After poll defeat, another Antony wash for the 'family'

After poll defeat, another Antony wash for the 'family'

After poll defeat, another Antony wash for the 'family'

On a cold December day in 1999, the top leadership of the Congress discussed animatedly the reasons for its defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

An introspection committee set up under the chairmanship of senior leader AK Antony had submitted its report. The task before the committee was uphill. Newly-appointed Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s leadership was under a cloud. It had to deliver a report without affecting the aura surrounding Gandhi, who would hold the party together.

Antony, the Sonia Gandhi family faithful, delivered a report by treading cautiously to keep the Sonia aura intact and make a string of suggestions to win future elections. In 2014, Antony headed yet another panel to examine the reasons for the party’s spectacular defeat. The task was no different than 15 years ago. Not to apportion any blame on its ‘future leader’ Rahul Gandhi, who spearheaded the Congress’ much-criticised campaign.

The four-member ‘informal group’ with Antony as its head and senior leaders Mukul Wasnik, Avinash Pande and R C Khuntia delivered what was expected despite strong murmurs within the Congress ranks over the campaign strategies implemented by Rahul’s core team which led to the party’s rout in the Lok Sabha elections and a virtual wipe-out in battleground states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The Antony panel had broadened its interactions by including Congress’ frontal organisations – Youth Congress, National Students Union of India, Mahila Congress, visited states and interacted with party leaders and a cross section of losing candidates. A section of party leaders were daggers drawn, if not for Rahul but for his team of ‘foreign-educated advisors’ who had no grassroots connect.

“Politics is not done through excel-sheets and power-points. These Harvard-types ruined us,” said a former union minister, who was among the lucky 44 to have won the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket.

However, the party leaders are also aware of the stark reality. It is only the ‘family’ that can keep the party united. There is no disputing the fact that Rahul Gandhi criss-crossed the country addressing rallies with great amount of help from his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. But together, they were no match to Narendra Modi’s well-oiled poll machinery which launched an aggressive campaign.

A section of the leaders disgruntled with Rahul tried to prop up his sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra as the only hope for the Congress party but the campaign was nipped in the bud by the ‘family’. Priyanka issued a rare statement to dismiss reports of her taking a leadership role in the Congress as mere speculation. Leaders describing Rahul as the future leader of the Congress were well aware that only a member of the Gandhi family can keep the party united. A missing Gandhi at the top would mean the party splitting into several factions.

Secularism v/s minorityism

It is perhaps this understanding that has driven Antony to give a clean chit to the top leadership of the party and blame the second rung leadership of the party for not contributing enough to the election campaign.

Among other reasons cited for the defeat include the party’s excessive tilt towards minorities which Antony himself admitted led to alienation of the majority community away from the party. “There is a difference between secularism and minorityism,” a senior leader quipped when asked to comment on Antony’s remark.

In the winter of 1999, the Congress Working Committee discussed the Antony committee report for over three days. A detailed list of do’s and don’ts for the party was announced. The report and the suggestions made therein were stashed away in some dark corner of the AICC. The Congress president turned to Antony to analyse the party’s loss to the BJP in Karnataka in 2008, and again in 2012 after the loss in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand.

Pranab Mukherjee headed a similar committee in 2003 when the Congress lost the elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. Before that there was the much-hyped P A Sangma committee in 1998.

It is a different matter that Sangma chose to part ways with the Congress the very next year.
Rahul did dust off the Antony Committee report of 1999 two years ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He did embark on the ambitious path of having internal elections in the organisation and made a beginning with the frontal organisations.

This was a key recommendation made by Antony in 1999. He also appointed observers to select candidates for each of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, a suggestion of the Antony Committee of 2012. Another suggestion on denial of poll tickets to relatives of leaders unless ‘winnability’ is certain was also taken up for consideration. The Gandhi scion faced a lot of resistance from within as he went about implementing the changes. Some were implemented, others were not.

A key recommendation of selecting Lok Sabha candidates six months in advance went for a toss. Internal elections within the Congress continue to be a pipe dream. The members of the CWC continue to be nominated by the Congress president.

The 1999 Antony committee had also suggested stitching up alliances in states where the party was weak. Interestingly, it was Antony who headed a sub-committee to decide on alliances for the 2014 elections. The sub-committee became a butt of jokes within the party as BJP walked away with prospective Congress allies who went on to perform well in the elections.

As it recovers from its Lok Sabha debacle, the Congress is faced with fresh challenges in poll-bound Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. If the Congress performs poorly, it would be time for – you guessed it right – another Antony Committee.

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