Congress needs a winning strategy: Will the ‘Captain Model’ succeed?

Amid the talk of the Modi Tsunami in Uttar Pradesh, the election victory by Congress Party in Punjab hasn’t received the needed attention it deserved. Captain Amarinder Singh, the leader of the Congress Party in Punjab scored a very impressive win surprising even the most ardent supporters while embarrassing many of the pundits in the media who predicted that AAP would form the next Government.

What is significant about this decisive victory in Punjab is that Captain Amarinder Singh is credited for his charisma, inspiring leadership and simply plain hard work in motivating the party cadre to make this victory possible. Therefore, in the midst of a sea of failures during the 2017 election, Punjab stands out not only as a bright spot for the Congress Party but a case study in planning for the future.

There is indeed a rush to judgment when the party loses, often laying the entire blame at the foot of the Gandhi family. Ultimately, the leadership at the top bears a greater responsibility for success or failures of any entity. However, the collective failures of many in the senior leadership who concentrated on self-development while they were in power and marginalization and decimation of the party cadre during the UPA I and UPA II regimes have much more to do with the falling fortune of the party now than anything else.

However, that does not absolve the tactical errors or strategic failures at the top in dealing with elections and more importantly running the daily operations in a diverse and complex environment. At present, there is too much power concentrated at the top and its inability to communicate in a timely fashion and failure to address recurring conflicts at the local level appears to have done some damage to the credibility and standing of the party apparatus. Many in the top leadership, who are decision makers, are said to be living in their own bubble totally detached from real people never having to see them or even ask for their votes.

If the party has strong leadership at the top – a perception of the public that is critical for influencing events and changing mindsets – similar to the days of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, there would be discipline within the cadre and strict adherence to party directives across the board. However, the current dispensation calls for a rethinking of the status quo with the goal of decentralizing control and ceding more of the decision-making powers to the local level. History teaches us that when the party had stronger regional leadership, it has performed better in those States. K. Karunakaran (Kerala), Sharad Pawar ( Maharashtra), Kamaraj Nadar (Tamil Nadu)  and YSR (Andhra Pradesh) are among some of the notable regional leaders who have managed the party and governed their states with the great success of their own.

There has been a strong suspicion among the pundits that many in the High Command were not thrilled about strong personalities at the local level. Consequently, ‘groupism’ was allowed to flourish in every State thereby weakening the local leadership and leaving all the decision making powers at the top. Therefore, those local leaders were forced to travel to Delhi for even minor decisions and wait for days to get resolutions to some of their pressing issues and often the same wait merely to get an appointment to air their grievances. Stories have been abounding of people returning home without an appointment, and some have simply left the party in disgust and joined the opposition simply to vent their frustrations. It is common knowledge that many in the top leadership wouldn’t even acknowledge a letter or an email from the grass roots willing to share their ideas to improve the party’s sagging fortune!

The ‘Introspection’ by the Congress Party after every election is turning into a butt of jokes in many circles simply because little or no action has been accompanied by that process. However, here is an opportunity to look at the Punjab election and re-learn some of the lessons from the past. Captain Amarinder Singh is often referred to as ‘Raja’ for his authoritarian style and imposing mannerism dealing with complex issues involving people. However, he has proved once again that a strong and charismatic leadership can inspire confidence in the cadre and motivate them to work hard for the success of the party. That is the basic essence of political leadership, Gandhiji has taught us, the sheer ability to motivate and mobilize the masses.

If the party can cultivate a new generation of influential leaders at the local level, it is bound to bounce back. Narendra Modi could only keep up with his polarizing and misleading rhetoric for so long and a day of the reckoning appears to be not too far away. However, Congress needs a new awakening, and it can only happen with some decisive restructuring at the top which will allow a new dynamism to flourish and spread across every facet of the party’s life. Only a reinvigorated Congress Party could defend the vision of an inclusive India envisaged by Nehru and Ambedkar, the founding architects of the modern India.

Those who have written off the 2019 election already for another Modi sweep may be making a grave error in judgment. History has taught us that in a democracy two years is a long period to sustain any momentum. A lot could happen in these uncertain times between now and April 2019. For example, in a lesson learned for ages, in 2004,  the BJP was so sure of its ‘India Shining’ campaign and confident of a big victory yet they fell short of their goals. Therefore, this moment of disappointment is a time to find new resolve and to fight, not to surrender.

Along with empowering local leadership, Congress party needs go to work urgently with like-minded parties to create a grand coalition, similar to the one that was cobbled up during the election in Bihar. In 2014, BJP was able to collect only 31 percent of the votes cast, and in the just concluded UP election, their vote share zoomed to 42 percent in total. It proves that the plurality of the votes was still cast for  secular-minded parties and the Congress Party should do everything in its power to make  alliances with regional parties towards a higher index of opposition unity for the ultimate purpose of defeating BJP in 2019.

Undoubtedly, BJP has won UP on a platform of polarization of religious communities, and if they continue to succeed along those lines while splintering the non-BJP vote, the future of a plural India will be at stake. A  gain of a 2/3 majority in both houses would even embolden them to transform the nation from a democratic one to a majoritarian one, and hence, history would never forgive the grand old party for its colossal failure in preserving the very idea of India for which their founding fathers have fought
and died. If it takes the ‘Captain model’ of change that we have just witnessed in Punjab to reverse the current tide, go for it!

(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and the Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)

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