First Non-Gandhi Prez

To Survive, Congress Needs A Major Split

Here’s a quick question. How many times do you think India’s so-called Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, has split since its inception in 1885? The answer is: at least 70 times. The splits have often been small regional ones such as when Chittaranjan Das and Motilal Nehru broke away in 1923 to form the Swaraj Party in what was then the Bengal Presidency (the Swaraj Party was later merged back into the Indian National Congress) but also a few major, national level breakups such as when leaders Morarji Desai and K. Kamaraj broke away in 1969 from Indira Gandhi to form what would later be part of the Janata Party. In later years there have been other major breakaway groups from the INC, notably the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, which is still active.

In recent years, particularly after the Congress’ near-decimation in parliamentary elections in 2014 and the fact that it is in power in very few of India’s 28 states, speculation in political circles about a major split in the party has been rife. The Congress is in power in the states of Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the party has majority support. In Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Maharashtra it shares power with alliance partners Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Shiv Sena, respectively.

The party’s diminishing fortunes have led to disillusionment among many of its prominent leaders who have lost confidence in the leadership of the party, which remains a fiefdom of the Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi continues to be its president; her son, Rahul, is a reluctant heir who many believe is ineffective in either leading the party or winning elections.

As a result of this and the ensuing crisis in the party, several senior leaders–either at the national level or at the state level–have left the Congress, some of them choosing to join the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party whose fortunes have been directionally quite the opposite of that of the Congress. Besides being in power at the Centre, the BJP or its alliances rule 18 Indian states and despite some recent setbacks, the popularity of the party or its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been ahead of any other political party or leader.

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The exodus from the Congress actually began nearly eight years ago when the BJP came to power. According to one estimate, more than 30 leaders, many of them former central ministers or state-level leaders, left the Congress to join the BJP. Many high-profile exits happened more recently. These include Jyotiraditya Scindia who is now a minister at the Centre; Jitin Prasada, now a minister in the Uttar Pradesh BJP-led government; and R.P.N. Singh, a former Congress minister who recently jumped ship to join the BJP. The Congress has been losing people from its second rung leadership and that is a blow for the party.

The informal G-23 or a grouping of 23 Congress leaders is a pointer to what could happen in the foreseeable future. The group comprises several heavyweights from the party. There are, for instance, five former chief ministers and several former Union ministers.

One of the most notable factors is that this group has mustered the courage to challenge the party’s leadership and call for reforms. Foremost among their demands is a call for elections to the Congress Working Committee, the powerful executive committee of the party, headed by Sonia Gandhi. The Congress has not held elections to the CWC since 1998 and this has meant that it has become an undemocratic, closed-club, which is in charge of running the party.

Recently, when the Indian government decided to honour the Congress leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, with a national award, it set off rumblings in the party and speculation that Azad would quit the Congress and join the BJP. While that hasn’t happened yet, a split in the Congress could possibly be good for the party. For one, it would bring together some of its leaders with the potential to revive the party. Second, a strong enough breakaway faction would rid the party of the regressive leadership of the Gandhi family, which has failed at elections and at holding together its flock.

The Congress is the only party, besides the BJP, that still has a national presence, although its influence has waned. Today, however, the BJP is almost unchallenged: in 2019, the Congress won 52 seats in the Lok Sabha, failing to get 10% of the seats needed to claim the post of Leader of Opposition. With its decimation in Parliament, in the absence of a strong national party’s presence, the opposition is toothless. That is not exactly a good recipe for a democratic system.

What the party sorely needs is fresh leadership that could revive it by infusing new ideas, raising the confidence of its leaders and workers, and forging strategic alliances with regional parties so that the ruling party and its allies do not get a free run. Creating a strong opposition could be the first step towards getting back its status as the Grand Old Party.

Can Amarinder Singh Save Congress?

Insinuations about the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ‘Muslim’ past, made by their cultural/political foes, are old. But for the first time, during a very toxic campaign for Delhi Assembly elections, Firoze Gandhi was called “Firoze Khan”. None from the Congress party that the family heads, objected, ostensibly out of fear that the issue would get communal hue. Congress is politically frozen. It needs a new leader.

It’s delicate. Criticizing Congress leaders/cadres for this is difficult when Nehru-bashing even by union ministers is the in-thing and when lawmakers question Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement. But all this, besides weakening of secular ethos for which India is known, underscores the decline that the party has suffered over the recent years.

Assessing this decline is also not easy, indeed, difficult to define, when the party still has three scores of Members in Parliament (out of 800-plus) and rules, singly or jointly, in major states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

The other, more important, aspect of this political reality is declining vote share, of its leaders and activists, young and old, jumping off the ship and turning vocal critics, overnight as it were, to get accepted in their new parties. But most important, over a long period now, is the low reached in the vote-catching influence of its top leadership.

