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P Chidambaram: Why can't a 40-year-old be Congress president?

India Today logo India Today 19-05-2022 Kaushik Deka

logo, company name © Provided by India Today Q. Why is the Cong­ress facing an existential crisis?

The Congress is a natural party of governance. We know how to run a government. But when we run the government, we fail to run the party. Most senior leaders are inducted into the government and not spared for party work. When Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were prime ministers, we neglected the party organisation. Because the party machinery and work were neglected, when we are in the Opposition, the party organisation has not picked up the responsibilities or carried the party's message and narrative.

Q. How do you plan a revival when the party is almost non-existent in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and a junior partner in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra? These states account for nearly 300 seats.

The Congress's decline in states such as UP, Bihar, West Bengal predates even the tenure of Narasimha Rao. The origins of the decline in these states are very different. Under the current circumstances, I would divide the states into three categories—states where the Congress is the principal opposition to the BJP, states where another party is the principal opposition to the BJP and Congress is an ally of that party, and finally states where another party is the principal opposition to the BJP and Congress is not in alliance with it.

The challenge lies in category one and category three. We need different strategies for the three categories of states. In category one, I will not write off the Congress. For instance, in Rajasthan, we won the assembly poll but lost every seat in Lok Sabha elections. In MP also, we won the state election but lost all but one seat in parliamentary elections. That doesn't mean we cannot win the assembly elections in these states again. We need state-specific, sharply defined strategies. We cannot have an all-India strategy, as Indian politics has become very differentiated by the states over the last 30-40 years.

Q. Have the voters rejected Rahul Gandhi as the mascot of Congress against the Narendra Modi-led BJP?

I don't accept this mascot theory. Generals are important, but they don't win the war, soldiers do. We won practically all the seats we contested for the Lok Sabha in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab in 2019. The mascot was Rahul Gandhi.

Q. Has the Congress failed to provide a narrative in the north where the BJP is very strong?

The Congress narrative was good enough to fight and win elections when the Opposition narrative was based on mainstream policies on economy, social justice, development, foreign policy, internal security and defence. But our narrative has not been sharp enough to contest the extremely polarised narrative of the BJP under Mr Modi.

Q. Is there a dearth of leaders in the Congress, particularly in the states?

I'm not familiar with the situation in every state. But I can see young leaders emerging, such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel.

Q. They are all imports; other younger leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, R.P.N. Singh, Jitin Prasada have left the party. These leaders are from the Hindi-speaking belt.

They are used to their comfort zones. They cannot live out of the comfort zones of a ruling party's power and pelf. Either they were untrue to what they had professed earlier, or they are misdirected in what they profess now.

Q. You recently said senior leaders should retire.

Absolutely. When I was young, I thought I was fit enough to accept party responsibilities, and I did. Now, 30-40 years later, why should I assume that 30-40-year-old men and women are unfit to accept and discharge party responsibilities? Jawaharlal Nehru became Congress president when he was 40. All the posts at the block, district and state levels must be manned by people under 50.

Q. Should the Gandhis make space for other leaders?

They've given other leaders a lot of space, they are not occupying all the positions.

Q. But they're taking all the decisions.

That's not correct—95 per cent of the decisions taken at the state level are taken by local leaders.

Q. The slow decision-making by the top Congress leadership has come under heavy criticism.

In BJP, all decisions are taken by one person or his chosen delegate. In Congress, although nominally the president is entitled to take any decision, she believes in widespread consultations and a decision based on consensus.

Q. Why did talks with Prashant Kishor break down? Was he asking for a specific position?

In the three days that I interacted with him, he did not seek any position. I was impressed with his data and its logical analysis, which led to certain conclusions. Once the conclusions have been arrived at, it is a question of how we implement those steps. We suggested an empowered action group and we invited him to be a member of that group with defined responsibilities. He flatly declined.

Q. With a pan-Indian presence, Congress should be the pivot of Opposition unity. Instead, Mamata Banerjee, KCR and Arvind Kejriwal are seeking to become the new Congress.

However ambitious they may be, they can never overtake the Congress. Each one is confined to one state. The maximum these parties can win alone are 48 seats.

(Former Union finance and home minister and Congress Working Committee member P. Chidambaram is a key policymaker in the Congress)

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