After giving Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh a miss, the top Congress leadership — specifically Rahul Gandhi and party president Mallikarjun Kharge — have kept away from campaigning in Tripura. They also have no plans to hit the ground in Meghalaya and Nagaland where elections will be held 27 February.
That has left hundreds of Congress leaders and workers across these states disappointed. Many of them are demoralised. They feel that their party ‘high command’ has given up on the Northeast, and abdicated power to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other parties.
After his ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, the Congress leader stayed put mostly in Delhi. But even as campaigning was reaching its peak in Tripura last weekend, he chose to travel to Wayanad, his Lok Sabha constituency which he hadn’t visited in a while.
The Wayanad MP abstained from posting anything about the elections in Tripura and the other two Northeastern states on social media — not even a ‘best of luck’ wish to 13 Congress candidates in Tripura was forthcoming from him.
Thursday (16 February) — the day of polling in Tripura — saw Rahul Gandhi learning the ropes about skiing in the snow-covered slopes of Gulmarg in Kashmir.
The same day, he expressed his enthusiasm about visiting Cambridge University to deliver a lecture and hold closed-door sessions on ‘big data and democracy’ and ‘India-China relations’ in a .
He has not said anything about visiting Meghalaya and Nagaland because he has no plans to do so. No senior Congress leader has any plans of visiting these two states and all are now busy with the party’s three-day plenary scheduled to be held at Raipur from 24 to 26 February.
Congress leadership’s ‘No’ to campaigning by Rahul Gandhi
The party’s nominal president, Kharge, reportedly told senior Congress leaders from Nagaland and Meghalaya who requested him to arrange visits by Rahul Gandhi and some other party top brass to campaign in those states that it would not be possible to do so.
“Khargeji told us everyone is now busy with the plenary and Rahulji is tied up with other important work. He told us that we will have to manage on our own,” a senior Congress functionary from Meghalaya told Swarajya.
The decision of the Congress top brass to give elections in the three Northeastern states a miss has angered Congress leaders and workers. They feel that their party leadership has given up all hopes of staging a comeback in the region, which became Congress-mukt after the party lost the Mizoram elections in 2018.
The Congress, in the not too distant past, used to rule over all the seven states of the Northeast and presented a formidable challenge to the many regional parties in these states. But ever since it was displaced from power by the BJP in Assam — the largest and bellwether state in the Northeast — it has faced debilitating setbacks in the other states.
The BJP has been in power on its own in Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, and is a junior partner in the ruling alliances in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The regional parties who are senior partners in the ruling alliances in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are constituents of the BJP-led (NEDA).
The Congress has 29 MLAs (in the 126-member Assembly) in Assam, five (out of 60) in Mizoram, another five (in the 60-member House) in Manipur, and none in Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
In the three states of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the Congress won a total of 47 seats in 2013. In 2018, it drew a blank in Tripura and Nagaland, and emerged as the single largest party in Meghalaya with 21 MLAs. However, it could not form the government as the (NPP) formed an alliance with other regional parties and the BJP to come to power.
Resignations and deaths of sitting MLAs brought down the strength of the Congress in the Meghalaya Assembly to 17, and the party suffered a knockout punch when its legislature party leader and former chief minister Mukul Sangma defected to the Trinamool with eleven other legislators in November 2021.
The remaining five MLAs subsequently joined the NPP and the Congress was left with no MLAs in Meghalaya.
The electoral prospects of the Congress are very dim in Meghalaya and Nagaland, and Tripura is the only state where it stands a chance of winning a couple of seats. That too because it has stitched an alliance with the CPI(M).
So, has the Congress top brass kept away from campaigning in the three Northeastern states because of the party’s pale prospects in the region? Yes and no.
The party’s lame logic
“Our ‘high command’ did not want to make this into a ‘Modi versus Rahul’ battle since the outcome of such a contest is well-known to everyone. Had Rahulji campaigned in the Northeast, the powerful ‘Modi factor’ would have come into play and instant comparisons would have been made between Modi and Rahulji,” a senior office-bearer of the Northeast Congress Coordination Committee (NECC) told Swarajya.
The Congress central leadership fathomed that deploying Rahul Gandhi to campaign in the three Northeastern states where it has no chance of putting up even a respectable show will further dent the image of the party’s crown prince.
The other reason for not deploying Rahul Gandhi and keeping its top leadership away from campaigning was to keep the campaigns in the three states focused on local issues.
“Modi and many central BJP leaders, including Amit Shah, have been campaigning there. Had our top leaders also joined in, the entire focus would have shifted to national issues that always goes to the BJP’s advantage. We wanted to deny BJP that advantage and, hence, Rahul Gandhi and our top leaders have kept away from campaigning,” said the NECC office-bearer.
The NECC office-bearer contended that by not getting Rahul Gandhi and the top leadership to campaign in the three states, the party ensured that the campaign was confined to local issues.
“We have seen that the BJP is put at a disadvantage when elections are fought on local issues, as had happened in Himachal Pradesh. We wanted the elections in the three states to be fought on local issues,” he said.
The Congress also counters the impression that it has lost interest in the region by pointing out that the party’s general secretary in charge of Tripura, Ajoy Kumar, had stationed himself in that state. He was joined by Adhir Choudhury, Mukul Wasnik, Deepa Dasmunshi, Gourav Gogoi and Alka Lamba.
But it cuts no ice
But to the Congress worker and the voter, the glaring absence of Rahul Gandhi and central Congress leaders from the heat and dust of the poll battle has conveyed the impression that the Congress has given up all hopes for revival in the region.
“The Congress leadership has sent out the message that it does not have skin in the (electoral) game and is disinterested in the poll battles in the three states. We have abdicated power to the BJP and other regional parties in the region. The BJP (and its NEDA) is the most powerful political force in the Northeast today, and the Congress is in a hopeless situation,” said a former Meghalaya Congress MLA who is not with the NPP.
This former legislator added that this disinterest is the reason why the five MLAs who remained with the party after the defection of 12 MLAs to the Trinamool later joined the NPP. “We felt very strongly that the Congress leadership was not interested in Meghalaya and the Northeast, and so we felt there was no point in remaining with the party,” the MLA who was a minister in earlier Congress governments in the state told Swarajya.
However, such explanations and excuses do not cut any ice with Congress workers and leaders in the three states who point out that compared to the BJP which deployed its top guns, only second-rung leaders of the Congress who don’t have much appeal held rallies in Tripura. And, that too, their campaigning was quite perfunctory.
“This strategy of not sending Rahul Gandhi to campaign makes absolutely no sense. Look at the BJP. Modi, Amit Shah and its top leaders campaign vigorously even in states where its prospects are not bright, like in Kerala. That’s how you enthuse party workers and build the organisation,” a Congress candidate in Tripura told Swarajya.
The conspicuous absence of the former Congress president from the electoral campaign in the three states has only reinforced the common ‘absentee and disinterested leader’ impression about him. And that is not helping the Congress at all.
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