centre resentments. It is also because as the main opposition party, the Congress gave such a shambolic account of itself. The announcement of Captain Amarinder Singh as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the week before polling day proved to be wholly inadequate in stanching the bleeding in a campaign no local Congress leader had been encouraged to take ownership of.

And then there was Uttar Pradesh. Amid unprecedented political hype, Rahul Gandhi took charge of the campaign for the state. He made frequent visits to UP. In every speech, he reiterated his personal commitment to the people’s welfare, and made it sound like it was regardless of his party or its government. As they grapple with fundamental absences and aspirations, the people of UP, angry with Mayawati’s rule, were looking not for the benevolent outsider who promised to take them under his wing, but for the party that lives in their midst and speaks to them about their daily issues in ways they can agree — and disagree — with. By constantly reiterating his distance from the party he leads and by personalising his message, Rahul missed the main point of it all: UP’s aam admi was looking for a representative, not a benefactor.

The Congress high command’s unwillingness to relinquish the strings in Punjab and its leader’s crafting of an appeal that vaults over the need for a local party organisation in UP are part of the same pattern. Reacting to the results, Rahul Gandhi said this was a “good lesson” for him. What is that lesson, few in the party have the courage to spell out. But the Congress should know that the voter doesn’t have the patience to wait for the party leaders to see the light. She is going to watch what the Congress does — or does not do — with the power it has at the Centre. In a way, therefore, the countdown to 2014 may have just begun.

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