Congress must throw weight behind its regional leaders (Commentary)

June 3rd, 2008 - 10:37 am ICT by IANS  

By Gilles Verniers
The successive defeats of the Congress in regional elections in the past 12 months show such commonalities that one may wonder if the Grand Old Party has any capacity of learning from its mistakes. The inaptitude and unwillingness of the party’s “high command” to field a credible local political leader in the regional elections have proved a major obstacle to victory. The recent defeat in the “safe haven” state of Karnataka comes as one more confirmation of that trend. The earlier defeats in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab have shown a similar pattern.

This general distrust of regional leaders by the high command or party national leadership goes back a long way in the Congress. It was initiated in the late 1960s by Indira Gandhi, who had to fight tooth and nail for securing her leadership within the party. Since then, the high command has inherited a congenital distrust for regional leaders who are often equated with local satraps. Today, not content with dictating regional party politics, it imposes itself as a substitute for local leadership in times of state elections.

This modus operandi proved effective as long as the Congress occupied a dominant or pivotal position in the various regional political arenas. In a changed context of political fragmentation and of sustained decline of the Congress’ relative share of power, it has become a major impediment to electoral victory.

It is a known fact in Indian politics that the voting pattern for regional elections differs from the national one. In a fragmented environment, elections are fought around local issues, for which parties and politicians solidly rooted in local territory are usually better equipped to deal with. A national party can compensate this disadvantage with a solid and well-spread organisation, aptly led at the state level and able to send relevant inputs from the ground to the party leadership.

By overruling and upsetting existing but fragile party structures, the Congress High Command does quite the contrary and seems to be using regional elections as both popularity tests and rehearsals for the ever-preparing Congress general secretary.

Worse, it discourages Pradesh Congress Committees from developing the necessary networks, cultivating ties with the Centre proving more rewarding than the somewhat thankless groundwork. It also creates confusion in the electoral battle by bringing the national level in the regional arena. At a time when the UPA coalition does not particularly shine on the policy front, this is certainly bad strategy. The opposition would certainly like to adduce and exploit these electoral setbacks as so many proofs of discredit of the Centre’s policies, a claim that remains hard to substantiate.

These developments do reveal in any case that the rallying power of the Gandhi brand name does not suffice to win regional elections. It may surely prevent the party from electoral disasters, but it is in any case inoperative for the conquest of new political terrains.

Moreover, this policy needlessly exposes the High Command to shouldering the responsibility for defeat, which in the current context harms the aspirations set for the scion of the Gandhi family. The family would still gain credits for regional victories if they were led by credible state leaders, enjoying their support. By stealing the show from them, they engage in asymmetric confrontations with strong local opponents, which necessarily do not work to their advantage.

The consolidation of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh after a series of by-elections in the Telengana region may be the occasion to overhaul the party machinery, in order to prevent making it the next ” Karnataka “.

(Gilles Vernier is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Sciences Po, Paris. He can be reached

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