Editor's note: Within the span of 15 years, the Congress party in Assam has transformed itself from a fortress of invincibility to a heap of ruins. This four-part series will examine what ails the party in Assam and if there is a possibility of a spark that rekindles hope for the party to relive its glorious days. This is the third part of the series.
Embattled and wounded, but the Congress in Assam is not yet ready to quit the political war zone. Despite being consecutively trounced in two Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019, and in the Assembly poll in 2016, the party is still trying to regroup as a fighting unit for the municipal elections in 2020 and Assembly election in 2021. There is no question that the Congress will have to use everything in its armoury to prove that to win again in Assam is not beyond the party. It was its chutzpah when in power that forebode of terrible times ahead and the only way perhaps to make a mark again is through plain simple humility.
Nowgong MP Pradyut Bordoloi with senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Pradyut Bordoloi's Facebook page
"Actually, the Congress party will rise like a phoenix all over again, if good strong regional leaderships are allowed to be developed," said Nowgong MP Pradyut Bordoloi.
For Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, secretary, Diganta Chaudhury it is a matter of "resilience and patience". But the real question is for how long?
"Congress has lasted before even during times pundits predicted that the party will be wiped out but it bounced back," said Chaudhury.
Dire straits, drastic measures
"In order to take drastic steps to correct the situation, there is a need for a think-tank and scope should be given to others. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee faded out, the BJP had no one to represent them. That's when Congress ruled for 10 years (UPA 1 and UPA 2). But the BJP did some multifaceted changes slowly. Narendra Modi was brought in and LK Advani was phased out as the face of the party. Advani would have been short-term thinking while roping in Modi was a long-term step. The thinking of the BJP cadres was that the new face should be a young, aggressive Hindutva face. Advani had nothing new to offer. Initially, Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and Shiv Sena were miffed but it was a bold decision by the BJP," said a party insider who chose to remain anonymous.
"(Assam Congress president) Ripun Bora has tried and dusted all his formulas. It is not that everyone in the party is supporting him wholeheartedly. All these things need to be rectified," the insider said.
More than the talk it is hardscrabble on the ground that might make a difference for the rudderless party.
"Most of the leaders talk of corrective steps for the future. When the party loses crucial elections, there is the talk of serious introspection as to why we lost the trust of the masses, there is the talk of in-depth analysis, organisational revamp and reforms. High-level committees are formed to give effect to follow up actions. Unfortunately, over the years, when such exercises have become repetitive these have lost the desired credibility and are being considered ritualistic by the ordinary workers," said former Gauhati MP Kirip Chaliha.
Not disillusioned yet
A passionate listener of Sufi songs and Qawali renditions and a graduate in Geography from Gauhati University, national secretary of NSUI, Debashree Bora, has been with the organisation since 2010. Instead of getting demoralised by the crumbling of the parent organisation and getting bogged down by quiescence, the 27-year-old is seeking to look into the brighter side of it.
"It's not demoralising in any manner. We are learning and growing. It is just a phase and like anything else, there will be ups and downs for our organisation too. But we know the spirit of India too well. We are there in people's hearts for so many things. Nationalism and the work towards this country, which my party has done throughout motivate me. It is an ideology of being liberal and of acceptance which I relate to," Bora said. She also suggested a way to make things better.
"If I was the leadership here who has the decision making power, I would have launched young faces. Under Sonia Gandhi's leadership, our party will flourish like before however at the state level we need more female and young leaders to use their intellects," the NSUI national secretary, who is in charge of the organisation's units in Bihar and Jharkhand said while batting for an avuncular approach.
In terms of leadership change and introducing young faces in the Assam Congress, there is little disagreement on the topic among a majority of the members. Bora's optimism is so high that she refused to give the internal strife in the Congress much importance despite it being splashed everywhere, whether on social or traditional media. She rather took it as a positive development as opposed to groupthink.
"Internal factionalism resides in every party. In a way, internal factionalism is a good thing as it gives an opportunity to brainstorm and bring out new ideas and views. No doubt that internal factionalism leads to a division of interest among the people of the party, but in terms of long-term effects, internal factionalism helps come up with greater goods in the long run. Whatever is going on in Assam Congress, I wouldn't call it inner wrangling, I would rather call it a difference of opinion," Bora said.
The road ahead
A voracious reader of biographies and autobiographies, Angkita Dutta is another young leader who is ready to do all the hardscrabble to help Congress come up on its feet again. Currently serving as vice-president, Assam Pradesh Youth Congress, Dutta is submitting her doctoral research next week for evaluation in Gauhati University. The 32-year-old is a Delhi University graduate, has a law degree from the Faculty of Law, Delhi University and a masters degree in women and gender studies from Indira Gandhi National Open University.
Her aim is to get Congress battle-ready ahead of the state elections in 2021.
"We must now focus on local issues, bring in potential fresh faces and scrutinise the quality of work of BJP MLA in their constituencies. This is just a phase. We need to win back the confidence of all sections of the community," Dutta said. She even listed a few issues to take on the BJP.
