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Neerja Chowdhury writes | RS poll debacle in Himachal to Sonia’s UP exit: Harsh light shines on a Congress in crisis | Political Pulse News


The Rajya Sabha elections have stirred a political commotion and not only because of cross-voting, as has often taken place in the past. The BJP is out to get every seat it can but this time, its defeat of the official Congress candidate in Himachal Pradesh and a Samajwadi Party (SP) nominee in Uttar Pradesh are being viewed as attempts to demoralise an already downhearted Opposition on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls.

The defeat of Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the Congress’s candidate from the only seat in Himachal Pradesh that was up for grabs, took many by surprise for it wasn’t as if it was a close contest. The Congress was far ahead of the BJP with 43 MLAs on its side and only 25 legislators of the Opposition party arrayed against it. In the lead-up to the election, Singhvi openly hinted at the possibility of the BJP weaning away Congress MLAs.

Then why and how did the Congress fail to manage the situation staring it in the face? Was it only the factional war inside the party? The party is, after all, in power in the state, with all the advantages that power brings. In contrast, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Deputy CM D K Shivakumar, also in power, managed things in the southern state where they got all three of the party’s nominees elected to the Upper House despite attempts by the BJP and its ally Janata Dal (Secular) to queer the pitch.

When it seemed that the Congress might be on the verge of losing the government in Shimla — Singhvi’s defeat raised questions about its majority in the Assembly — the party leadership swung into action and rolled in the heavy artillery. Senior leaders such as Shivakumar and Bhupinder Singh Hooda were dispatched as observers to pull the teetering government back from the brink. At least for the moment.

As these developments unfolded and the Prime Minister made a pitch for 370 seats for the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections, sitting in the heart of the country’s financial capital Mumbai I spoke to people in the corporate world, from fund managers and business honchos. In the past, they spoke in favour of economic continuity and political stability and India’s march towards becoming the world’s third-largest economy. They still do. But this time there is a tinge of worry in the tone of some. They asked why the PM was focusing so much on winning 370 seats — it would constitute a two-thirds majority — and they talked about the way the Rajya Sabha elections were contested.

Why all eyes are on Priyanka

Festive offer

The larger questions aside, there was a time when the Rajya Sabha acted as the House of Elders. Those who entered its halls were not directly elected but would caution, alert, strike high notes, hold out a vision for the country, and give sensible advice for the larger good, away from the immediate pulls and pressures that a Lok Sabha member is subjected to.

Today, the Rajya Sabha has become an “akhara” of battles that break up parties. It is a story of inducements and mandates being violated. And many believe it is a trend that is going to be tough to reverse.

Sonia Gandhi is one of the 41 MPs elected unopposed to the Upper House from Rajasthan this time. After being in the Lok Sabha for 25 years, Gandhi, the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) chairperson, has decided to give up the constituency of Raebareli in central UP that the Nehru-Gandhi family has represented for decades. Among Raebareli’s former MPs are her mother-in-law and former PM Indira Gandhi and father-in-law Feroze Gandhi. Given that of India’s 14 PMs, eight have been from UP, it was not surprising that Narendra Modi decided to contest from Varanasi in 2014. For, the road to Delhi has often gone through UP.

As the Congress’s tallest leader today, and the final arbiter of decisions when things get sticky, Sonia’s exit from Raebareli sends a signal that the party is giving up on UP. Both Amethi and Raebareli have been “traditional seats” of the Nehru-Gandhi family, symbolising the connection that the family and the Congress have with UP even though in recent elections the party has had to depend on the support of the SP, and sometimes the BSP, to win these seats.

That is why all eyes are now on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Will she make her parliamentary debut from the constituency that her mother and family have represented, or will it be her brother Rahul who gets to contest from Raebareli to avenge his loss from Amethi in 2019? Will Priyanka contest from the Amethi, the more difficult seat, which some say Sonia wants? Both siblings may also stand from constituencies in the relatively safer south India. The bottom line, however, is clear. Without addressing its decline in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress cannot rediscover itself.

When Sonia entered active politics in 1997, the party was coming apart at the seams, with established leaders leaving it to join an ascendant BJP as is happening today. But at the time, her entry stemmed the outward flow. Today, many more leaders, including the most seasoned of them, are leaving and there is no glue to hold them together.

Whether it is Singhvi’s defeat or Sonia’s decision to enter the Rajya Sabha, these are crucial moments for the Congress and illustrate the nature of the crisis it faces today. They are also a reminder of what may happen when one pole of the polity becomes so dominant that it makes all walls between the ruling side and the Opposition porous.

(Neerja Chowdhury, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, has covered the last 10 Lok Sabha elections. She is the author of How Prime Ministers Decide)





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