Is it Time for Congress to Assemble an Avengers Squad?


Is it Time for Congress to Assemble an Avengers Squad?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Now that the Gujarat elections are over, the winners stamped, and the post-mortem signed, there is one thing that has become clear: The BJP might have won, but this election’s MVP was the Congress.

India’s Grand Old Party is just like the South African cricket team of the late ’90s. Remember the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the nail-biting semi-final between the champs Australia and South Africa? Australia had scored a decent 214 and Lance Klusener — who had been a revelation that season both with the ball and the bat — was all set to upset their match-winning streak. In the final over, when things were down to the wire, Klusener was on the strike and Allan Donald was on the other end. They were nearly home when Klusener made the infamous call for a single, which was misjudged by Donald, who ended up losing his wicket. Australia romped into the finals.

During the run-up to these elections, the Congress punched all the right buttons. They ran a terrific campaign, on the field and on social media. The famous Gujarati catch-phrase, “Vikas Gando Thayyo Che” coined by Hardik Patel’s team and appropriated by the Congress had set the stage for the clash. Rahul Gandhi, who at the ripe age of 47, finally hit political puberty this election season, struck the BJP where it hurt – the mythology of the Gujarat Model – taking the fight into the lion’s den. And yet, they stopped right on the threshold, even though the Congress tally improved by a large margin, not seen since 1985. And as electoral dharma goes, the BJP exclaimed, “Winner winner chicken (okay pulao) dinner”.

In Gujarat, for instance, the Congress failed in not countering the outsider tag, ceremoniously foisted on it by the WhatsApp scientists of the BJP.

How did they accomplish this? Despite having some formidable political heavyweights within the party, why does the Congress arrive on the threshold of victory, only to retreat again? The answer is simple.

In Gujarat, for instance, the Congress failed in not countering the outsider tag, ceremoniously foisted on it by the WhatsApp scientists of the BJP. It tried, tying up with local faces like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani, and Alpesh Thakor. But unless the party puts its weight behind strong regional leaders, it is a mistake they are condemned to repeat.

The truth about this country, is that while issues of national pride are excellent — in fact, necessary — to make it to Arnab’s studio, the states’ sub-nationalism really rules the roost. It was this sub-nationalism that enabled Narendra Modi to harp on “Gujarati Asmita”; sub-nationalism creates a wedge between, say, a “Madrasi” and a “Bhaiyya”. Not so long ago, sub-nationalism helped Bombay become Mumbai and Calcutta become Kolkata.  

In a way, sub-nationalism is an essential component of a democracy. You see this working wonderfully in the United States, where each of the 50 states has its own special colour, its own culture, its own laws, and even its own national flag. Each of these little sub-nationalisms feed into the US’s formidable federal structure, even though the comparison might appear too simplistic.

If the Congress has any hope of returning to relevance on the national stage, it has to understand that it can only do so on the back of sub-nationalism. By identifying local leaders, empowering them, and allowing them to conduct campaigns on their own. And not treat everyone as a threat to whatever remains of the internal party order.

It only needs to look back at its own recent history for proof of this formula. In 2004, when BJP’s India Shining Campaign was on full steam and everyone expected the BJP-NDA to win, the huge upset came from the state of Andhra Pradesh. Here, the state and assembly elections happened simultaneously and under the leadership of Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, the United Progressive Alliance was able to win 34 of 42 seats, a major landslide. This state catapulted the UPA to power. Even in Punjab recently, under Capt. Amarinder Singh, the Congress was able to wrest the state from the SAD-BJP combine.

But with the Congress, suspicious of any regional stalwarts, victory is always hard-won. In Punjab, Amarinder had to literally steal the campaign in the middle of the night, à la Satte Pe Satta, from a snoring Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, in Andhra, after YSR’s death, the party let go of the chance to groom another regional leader. From the Congress’ POV, it’s a fair assumption that a charismatic local leader might challenge the family — no matter how much they try to hype Rahul, they could replace him with a wet dishcloth and no one would notice.

So is there a shot named “National Stage” at this party?

The Congress, in other words, needs to learn a thing or two from the Avengers.

Only and only if the BJP is made to fight not one, but 29 general elections. In each of the states, with each of its unique local issues at stake, under a state leader. At best, the Congress should play a master darzi, and stitch together little coalitions in each state.

If there is one key takeaway from the Gujarat elections, it is that the dominance of a single party is fading away. Anti-incumbency will ensure that even if the BJP wins 2019, it will do so with much humbler numbers than it did in 2014. It is high time, Rahul Gandhi as the new party president realises this, takes a leaf out of his mother’s textbook, and starts preparing for the new year.

In 2018, all BJP-incumbent states are going to go to polls. Karnataka, the state Congress is hoping to retain, can work in its favour if Siddaramaiah is given a free hand. If the party can empower Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia in the upcoming Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh elections, it might have a chance.

The Congress, in other words, needs to learn a thing or two from the Avengers. With the Infinity War looming, Iron Man cannot touch Thanos, even with support from Captain Marvel and Spidey. He’s got to be humble and reach out for Captain America. And Thor. And Guardians of the Galaxy. And everyone else he can recruit.

For when a fat and mighty opposition presents itself, the only way out is together. Not on the shoulders of an entitled cry-baby.