"All the promises that the BJP made during polls are nowhere to be seen. The special status of Assam? Industrial Policy for Assam? Citizenship (Amendment) Bill goes against Clause 6 of the Assam Accord? Forcing Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on the Assamese people will lead to a similar situation like Assam agitation? Assam is anyway under urbanised and with lack of sufficient support infrastructure how will it support the incoming population, how will they provide equal opportunities of education and health, how will they solve the porous border issue when many kilometres of the border isn't fenced? Status of ST to six communities and many more," the Assam Pradesh Youth Congress vice-president said.
She did not agree that Congress lacks people despite an exodus of leaders from the party in Assam in the last four years.
"There are names, there are people with potential, what the party needs is to sit together and figure out a strategy before it's too late," Dutta said.
Another aspect that has come up is the need for organisational reforms particularly in the affiliated wings of the Congress.
"Rahul Gandhi is misguided and didn't go through the toil that Narendra Modi has gone in his career. His coterie never allowed him to see the real picture. Rahul's so-called reforms in the Youth Congress and NSUI elections led to more lobbying and diminishing of discipline. Earlier one leader was appointed as president and he or she forms a committee of choice. Now since both the president and general secretary are elected there is a rivalry between both and their respective factions. This, in turn, encouraged lobbying. Everyone knew it except for Rahul," the insider said indicating how the practice allowed political shenanigans to take root in the party.
Bora stretched on the fact that better coordination among all wings of the Congress is key.
"We need to work harder than ever before and with coordination among all organs of the organisation. A stronger Congress is the only way to maintain balance," she said.
Winning the perception battle
"It is the perception that attracts voters to its leaders. In 2014, Narendra Modi was successful enough to sell the perception of Congress being a corrupt party, it worked then with the voters. The 2G scam turned out to be a joke on the people of India, then the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India conjured up a notional figure which the court turned down. Similar is the case with other charges of corruption and hoarding black money in foreign banks," Chaudhury said pointing out the need for changing public opinion on the Congress.
Winning the perception battle also spills over to challenges in social engineering. To overcome these obstacles, the party has to think out of the box. Whether it does it or not, it's, of course, a Hobson's choice.
"With Congress losing its acceptability to a huge section of diverse majority communities in Assam, it has only the Muslims as its support base. While strong Muslim support allows Congress to survive in some pockets, this situation gives greater sustenance for BJP to consolidate its position in Assam. Congress is yet to find a solution to get out of this trap and regain a foothold in the Hindu-majority areas," Chaliha said.
The NSUI national secretary felt that it is the onus of the party to convince the people that they are going to address those issues that concern them directly.
"The Congress addresses issues of the people and right now whatever issues the people are facing are not being addressed. Instead, something which doesn't directly affect them is being projected as peoples issues. We need to change that," Bora said.
Infusing enthusiasm at booth level
For any political party to thrive, grassroots strength is critical. Already low on morale, at least a section in the Congress is seeking to reach out to the party workers in Assam.
"Strengthening the party is always a routine job for any political party. Congress is a mass-based party and has cadres operating in each booth of the state. We are reaching out to our booth workers and leaders and gearing up the party machinery to face the challenges ahead of us. Our booth strength has never decreased, only the morale of the workers is to be boosted and the process is already underway," the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee secretary said.
Earlier the party gathers the tenacity at the ground situation, quicker they can hope for a better fightback. What the party need is a responsible standard-bearer of its ideology and mission at every booth level as the clock ticks fast towards the next election. "Contrary to our expectations the results of the last Lok Sabha election were an eye-opener for us," Chaudhury said.
Expressing optimism that a turnaround is possible, Bordoloi said, "The silver lining is that the die-hard party workers in all levels, though little dismayed because of leadership inaction, can be enthused, aroused and rejuvenated."
The first litmus test of the party after the last Lok Sabha election will come next year when Assam will conduct its municipal polls. Congress will have a firsthand knowledge whether its message has permeated through its support base to actually convert this base into votes. In today's information boom, Congress knows very well it cannot weasel its way to victory.
"On a lighter note, we are still learning to work in the Opposition. But on a serious note, we are on the path of reorganising the party from booth to the highest level. I am sure post-2019 debacle, the workers and the leaders will act on the shortcomings. We are in touch with our workers. There is no doubt they are demotivated but they swear by to fight on. These people are our real leaders. The party exits because of them," Dutta said, perhaps a point that should not be arcane to anyone familiar with politics.
Lessons learnt from debacles
All big defeats bring despair but equally important are the lessons that can be learnt.
Bora nails it when she said, "Do not leave your ground unattended. It paves the way for people to capture it. Unfortunately, today opportunities are taken by hook or by crook. People are opportunistic, we have to deal with it. There has been a setback but nothing is impossible to change."
To put up a fight befitting its stature, Congress has to realise that it is still the grand old party and not an ersatz version of it. Starting from the booth level to the party president at 24, Akbar Road in New Delhi, every Congress member has only one choice to make " either demonstrate a trenchant demeanour or fade into oblivion.