History seems to have been put on the backburner when the Ahmed Patel-Kamal Nath-Mukul Wasnik trio air-dashed to Shillong after Congress emerged as the single-largest party in Meghalaya. 4 March was the second death anniversary of Purno Agitok Sangma, whose Nationalist Peoples Party (NPP) led by Conrad Sangma had breezed in as the emerging force with just two seats less than incumbent Congress. When Purno Sangma sided with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar on 15 May 1999 to emphasise in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee that Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s origins may be questioned if she were to be projected as prime ministerial candidate, the three leaders were served a show-cause notice. Purno Sangma left for the US to attend the graduation ceremony of eldest son Conrad at the Wharton Business School. Congress did not have the patience to await his return and response to the show-cause. Elder Sangma received the news of his expulsion when he was overseas with Conrad during an important event in the life of the present Chief Minister of Meghalaya.
Many former Congressmen were among the winners from the splinter groups which won a few seats each and joined hands with BJP’s two MLAs to keep Congress out of power in Shillong. Each of them had a tale of woe which prevented the Congress triumvirate’s bid to heal the past. The effort to oust Congress from the Northeast has been spearheaded by a former Congressman, Himanta Biswa Sarma. The Chief Ministers of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh are former Congress leaders. In Tripura, the Congressmen who crossed over to BJP were re-elected with larger margins in 2018.
Congress’ rout in the Northeast began with the revolt in Assam. This was preceded by the en masse defection of the entire eight-member Congress Legislature Party in Nagaland two years back to join NDA. In Tripura, Congress legislators at first defected en masse to Trinamool Congress and then joined BJP, thus depriving Mamata Banerjee political space in a state, which for past three decades, has had a ruling party in tandem with the electorate of West Bengal. The rise of BJP from 1.5% to 43% vote share and the decline of Congress from 37% to 1.8% in Tripura highlight the changing fortunes of the two parties.
Prior to the Northeast elections there was elation in Congress ranks due to the byelection results in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. These wins came side by side with the party’s rout in Odisha’s Bijepur, where its candidate lost his deposit in a seat previously held by the party. The seat was wrested for the ruling Biju Janata Dal by the widow of the Congressman whose demise had caused the byelection.
In state after state Congress cadres have been deserting. The emergence of Rahul Gandhi as the new chief has seen one defeat after the other for the party. In 1989, when after losing to V.P. Singh in Allahabad bypoll Congress came a cropper in Tamil Nadu, veteran Hindi editor Dr Rajendra Mathur, punning on Rajiv Gandhi’s previous visit to Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, wrote in Navbharat Times: “Harare se Harare; arey, kabhi toh jitare!” The trail of defeats in recent months brings that satirical comment to relief.
In the three months that Rahul Gandhi has taken on the mantle from Sonia Gandhi, the Congress organisation has been old wine in an old bottle: the bartender has changed. In the BJP, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah era is clearly discernible from the days when the party was led by L.K. Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi. A revamped party has given BJP a new paradigm and a larger footprint. It is deemed to be a successor’s right to dismantle the predecessor’s edifice and build his own foundation. Rahul Gandhi seems fettered by his predecessor’s legacy.
In the coming fortnight, Congress is headed for a plenary to formalise the ascendance of Rahul Gandhi. The enthusiasm surrounding this historic event seems to be missing. To begin with, the office of the host Pradesh unit, the Delhi PCC, has been sealed by a court order as dues have not been paid to a builder. This office is near the swanky new state of the art national headquarters of the BJP, which Narendra Modi inaugurated on 18 February.
The BJP started building its office two years back and it was completed in record time. In contrast, the new AICC office, the bhoomi-pooja for which was done in 2010, is yet to be completed. It is not that while in power Congress did not think of having a permanent address of its own in Lutyens Delhi—Jawahar Bhavan on Rajendra Prasad Road which houses the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF) and is essentially in the control of the party’s First Family was built as proposed AICC office. Indira Gandhi laid its foundation stone as such. Jitendra Prasada, political secretary to Congress president Rajiv Gandhi had his office there and so did Pranab Mukherjee, who was the principal spokesman of Congress in the last days of Rajiv Gandhi. When RGF came up in 1991, AICC decided to give up its claim.
The new AICC office is coming up next to the BJP headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg. In order not to use Upadhyay’s name in its address, a gate is being constructed on the rear, opening on Kotla Road. The new AICC will be the neighbour of CPI’s Ajoy Bhavan. Till shifting to its Kotla Road address in 1973, CPI was India’s second largest party after Congress. Today it has been decimated. Unless Rahul Gandhi puts his act together, Congress may, in next few decades, join CPI in political oblivion, basking in its past glory on Kotla Road.