Can India’s grand old party revive itself?

India's main opposition Congress Party is currently in a sorry state and utterly confused over the issue of selecting a suitable leader who could match Prime Minister Narendra Modi and rejuvenate the party to bolster its electoral prospects in the upcoming assembly elections in five states later this year

Kushal Jeena Jan 31, 2021
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India's main opposition Congress Party is currently in a sorry state and utterly confused over the issue of selecting a suitable leader who could match Prime Minister Narendra Modi and rejuvenate the party to bolster its electoral prospects in the upcoming assembly elections in five states later this year.

The mistrust of the present leadership was evident in the recently held meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the apex decision- making body of the party, where some of the seniormost party leaders came down heavily on the leadership and demanded that the party should immediately hold organizational elections including that of the president. The rebels had on an earlier occasion also written a letter to the party president Sonia Gandhi in the aftermath of electoral drubbings in the Bihar assembly elections demanding a full-time and visible party president who would be available to party workers and leaders. In fact, the idea behind this was finding a leader from outside the Gandhi family. 

India’s grand old party has landed into a serious leadership crisis since Rahul Gandhi put in his papers as president, owning moral responsibility for the party’s humiliating electorate defeat in the 2019 general election as well as state elections. Even after persuasions, Rahul refused to budge and Sonia Gandhi was once again brought in as interim president as she expressed her deteriorating health as the reason for not accepting the high office of the president full time.

The rebel group continued to mount pressure on Sonia Gandhi to pave way for an elected president of the party because they were convinced that under Rahul’s leadership Congress cannot beat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi’s ‘charismatic’ leadership. Initially, their attempt proved futile as the family received overwhelming support from the party workers from all over the country. However, after the Congress failed to  retain its previous tally in Bihar even after it was allotted more seats than its strength in the state, churnings within the party started again.

However, in the meeting of the CWC held on Friday the rebels received a shot in the arm when Sonia Gandhi, succumbing to their pressure, agreed to hold organizational elections, including of the president, in June this year

“We lost all the by-elections in Gujarat. Even in the Lok Sabha elections, we had not won a single seat there,” Congress leader and former union minister Kapil Sibal said and added that three candidates in Gujarat lost their deposits. “So the writing is on the wall,” Sibal said.

Sibal was one of 23 senior leaders who had shot off a letter to the Sonia Gandhi in August last year, calling for “sweeping changes” and a democratic overhaul of the party to counter the BJP’s dominance. The letter, which referred to “steady decline of the party” and called for “collective leadership” was perceived to be an affront to Sonia Gandhi’s authority over organisational matters.

Heated arguments 

The crucial meeting of the party top decision-making body witnessed some heating arguments from both sides. Rajastahan Chief Minister n Ashok Gehlot and senior Congress leader Ambika Soni argued that the need of the hour was to prepare the party to counter the BJP that is pushing the country in the dark, and countered the fact that the internal elections should not be the priority and can be held after the state elections.

However, the rebel group led by senior leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma countered the pro-Gandhi family group, arguing that the party leaders have been functioning as nominated not elected and early elections of the party organization would not only enthuse fresh blood in the party but also democratize it.

The last elections to the CWC were held in Tirupati and Kolkata in 1993 and 1997 respectively under the presidentship of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao and former Congress president Sitaram Kesari. Anand Sharma complained that he was being targeted by Geholot but Ambika Soni reminded him no names had been motioned. KC Venugopal, general secretary in-charge of organization, later told the media,  "As per our constitution,  little clarity is required for whether the elections for Congress president and the working committee can be held together or working committee election should be held after the Congress president election." If things go smoothly and on the expected line, the party will have a new elected president by June 2021.

War of attrition

Since its defeat in the previous Lok Sabha polls, the Congress Party has been passing through a war of attrition in the leadership as Rahul Gandhi, then party president, was determined to push through the young generation in the party leadership both at national and state levels. 

He continued to nominate young leaders of his choice in all the key bodies of the party. When the process for selecting chief ministers for the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan came up Rahul nominated Jyotiraditya Scindia as the party’s organization head in Madhya Pradesh, ostensibly projecting him as the next chief minister of the state in case the party comes to power and it did. But Kamal Nath with the support of senior party leaders forced Rahul to accept him as chief minister, not Scindia, and that led Scindia to switch over the BJP along with his legislators and supporters. As a result, the Kamal Nath government fell.

A similar drama was enacted in Rajasthan where veteran party leader and two-time chief minister  Ashok Gehlot got himself nominated as chief minister after threatening to walk away with his supporter legislators, leaving state party head Sachin Pilot sulking. A shrewd and experienced politician Gehlot managed to save his government after Pilot attempted a failed coup as he ran short of legislators required to topple the Gehlot government. In this case, the Gandhi family managed to persuade Pilot to remain in the party.

The Congress party could be described as India’s only political party that has a pan-India presence, but today it is in a confused state and groping in the dark to find out a way to restore its past glory.  However, the fact remains that the road ahead is a tough one for the party and a democratic process is one of the solutions that could prepare the party and workers to fight and win the electoral battles that it will be facing in the years to come against the BJP in general and Modi in particular (IFS).

(The writer is a veteran journalist. The views are personal)