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Congress’ New Playbook Against BJP — An Anna Hazare-type Movement

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With the credibility of the Congress leadership at an all-time low and the organisation in poor shape, the party is planning to reach out to like-minded civil society groups to challenge the Modi government in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The Congress is obviously inspired by the 2011 India Against Corruption movement which laid the groundwork for the demise of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government which was swept aside by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. No doubt, Narendra Modi’s charisma and popularity were responsible for its downfall but it had started unravelling when Gandhian-activist Anna Hazare sat on a hunger strike at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to demand the early passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill.

Grassroots Movement

The protest resonated with the people who were yearning for a change as they were disillusioned with the Congress-led government which was mired in allegations of corruption. The BJP and its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, became the obvious beneficiaries of the simmering public anger against the Congress-led dispensation.

Ten years later, as the Congress finds itself on the brink of extinction, it desperately needs an Anna Hazare-like movement to help revive its fortunes. The Congress leadership is in no position to mount an effective challenge to the BJP as its leadership has lost all credibility and the party organisation is far too weak to take on its chief political rival which has expanded its footprint across the country in the seven years it has been in power.

Given its own helplessness, the Congress could do with the help of civil society groups and social activists who have the capacity to create public opinion against the present regime as they did a decade ago. It was an open secret then, and subsequently confirmed by Prashant Bhushan, a leading member of the Anna Hazare movement, that their campaign had the blessings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor.

An Agitation Committee

It is no coincidence that former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh was recently named head of a newly-constituted committee on planning the Congress party’s agitations. Singh is well-networked with civil society groups and it is expected that he will reach out to those who are opposed to the BJP’s ideology to build a campaign against the Modi government.

A decade ago, the BJP then was almost in the same position as the Congress today. Though it led a few state governments and boasted a strong cadre, its leadership (L.K.Advani)  did not inspire the masses. Consequently, the BJP suffered from serious limitations in taking on the Congress even though the UPA government was hit by a series of scams. At a time when the BJP was looking to pin down the Manmohan Singh government, the party  campaign got a much-needed boost from the  protests led by  civil  society groups as they enjoyed considerable credibility with the people and had the added advantage of not being openly aligned with any political party.

As it heads into a season of elections in the coming year (culminating in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls), the Congress is hoping to benefit from the ongoing farmers’ agitation. Though limited to the states of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, the opposition believes it has the potential of tapping into people’s anger with the Modi government over runaway prices and a shrinking job market. While the organisers of these protests have taken a conscious decision to keep out politicians from their agitation, the Congress and other opposition parties have also decided not to join hands with the agitators but extend moral support to them. This is to ensure that the protests remain apolitical.

However, this is not the first time that political parties have taken the help of like-minded  NGOs, social activists and intellectuals to take on their political rival. For instance, the Congress succeeded in putting up a credible fight in the 2017 Gujarat assembly polls thanks to young firebrand leaders like Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor whose  prolonged and sustained campaign against the BJP succeeded in unsettling both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who was then the party chief.

Thakor spoke for the rights of backward classes, Mevani worked with the Dalits while Hardik Patel’s demand for quotas for Patels weaned away a large section of this politically powerful community from the BJP. The Congress began by extending tacit support to the mass movements led by these three young leaders but entered into an open partnership close to the election.

Similarly, the Congress also worked in close coordination with anti-BJP civil society groups in the run-up to the 2018 assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress was compelled to piggyback on the credibility and popularity of the civil society groups as its own state unit was riven by factionalism and unable to pin down the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

No doubt civil society groups can help but the question is can a political party   afford to forsake its own responsibilities. An NGO or an activist can only go so far in whipping up sentiments against a government or an individual leader but a political party can consolidate on these gains if it  has a robust organisation and a credible leader in place. Civil society groups are no substitute for party organisations which have a wider footprint and a larger cadre to take the message to the public and also bring the voter to the voting booth on election day.

For instance, there is no doubt that the Congress benefitted from the mass movements led by Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel as its tally did go up to 77 seats while the BJP was restricted to 99. But the party failed to dethrone the BJP government, which was not an impossibility, because of bitter infighting in the Gujarat state unit and poor choice of candidates.

It was the same story in Madhya Pradesh where  the agitation led by farm leaders and social activists helped the Congress win over the angry  farmers who were disillusioned with the BJP dispensation. Despite that, the Congress managed only a wafer-thin majority in the 2018 assembly election though it  could have won a decisive victory if it was not for the rivalry among the leading state leaders. Similarly, the Congress is unlikely to gain from the farmers’ agitation in next year’s Punjab assembly polls if chief minister Amarinder Singh and state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu keep up their public spats.

Then again, a social activist cannot replace a political leader. Activists are, at best, messengers, but it is the leader who is the face of his or her party. At a time when elections are becoming increasingly presidential in nature, it is imperative for a political party to be headed by a leader who is charismatic, credible  and a powerful communicator. In both cases, the  BJP has a clear edge over its chief political rival. The party has a well-oiled organisation and a large cadre which is aided by a band of ideologically-committed RSS workers.And then the BJP has Narendra Modi whose popularity remains undented and who has the ability to turn the tables on his opponents with his event management and oratory. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are a poor and distant second to Modi and the BJP in this regard.

Courtesy – moneycontrol.com

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