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Lesson for Congress: satraps key to victory

New Delhi, Dec. 20: Most Congress leaders concede that the clue to the repeated defeats in Gujarat is hidden in the Himachal victory.

A strong satrap, such as Virbhadra Singh in Shimla or Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar, means more to electoral politics than parachute troops stationed in Delhi.

Party leaders also admit, grudgingly, that the Congress would not have won Himachal without ageless warrior Virbhadra, a five-time Lok Sabha member, seven-time MLA and five-time chief minister.

The lesson about the importance of a local leader has been delivered umpteen times in the recent past but the Congress high command has so far ignored it.

It even chose to project a television actress, Tulika, as its mascot in Gujarat instead of offering a well-defined political structure as an alternative to Modi.

Senior leaders say the party was correct in its assessments about the rural ground realities being adverse to Modi, the Gujarat government’s pro-rich policy thrust, and the disenchantment among the powerful Patel community. But they now concede that the Congress lacked the engine to exploit these factors — a powerful local leader.

The point is that this lacuna is not something new: it was the same in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — and even in Gujarat in 2007. But the high command did nothing to address the problem.

Despite acknowledging in 2007 that the Congress needed a potent local face to take Modi on, the party chose to divide the local leadership pie among Shankersinh Vaghela, Arjun Modhwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil, in addition to giving crumbs to Bharat Solanki, Sidharth Patel, Dinsha Patel and others.

Congress leaders freely discuss the subject in private conversations, arguing the tendency in the party is to cut emerging leaders down to size instead of promoting them.

“What happened in Madhya Pradesh, which is fast going down the Uttar Pradesh way for the Congress, explains it all,” a senior Rajya Sabha member told The Telegraph.

“We could easily have won the election in 2008 by projecting a strong chief ministerial candidate against Shivraj Singh Chauhan but we sent Suresh Pachauri, who wasn’t seen as a leader. Digvijaya Singh should have been asked to take that responsibility. Even now, we should project someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia, but we revel in lack of clarity.”

During the 2008 Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, every leader of any worth in Delhi and Raipur had joined hands to whittle down the clout of former chief minister Ajit Jogi, without whom the Congress couldn’t have wrested power from the BJP.

The downsizing programme is still on and even an ordinary party worker realises that Jogi’s frustration would hamper the Congress even in the 2013 state polls. This happens despite the Delhi example, where Sonia Gandhi’s staunch support for Sheila Dikshit yielded positive results.

Even in the All India Congress Committee secretariat, the team is not chosen on the basis of competence and influence. Many find a berth in the premier body on the strength of their loyalty and harmlessness.

State satraps and elected representatives often make fun of general secretaries, wondering how many of them could win even a municipal election. The concept of accountability too appears alien to the high command; even those blamed for the routs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have not been punished.

Few leaders expect any drastic change in the system. Some pointed to the statements made by certain leaders after the Gujarat defeat.

Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari’s claim that the Congress won wherever Rahul Gandhi campaigned in Gujarat was largely received with ridicule, with many wondering why, in that case, Rahul had not visited the entire state.

Even the claims made by finance minister P. Chidambaram (that the Congress is a winner in Gujarat) and foreign minister Salman Khurshid (that the party hasn’t been routed) evoked dismay.

The logic that Modi’s projection as prime ministerial candidate would be a boon for the Congress also riled some leaders, who felt this “spurious presumption was a reflection of defeatism”.

“How can we presume that a dynamic Modi, with such political clout and backing, will be a better bet for us than a dud Nitin Gadkari or a Sushma Swaraj or Arun Jaitley, who do not have any significant support base?” an MP asked.

“Modi will be a great value addition to the BJP’s existing infrastructure. He will bring charisma and energy and re-ignite the frustrated Hindutva cadre.”

Another leader said: “If he is a polarising force, he will have a much larger target audience than the small minorities who are anyway divided between regional forces.”

There is no denying that some senior leaders feel that Modi’s appearance on the national stage and his inevitable competition with Rahul would ultimately benefit the Congress by subjugating governance issues to the secular-communal discourse.

But a significant lobby dismisses this theory and believes the leadership shouldn’t rely too much on possible fissures within the NDA and instead bank on the Congress’s own strengths.

This lobby also argues that Modi’s attempt to remodel himself as a development messiah is paying off and a sizeable section of society appears willing to give him a chance.

“The alarm bells are ringing,” a young leader said. “We have to wake up.”