Column: Any Revival of Congress Fortunes Will Be A Long-drawn Affair

By Sandeep Sahu

The murmurs were heard even before the elections. But they had not become loud enough for anyone to take serious note of it. But it has now grown into a full-throated war cry that is hard to miss. And the message that it sends out is loud and clear: “Odisha Congress is in disarray and as the man at the helm of affairs for the last two and a half years, Niranjan Patnaik must be shown the door.”

Old timers who have followed developments in the party will hardly be surprised by the latest round of ‘oust PCC chief’ campaign. Infighting and factional war games, after all, have become part of the Congress’ DNA over the years. It did not desert the Congress even when it enjoyed fairly long spells in power right through the 1980s and the second half of the 1990s. So, it was unrealistic to expect it not to resurface at a time when the party is listless, rudderless and directionless. In fact, the surprise, if any, is that it took so long for it to raise its head again. May be the party was still recovering from the shell-shock that the general elections proved for it. After two crushing, humiliating and confidence-sapping by-election defeats back to back, first in Patkura and now in Bijepur, party leaders and workers appear to have finally woken up from their stupor.

This round of internecine warfare in the Congress, however, is unlike any it has seen before. In the past, every time rebels have ganged up against the PCC president, the incumbent has fought the move tooth and nail and done everything to hold on to the chair. But in this case, the PCC chief himself has made it abundantly clear – and there are no reasons to doubt him – that he is willing, even keen, to make way for someone else. To be fair to him, he had accepted responsibility for the disastrous show in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in April this year and had offered to step down. But the all powerful ‘high command’ had other, weightier problems to deal with at the time than the issue of who will head the OPCC. For one thing, the second successive flop show in the LS polls had left the party devastated and staring at an uncertain future. For another, Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as AICC President had further deepened the existential crisis that the party was faced with. That’s why the high command chose to defer a decision on the dissidents’ demand and asked Niranjan to stay on.

At the height of dissidence against Prasad Harichandan, Niranjan had been projected by almost all major factional leaders as the only man who could save the Congress. With the party having hit rock bottom in the three-tier panchayat elections in February, 2017, where it conceded its position as the principal opposition party in the state to the BJP for the first time, most people in the party believed things could only go up from there. Some in the party also believed that Niranjan had some kind of a magic wand and all he had to do was to wave the wand and the fortunes of the Congress would start looking up again.

But as it happened, things did go further down in the party than it had ever done. Nothing illustrates the depth to which the Congress has sunk better than the result of the Bijepur by-election. The party that held the seat in three consecutive elections (2004, 2009 & 2014) even when the BJD was sweeping the state – and had polled over 14, 000 votes in the Assembly election despite the fact that it was pitted against no less than Chief Minister and BJD boss Naveen Patnaik – could muster no more than 5, 873 votes. Perhaps for the first time ever in the electoral history of the state, a senior leader of the party threw in the towel and conceded defeat at a time when campaigning was at its peak. Just imagine the damage it must have done to the morale of the average party worker, already reeling under a succession of defeats since 2000!

It would, however, be unfair to attribute the humiliating defeat to Niranjan alone. That he has failed completely in his task of giving the party a sense of purpose is beyond question. But if anyone in the party thinks all it has to do is to replace the PCC chief and the Congress would back on the fast road to recovery, is living in a fool’s paradise. The malaise in Congress is much deeper than what a particular PCC chief did or didn’t do and no one should be under any illusion that a mere replacement of the state head would solve the problem for once and all.

Here is my two pennies on what ails the Congress. For far too long, the party left all decision making and vote catching to The Family, rendering other leaders and the workers at large irrelevant. Secondly, choosing to play along with Naveen Patnaik for 10 years rather than take him on has taken the last ounce of fight out of the Congress. Now, when it wants to take on the BJD, it finds that it lacks both the ammunition and the will to fight. The fall of the Odisha Congress, in fact, began much earlier than the Congress at the national level: during the UPA years to be precise. And unlike the party at large, the Odisha unit has continued to fall for two decades showing no signs whatsoever of any revival. A Mohammed Moquim – or anyone else, for that matter – cannot do any wonders.

A revival of fortunes for the Congress looks a distant dream at the moment. If at all it is to revive, it will be, like the fall itself, a long-drawn affair.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)