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More glaring are the inertia within and directionless approach, of losing states – Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana – despite numbers and being outsmarted by rivals. The worst is the public ridicule to which the party and its leaders are subjected to in social media-driven information explosion and a low-level public discourse.

The latest instance of all these is the Delhi polls that saw the Congress drawing a blank, yet again, cementing its vote-share loss during the parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019. Sixty-three of its 66 candidates lost deposits, after ruling for 15 years straight in this small but politically important national capital.  

Newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has almost entirely hijacked the Congress’ support base. Elsewhere, across the North – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, much of the North-East and the South – it has long ago lost out to regional parties.

Placed in similar dire stress after losing in 2004 and 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recovered. It held on to states where it wielded power with strong chief ministers and eventually, found its national leader and vote-getter in Narendra Modi. Mounting this process was its larger cultural/political family. The Congress does not have this, even as its mass base is eroding.

ALSO READ: Nation Rising Up, Opposition Holed Up

India’s oldest party is stuck with the Gandhis, who are neither able to deliver, nor able/willing to give up. A ‘temporary’ president, Sonia Gandhi, had headed it the longest, for 19 years, earlier. She is known to be ailing and keen to retire. Her reticent son Rahul, resigned after a disastrous performance last summer and asked for selecting a “non-Gandhi” to lead. But nearly five decades of the family rule has totally benumbed the party, at all levels, into not even looking for a new leader or a set of people who can provide coherent, collective leadership. For want of a better word, the party is in coma.

The Delhi debacle and prospects of Rahul returning to lead, likely next month, if only to relieve his mother, have brought the prolonged crisis to the fore. Reports indicate a silent demand, a muffled one so far, for a “non-Gandhi.”

Reports also indicate deep discord and disarray within the family. Sonia wants Rahul to return, but does not seem to trust his choice of aides and his decisions – and not without reason. The “old guard” around her clashes with the ‘new’ one close to Rahul. The difference between the two is that the ‘old’ is really old and now rootless, while the ‘new’, by and large of young techies and managers, never struck roots.

Much was made of Priyanka and her resemblance to grandma Indira Gandhi. But repeated electoral outcomes show that the present-day voter’s memory is too short for that. If Priyanka is the alternative to Rahul, she is also the sitting duck for a government that is vigorously pursuing cases against husband Robert Wadra.

Rahul tried, with limited success last year, to by-pass his 24X7 ridicule. His ill-advised choice of campaign issues and gaffe-prone performance went against him and the party.  

To be fair, the Gandhis are a decent lot. Rajiv, the last Gandhi to rule was extremely decent, too. But that is not enough in politics. They are expected to deliver each time, often as the lone rangers. Absence or internal elections leaves them with leaders, but no workers.

The Congress’ shrinking cadres need leader(s) who actually perform full-time and not during the elections; who can rub shoulders, literally, with the crowds. Past sacrifices, charisma and token reach-outs with photo-ops, without support on the ground have not worked, and will not in future.

This is not the Congress of the Mahatma and Nehru who were relatively tolerant of dissent. Indira ended it, appointing leaders from the top and turning the party into a family estate. Although the Gandhi family was not active from 1991 to 1998, Narasimha Rao could not be without its overcast shadows. Ditto Manmohan Singh who had no base, no say in the party.  She lacks understanding of Indian social and psychological traditions. She must be credited, though, for forging alliances that earned the Congress power in 2004.

When Sonia entered politics in 1998, some left, dubbing her a ‘foreigner’. Today, some Congressmen clamour for the return of one: Sharad Pawar. Conventional wisdom still places Congress as the Opposition’s rallying point – only if it strives to organize and act.

The party is unsure of its ideological direction. Adopting “Soft Hindutva” has failed. The task of countering the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is extremely daunting when secularism means being pro-Muslim and thus, “anti-national.”        

The Gandhi-centric working has marginalized strong and credible Congress chief ministers Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh). Decision-making by a weak leadership and anxiety to hold everyone together have left these older satraps fighting with younger rivals.

Generational changes have been most painful in Congress whose Treasurer is 92. None retires in India, anyway, irrespective of age and health.

The Gandhis need to take political sabbatical, completely, if not quit. Let Amarinder Singh head the organization, with young, strong support from the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Lok Sabha needs an articulate Shashi Tharoor.

But naming names is futile till the party that is wedded to only one name acts. There is still time, last chance, perhaps, to stem the rot.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com