It Might Be Too Late To Revamp Congress Leadership Now

When one of the senior most leaders of the Indian National Congress, Ghulam Nabi Azad, recently said that the party was at its “historic low” and that if elections to appoint a new leader of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and other key organisational posts were not held soon, it could mean that the Congress could continue to sit in the Opposition for the next 50 years, the furore his statement caused was not unexpected. Such voices of dissent are not common in the Congress party and, expectedly, a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh quickly demanded that he be ousted from the party.

But Azad, who is the current leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, and has held key posts as a Cabinet minister, and as a chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, like the young child in the Hans Christian Anderson folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, was telling the blunt truth. Decimated in the parliamentary elections of 2019, the Congress has been plunged into a crisis like it has been never seen before. Its leadership, still controlled by the Gandhi family—Ms. Sonia Gandhi continues as the party’s interim president after her son, Rahul Gandhi, stepped down from the post in 2019—has lacked decisiveness and several party leaders, have either left the party to join the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (notably Jyotiraditya Scindia), or have dissented against the Congress party’s leadership.

In late August, 23 senior leaders of the Congress party, including five former state chief ministers, members of the CWC, MPs, and former central government ministers, wrote to Ms. Gandhi calling for sweeping changes at all levels of the party. The letter focused on the erosion of the party’s support base; and loss of support from among India’s youth, who make up a substantially large proportion of the nation’s electorate. The letter, in effect, was a sharp indictment of the party’s leadership.

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When Rahul Gandhi took over as the Congress’s president in 2017 it was in line with the sort of dynastic leadership lineage that one has come to expect in the party. The nadir of Gandhi’s short-lived tenure—he stepped down in less than two years—was the second defeat of the party he was leading at the hands of the BJP in 2019. Since then the Congress, already nearly marginalised after the 2014 parliamentary elections, which it also lost, has become a faint shadow of what it was. Among India’s 29 states, the party is in power in the states of Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where the party has majority support. In Puducherry, it shares power with alliance partner, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the regional party. And besides, simmering dissent within the ranks of its central leadership, the Congress has also lost much of its direction.

Partly that has happened as a side-effect of a series of debilitating electoral defeats; but it is also the lack of a decisive leadership that has weakened and made it rudderless. The contrast between the two central parties is stark. The strength of the BJP leadership has never been greater than it is now. The Congress’s, on the other hand, has never been lesser than it is now.

The Congress may have missed an opportunity to revamp its leadership three years ago when Ms Gandhi stepped down and a new president was to be appointed. As it happened, it was her son who succeeded her. And that might have been the most serious wrong move by the party to create a strong leadership. For Rahul has never really demonstrated his ability to be the leader of the party. His track record—whether it is in leading an electoral campaign or strategy, or in restructuring the party—has been lacklustre to put it mildly.

Back in 2014, before the parliamentary elections, this author had written in a column for an Indian newspaper that the Congress had done a wise thing by not naming Rahul (who was then the party’s vice-president) as its prime ministerial candidate. The argument that I put forward was that he was not ready for the role. And although wishing that the Congress party will come back to power when the next parliamentary elections are held is, at least for now, in the realm of fantasy, Rahul still isn’t ready for that role. Then and again in the 2019 elections, the BJP went to the polls with a strong prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and won both times.

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The thing is that the Congress has never really looked beyond the Gandhi family for its top leadership position. In 2017, Rahul took over from his mother; in 2019, when he stepped down, his mother became interim president, a position she continues to hold even as dissent, and calls for a new leadership are welling up from within the party ranks. It is true that the Gandhi family has acted like some kind of glue that keeps the Congress party together. The family’s writ runs large in the party and dissent has been discouraged. Probably not any longer.

The letter by senior leaders; Azad’s recent statement; the resignation of several leaders (some of them to join the BJP) all of this point towards one thing: the Congress cannot exist in the manner it has been for so long. A non-Gandhi leader is what the party needs most now. But even if it finds one, that person has to enjoy the autonomy and freedom to change how the party organises; how it functions; and how it strategises.

The first step would be for its current leadership to heed the voices of reason that are surfacing from within. Its most important leaders, some of whom have much more successful political achievements than, say, Rahul Gandhi, have demanded changes in the way the party is led and how it functions. For Ms Gandhi, as interim president, that is the writing on the wall—in clear and bold letters. The second thing for the party and its main movers is to realise that the climb from where the party has fallen is going to be a long and very arduous one. The morale of its grassroots-level workers is low; dissent has spread among its leaders in various states; and the BJP has strengthened its position over the past six years that it has ruled at the Centre.

The Congress’s comeback, if the party reads that writing on the wall, is going to be slow, and often not painless. And, if those warning signs go unheeded, then what once was India’s all-powerful national party could hurtle towards extinction.

