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Youth connect need of hour for Cong

For a party which has been in power for the past eight years and is girdling up for the uphill task of forming government at the Centre for a third time in a row, a session for introspection is most timely. There are views that the Chintan Shivir called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi at Jaipur in the second fortnight of January may just be an exercise in working out a formula for better coordination between the government and the party.

If the Jaipur session fails to address issues beyond the government-party coordination, it could prove to be very counter-productive for the party’s fortunes in the upcoming polls especially the 2014 general election. The rising frequency of the protests in the urban areas should cause concern, as the Congress in 2009 did extremely well in these areas. In the last Lok Sabha polls, the Congress-led UPA won 115 urban seats against 147 won in the rural areas.

The mandarins within the Congress may point out that the protests have not moved beyond the national Capital, which is the hub of political activity, and that Delhi contributed just seven of the 115 urban seats won by the UPA in the last polls. It may be true but it’s also a fact that post-2009, the UPA has not been able to perform well in the local and assembly polls in the urban areas outside Delhi too.

Though there are a few who would portray the urban protests as the testimony of the complete loss of support base of the Congress-led UPA in the urban areas, the same also may not be completely true. It’s rather a complex picture which is emerging. But the urban protests should surely be used as a note of caution to examine the fault lines within the party and attempt must be made to breach the dent.

Leadership: The biggest issue which should be bothering the Congress as well as its well wishers is about the composition of leadership when the country goes to polls in 2014. The heir apparent of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, party general secretary Rahul Gandhi ever since the debacle in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls has decided to go into a shell. It was under some skewed logic that he refused to take on the juggernaut of Narendra Modi head on in Gujarat.

As the results showed, the Congress did have a chance to make an impressive show in the just concluded assembly polls. However, in the absence of an aggressive campaign by the party president or Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi managed to repeat    his 2007 performance.

The fear of losing in what media dubbed as Rahul versus Modi battle, kept the Congress scion away. Loss in polls doesn’t always wither away a leader. Gandhi could have taken a leaf out of the campaign which Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav undertook to resurrect his party despite his wife also having lost the 2009 Lok Sabha polls from their family citadel to Raj Babbar of the Congress.

Sonia Gandhi-led Congress too faced several drubbings in the state polls in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. However, she did not evade the challenge and continued in aggressive mode leading party to victory unseating a very confident NDA at the Centre. She still is the best bet for her party given her ability to connect with people and ‘act in public interest’ at the right time.

Rahul Gandhi has somehow failed to imbibe these qualities of leadership from his mother. His absence from the national Capital during the protests against the gang rape-cum-murder case showed his inability to gauge opportunity to connect with people, something which has been ingrained in his family lineage.

Roadmap: The good news for the Congress is that the BJP is not gaining where the former is losing ground. Rather in 2012 Congress managed to defeat the arch rivals in the polls to the assemblies of the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. It did suffer a setback in Punjab but again the credit for victory would not go the BJP but Parkash Singh Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal as the BJP is a very junior partner in the alliance. In the Delhi municipal polls, which were held with Anna agitation at its peak, BJP managed to retain power with much reduced margins.

These are some of the indicators which the optimists within the party would like to cling on to project a rosy picture. However, it also remains a fact that post-2009 the party received massive drubbing in the assembly polls in the two politically most crucial states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In the other populous states of Madhya and Andhra Pradesh the party should not fancy great dividends given state of leadership investment. In Karnataka it’s looking forward to gain by default and hopes to maintain status quo in Maharashtra.

This leaves the battle for 2014 drastically open with Congress desperately needing influx of new ideas and leadership to overcome, if not political challenge, public unrest, howsoever one may claim it to be limited to certain urban pockets. Rahul Gandhi at Jaipur will have to unveil his roadmap for retaining Delhi in 2014. If he fails to connect at Jaipur, any amount of trumpeting at a later stage would not be of much utility. The presence of the young in the Congress is of no avail if it fails to connect with the youth.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post
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