Opinion | Comment

The Congress’s inexplicable lethargy over the presidential poll

Sonia Gandhi at ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur.

Sonia Gandhi at ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: PTI

At the Congress party’s brainstorming session in Udaipur over the weekend, Rahul Gandhi created a flutter by suggesting that regional parties do not have the ideological clarity to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka has already reacted in strong words to Mr. Gandhi’s statement. But it is not as if India’s grand old party has shown any initiative in illustrating his remarks by action even though the perfect opportunity is already here: the five-yearly presidential election.

Countdown to July

With just over two months to go for President Ram Nath Kovind’s term to end, it is a given that the BJP has the numbers in the electoral college to call the shots. It has enough legislators in Parliament and the State Assemblies as well as those of allies and friendly parties to install its candidate in Rashtrapati Bhawan, whether it be Mr. Kovind for a second term or someone else.

What is surprising is the lack of mobilisation by the Congress. It, of course, has little or no chance of getting its candidate to the top job. But traditionally, the presidential contest has been seen as a chance by the main opposition to make a political statement by its choice of candidate and to demonstrate its capacity to unite other parties around its narrative. Therefore, it is not the result but the fight itself that will matter. Opposition unity (or the lack of it) and the candidate will decide the intensity of the ideological battle and the contours of this contest.

Tougher allies

It will not be easy for the Congress. Key opposition parties — especially the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), each for its own reasons — are not ready to let the Congress take the lead.

Threatened by the BJP’s expansion in Telangana, the TRS has only belatedly joined the opposition bloc. (In 2017, the TRS had supported the BJP nominee.) And now that it has taken a more strident stance against the BJP, TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao wants a bigger role for himself.

The TMC has repeatedly argued that in the last eight years the Congress has not registered a victory of similar proportions against the BJP as it did in West Bengal in May 2021. And therefore, the TMC feels it deserves to occupy a more prominent opposition spot than the Congress currently concedes.

The AAP has not declared any such ambitions. It is not particularly enthused by the battle of ideas since it will barely have any impact on its voter. Regardless, it would be happy to support the idea of a non-Congress-led opposition forum. For long the Congress has kept the AAP out of the opposition equations, often not inviting its leaders for opposition meetings. The reason is obvious: the AAP’s successes have come at the cost of the Congress in Delhi and now Punjab.

The Congress, for its part, is strangely reticent. It is far too busy getting its own house in order. Congress leaders may contend that backchannel talks are going on, but for a side that will lose, the presidential election is all about creating a spectacle and projecting its narrative. Thus backroom confabulations have little meaning.

The 2017 contrast

The tone, tenor, and political dynamics of the presidential election in 2022 are starkly different from the 2017 election. By this time in 2017, the whistle had been blown and both sides had got off the mark. In 2017, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, of the TMC, made two rounds of Delhi in less than a month to discuss the presidential poll. On her first visit on May 16, she had a one-on-one meeting with Sonia Gandhi, and then she flew back to Delhi again on May 26 to attend a luncheon meeting called by the Congress.

The meeting hosted by Ms. Gandhi was a runaway success, and 17 parties ultimately came together to declare their intent to take on the BJP. Significantly, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, who has distanced herself from the opposition after the 2019 Lok Sabha election, had been present too.

The opposition candidate, Meira Kumar, managed to strike a record even in her defeat by polling the highest number votes by a losing candidate (though not the highest percentage of votes by a losing candidate). She received 3.67 lakh votes out of 10.69 lakh valid votes polled.

This time, the Congress cannot expect Ms. Banerjee to drive to Ms. Gandhi’s 10 Janpath residence or Ms. Mayawati to attend luncheon meetings. If 2017 has to be repeated, Congress leaders will instead have to make the rounds, to meet the DMK’s M.K. Stalin in Chennai, Ms. Banerjee in Kolkata, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar and Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Hemant Soren in Ranchi, and the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav and the BSP’s Mayawati in Lucknow.

The Congress has the largest number of votes after the ruling BJP in the electoral college for President, and therefore it has the democratic obligation to play an important role. No coalition without the Congress can be expected to make a dent. Instead of expecting to magnetically attract opposition leaders, it will have to play a humbler role as a unifier.

A cautionary tale

The Congress would do well to recall the 2002 presidential election. The election had come just months after the Gujarat riots that had united the opposition more firmly against the ruling BJP-led government at the Centre under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The then President, K.R. Narayanan, was expected to win a second term with the opposition’s support. Yet, instead of firmly mobilising support for Narayanan, the Congress allowed Vajpayee to make a definitive move. He surprised everyone by throwing his weight behind A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and capturing the narrative. The Congress in the end fell in line, and also supported Kalam.

Twenty years later, time is running out once again for the Congress to grab the narrative.

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 2:26:32 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-congresss-inexplicable-lethargy-over-the-presidential-poll/article65421889.ece