Rahul’s Return To Cong Helm Will Harm Party Prospects

Last week when Rahul Gandhi took centre stage at a huge rally in Delhi, organised by the Congress to highlight the Narendra Modi government’s mismanagement of the country’s economy, it was seen as a clear message that he would soon be back as party chief.

In fact, grounds were being prepared for the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s return in the days ahead of this meeting. Several leaders went on record to say that Rahul Gandhi must helm the party again as he is the only leader who can mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Making a vociferous pitch for his return, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel declared, “If there is any leader in the Congress, it is Rahul Gandhi. No one else but Rahul Gandhi…. He is honest and takes responsibility. He took responsibility for the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and resigned.”

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Congress general secretary KC Venugopal also spoke in the same vein shortly thereafter. Pointing out that there was a growing demand from party workers that Rahul Gandhi should once again take charge of the party, the two leaders maintained that the Congress needs his leadership now, especially when the country is going through such a critical phase.

Rahul Gandhi had stepped down as Congress president after the party’s disastrous performance in the May 2019 Lok Sabha election. After three months of uncertainty and internal debate, Sonia Gandhi was eventually persuaded to helm the party once again. It was, however, clarified then that she would be an interim president. Sonia Gandhi’s poor health, it was said, does not allow her to continue as party chief for too long.

Since it is an acknowledged fact that Sonia Gandhi’s tenure is only a holding operation, an orchestrated campaign is being mounted within the Congress to press for Rahul Gandhi’s return. This drive is said to have Sonia Gandhi’s blessings as she is keen that her son should take charge of the party before he is rendered politically irrelevant, which is bound to happen if Rahul Gandhi is not seen or heard for a prolonged period.

In such a situation, even sycophant Congress workers will move on and find themselves another Godfather. Sonia Gandhi obviously wants to forestall any such possibility. She must have been alerted to this after the results of the Haryana and Maharashtra assembly polls pointed to the dispensability of the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi did not campaign in these elections while Rahul Gandhi addressed barely a couple of meetings. And yet, the poll outcome in Haryana proved to be well beyond everyone’s expectations, proving that the Congress has the potential to bounce back in the states if the party has a band of strong, credible and effective regional satraps. The story in Maharashtra may have been different if the Congress had effective leaders in the state.  

However, Sonia Gandhi’s “son-preference” could well prove costly for the Congress. Thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s persistent campaign against the Gandhi “dynasty” has now become a dirty word. Similarly, the saffron party’s ongoing efforts to lampoon Rahul Gandhi have also succeeded as the fifth-generation dynast of the Nehru-Gandhi family is constantly ridiculed by the people who are not just not willing to accept him as a future leader. Rahul Gandhi’s return will, once again, activate the BJP’s campaign against him and dynastic politics. This also helps the BJP deflect attention from the Modi government’s weak points like the state of the economy.

Having found a soft target in Rahul Gandhi, the BJP finds it difficult to mount an offensive against the Congress if he is not leading the party. This was proved during the past few months when Rahul Gandhi stayed under the radar and was almost invisible. The BJP was a trifle lost as it struggled to mount an effective offensive against the Congress with Rahul Gandhi no longer heading it.

Rahul Gandhi’s return will also resurrect the controversy over dynastic politics. The public, at large, has developed an aversion to the Congress precisely for this reason. Though other political parties, including the BJP, have their fair share of dynasts, the Congress is singled out for attack because the grand old party has, over the years, been reduced to a “family firm”, like the country’s regional parties where the leadership positions are reserved only for family members. A younger India, which has shed the old “Raja-Praja” concept, wants leaders with whom they can connect. And more importantly, the people are now judging leaders on the basis of their performance – they are no longer enamored by powerful political dynasties. They want to see results and want leaders who can deliver and meet their aspirations.

While the people are ready to give the Congress a chance provided it sheds its dependence on the Gandhis, the party is unable and unwilling to do so. On the other hand, Congress workers justify their need to continue with the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm on the ground that it wins them elections and keeps the party united.

However, Rahul Gandhi, and, to some extent even Sonia Gandhi, has failed on both counts. Rahul Gandhi has been unable to deliver an electoral victory for the Congress. Sonia Gandhi has the distinction of winning two consecutive Lok Sabha elections but it is also a fact that it was under her leadership that the Congress slumped from 206 to 44 seats.

It is also a fallacy that the Gandhi family ensures a degree of unity in the Congress. After all, the party has witnessed a steady erosion in its ranks and this includes Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Reddy and Sharad Pawar who have established themselves as leaders in their own right outside the Congress.

If the Congress still persists with its “Rahul Laao, Desh Bachaao” campaign, it will be doing so at its own peril. Forget the country, the Congress leaders will have to strive hard to first save the party.