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.

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.

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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

Vajpayee Vignettes: A Photo Essay

The Poet At Pokharan In this May 20, 1998, file photo, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visits the nuclear test site in Pokhran. Vajpayee, 93, passed away on Thursday, Aug 16, 2018, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi after a prolonged illness.

‘You Can Change Friends, Not Neighbours’

[caption id="attachment_29743" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this Sept 23, 1998, photo Vajpayee is seen with the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at a meeting in New York, USA. Vajpayee remained a proponent of resolving issues with neighbours through dialogue.[/caption]

Historic Delhi-To-Lahore Bus Takes Off

[caption id="attachment_29744" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this Feb 19, 1999, file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee waves from the maiden Delhi-Lahore bus service on his arrival at Lahore to attend a Summit in Pakistan. The Kargil misadventure by Pakistan Army followed soon thereafter.[/caption]

Raj Dharma: With Advani And Modi

[caption id="attachment_29745" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this file photo Vajpayee is seen with senior BJP leader LK Advani and the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at a public meeting in Ahmedabad. After Godhra riots, the poet prime minister publicly reminded the chief minister of Raj Dharma to be followed by a ruler.[/caption]

Friendly With Political Opponents

[caption id="attachment_29746" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this Dec 6, 2002 photo Vajpayee is seen with the then Congress President Sonia Gandhi at a function at Parliament House in New Delhi.[/caption]

A Light Moment With ‘Young Turk’

[caption id="attachment_29747" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this Dec 24, 2004, photo Vajpayee is seen with former PM Chandrashekhar in New Delhi.[/caption]

Passing On The Wisdom

[caption id="attachment_29748" align="alignnone" width="300"] In this Dec 25, 2009 picture, B Vajpayee is seen with his grand-daughter on his 85th birthday, in New Delhi.[/caption]  ]]>