New Delhi: Buffeted by a series of electoral reverses, desertions and internal wranglings, the Congress party’s problems keep adding up. The ground from under its feet has shifted dramatically over the last seven years in large measure on account of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) aggressive Hindutva-driven agenda.
The Congress party’s political footprint across the country is at an all-time low: it has won only five of 39 assembly elections over the last seven years. It is in power on its own steam only in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and as a part of the alliance in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. That is a significant decline for a party that once had state governments in most states.
In the midst of the sense of doom and gloom that surrounds the party, the emergence of B V Srinivas, 40, and the widely publicised Covid-19 relief work done by the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), of which he is the national president, has not only got the party some much needed traction but also given hope for the future.
A former wicketkeeper-batsman from Shivamogga who represented Karnataka’s under-19 team in cricket, Srinivas turned politician after an eye injury ended his sporting career. His 1,000-person relief team, which helped people in many states with oxygen, hospital beds and plasma when all of these were in short supply during India’s devastating second Covid-19 wave, may just have provided the Congress party with a roadmap to blunt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) onslaught and reestablish its credentials with voters.
Srinivas, who has no dynastic linkages to his party and comes from a middle-class family, the son of a former engineer—now dead—from a state-owned steel company, acknowledged the hold that the BJP’s pro-Hindu line currently had over India’s electorate but pointed to Covid-19 as a great leveller. The party, he said, had no option but to soldier on and adhere to its pluralistic ideology.
“Look, religion can give you an identity, it cannot fill your stomach, cannot get you a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, or help get the unemployed a job,” said Srinivas. “Sooner rather than later people will come to realise this. As a party wedded to plural and democratic India, we must keep at it.”
In the second round of the Corona pandemic, Srinivas and his team have not just stolen the thunder from the parent party but have also forced the BJP and its family of allied organisations, the Sangh parivar, to take notice, directing their workers to put in greater effort into relief work.
As the second Covid-19 wave receded, with new cases less than a fourth from their 6 May 2021 peak, Srinivas did not consider his job done, helping families with death certificates, pensions and school education. They are also organising medicine and food, but their efforts are a drop in an ocean of need: with thousands of jobs lost, unemployment is at its worst level in nearly three decades, more than 200 million Indians are estimated to have been pushed into poverty, and there is less food available to families.
Article 14 caught up with the IYC chief as he was busy organising food and medicine packages for the unemployed and the poor in India’s capital.
Now that the current wave has abated, is it back to politics for the IYC or is there some forward planning for a third wave?
It's down only in the cities. We don’t have an accurate figure about the situation in the villages because there is very little testing going on in the villages, and the people are also reluctant to get tested.
We are doing whatever we can in our small way. We have already prepared over 80,000 home-isolation kits which we are distributing. Each bag contains vitamin C & D tablets, masks, hand sanitizers, paracetamol tablets, and cough syrup. We are also trying to help support isolation centers in the villages, by encouraging them to earmark schools, set up beds and supply them with oxygen cylinders, medicines besides putting them in touch with doctors who can be consulted.
There is a fear that the third wave may target children, hence we are consulting experts and will plan based on the advice of a panel of experts. We are trying to help people in the rural areas and those who do not have access to smartphones to register on the Cowin app. Our team is also helping out families of the dead by ensuring that they get death certificates, pensions and education for their kids.
IYC is essentially a political organisation. When did you decide to switch focus to relief work?
The idea came from Rahul Gandhi. He attended the IYC National executive meeting last November (2020) and after sitting through the deliberations he told us to put all other activity in abeyance and to focus solely on relief work. He warned us that a second wave was coming and we must be prepared. From that day onwards, we swung into action. In March he called me for a meeting and helped us prepare a detailed plan to help people with food, medicines, oxygen cylinders, masks etc.
What has been the level of involvement or interaction of the Congress leadership in your efforts.
They have been in touch on a regular basis, advising us, helping us out. Even the party general secretaries and other functionaries have all pitched in with help.
Your efforts appear to have got you into trouble with the police as well. What did the Crime Branch ask you?
They were primarily inquiring into how and where we get these resources.
So, where did you get these resources?
We raised them from within the party, the IYC. Many of the former IYC people are now MPs and MLAs; they came forward and helped. Everything was above board. We had decided from day one that we will not take money for supplying oxygen or medicines.
This is not your core competence isn’t it?
You will be surprised to know that this is not the first time that we are doing this. We worked very hard during the Uttarakhand tragedy in 2013, during the floods in Bihar and even Kashmir. I spent two months in Bihar going from village to village doing relief work. The difference this time is that it’s a pan-India effort; earlier it was very localised. What you are witnessing is a result of a tremendous team effort, it’s not about an individual.
Despite all that you are doing, people like (former minister) Jitin Prasada don’t see a future for the Congress and have decided to leave.
Some people find it difficult to struggle. They can’t take the heat, can’t stay without power. He was a minister for 10 years, was made a general secretary in charge of West Bengal; the party came down from 44 seats to 0. What more could the party have given him? He should have stood by the party rather than desert it in these difficult times.
There is no question that India is witnessing an era of politics centered around Hinduism, the Congress party’s answer appears to be soft Hindutva. What, in your view, should be the Congress party’s strategy?
Look, religion can give you an identity, it cannot fill your stomach, cannot get you a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, or help get the unemployed a job. Sooner rather than later people will come to realise this. As a party wedded to plural and democratic India, we must keep at it.
You are up against and competing for the same political space as BJP Bengaluru MP Tejaswi Surya. How do you plan to counter his brand of politics?
I have nothing in common with him at all. I am not in the business of spreading hate or dividing people. I will continue with my outreach programme and focus on helping people.
(Javed Ansari is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He is on the editorial board of Article 14.)