Northeastern breeze could flatten Congress

| | in Oped

The bigger challenge for the Congress right now is to dispel the growing misgivings about the future of the party. At the coming plenary session of the AICC, Rahul Gandhi should unveil a new plan, a new vision for the party and ensure all members live up to it

Is the Congress sliding further after its poor performance in the North-East, though as a saving grace, it emerged as the single largest party in Meghalaya? The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are in the process of forming the Government in all three north-eastern States of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, dampening the spirits of the Congress.

There was a time when the people of the North-East, especially the tribals, could connect with the Congress leaders but in the past few years, the filed has been left open for regional parties and now to the BJP.

 Just one year ago, the Congress was in the saddle in five north-eastern States — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. With Saturday’s victory, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will gain control over six of the seven north-eastern States, reshaping the political landscape of the region bordering Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Mizoram is the only State the Congress is ruling in the north-east and this too might change after it goes to polls at the end of the year.

The rise of the BJP began with the party winning in Assam in 2016. The party later reigned in Arunachal Pradesh luring Congress MLAs, including Chief Minister Pema Khandu. Thereafter, the BJP coalition formed the Government in Manipur last year with Biren Singh as the Chief Minister, despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the State.

 What does losing the region mean for the Congress? Why has the party not seen that with a population of 45.58 million, the North-East accounts for 25 Lok Sabha seats and 498 Assembly seats? It is indeed a mystery which only the Congress strategists can explain. Congress strategists are confident that losing the north-eastern region does not mean that the

133-year-old party is finished. The party has seen several ups and down. It may be now ruling in only Punjab, Mizoram, Karnataka and Puducherry but it still has some base in the country and also has its vote share.

After the improved performance in Gujarat and winning recent by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress workers were enthused and hoped that the party would go up in the snakes and ladders game. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the Congress did not put serious efforts in the north-eastern polls. The Congress even left Meghalaya to Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. It was not in the fight in Nagaland and Tripura, with the result that the Congress has not won a single seat in both these States.

To its dismay, the party’s votes shifted to the BJP and its vote share also has come down. The people of Tripura obviously thought that the Congress was not an alternative and decided to give a chance to the BJP.

The fact that Congress president Rahul Gandhi took off to visit his grandmother in Italy without even waiting for the results showed that he was not serious about winning in the region. Though the party might have been disappointed with the results in the north-east, it is going ahead with its plans to retain Karnataka, where elections are due in May.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has visited the State quite a few times, and has even prayed at temples and mutts, adopting a soft Hindutva card. Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah has been given a free hand so far which is what the party did in Punjab that paid dividends.

Retaining Karnataka will give a morale boost to the party to face the elections in the other three big States — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and also retaining Mizoram elections which are scheduled later in this year.

In all these States, the fight is direct between the two national parties — the Congress and the BJP. In Chhattisgarh, there is hardly 1.5 per cent difference in vote share between the two. There is a big chance of winning these States because the BJP is facing serious anti-incumbency. This can happen only if the Congress pulls up its socks and contain the factionalism and groupism besides coming up with attractive poll issues and project itself as an alternative to the ruling BJP.

Enthused by the recent by-election wins in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress strategists are busy enthusiastically chalking out their plans. The leadership also has to decide who would lead the party in these States. 

The grand old party is having its plenary session from March 16 to March 18 in which it may decide its future course of action and how to deal with the BJP as well as how to unite the Opposition. The 10,000 odd delegates converging from all over the country will have a sense of participation in the party affairs.

There is no doubt that the new Congress president has a lot on his plate and he needs to prepare for the future with great care if he wants the Congress to be in the reckoning. The immediate challenge is Karnataka and then comes the polls for the other States ending with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Since taking over as the party president, he has not revealed how he plans to go about energising his party. He also has not announced his new team. The coming days and months will show how it all works. Above all, he has to take lead in mobilising the Opposition and this is not going to be easy with the inherent contradictions in the Opposition ranks. For all these, he does not have too much time.

 (The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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