The Congress in a cocoon

The party has not just vacated space for other political parties, but it is also being steadily hollowed out ideologically. Most disconcertingly for its rank and file, there are no signs of a turnaround

April 12, 2016 02:26 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:27 pm IST

Unlike his mother, Rahul Gandhi has chosen largely “non-political” advisers.

Unlike his mother, Rahul Gandhi has chosen largely “non-political” advisers.

In the 22 months since the Congress lost power at the Centre, there has been little visible effort to revamp the party organisation, give it a direction or marshal its forces for the serious, sustained ideological battle it now clearly needs to fight. If a report by senior leader A.K. Antony in August 2014 blamed the media — particularly the social media — for the party’s defeat, a series of structured discussions in end-2014 led neither to a blueprint for revival nor a reorganisation of the Congress.

Since then, the party has lost Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, States it had been in power on its own or in a coalition. In Delhi, it failed to win even one Assembly seat, after having ruled the Union Territory for an unbroken 15 years till end-2013. Being part of the winning combine in last year’s Bihar polls, albeit as the junior-most partner, a Parliament seat in a Madhya Pradesh by-election and some mild success in local elections in a few States though brought some cheer.

Not surprisingly, rebellion in the party’s ranks has grown. This year alone, dissidence has claimed Congress governments >in Arunachal Pradesh and >Uttarakhand (the latter’s fate, of course, remains uncertain ) while a third State it rules, Manipur, teeters on the brink. Last year, in Assam, senior leader >Himanta Biswa Sarma and nine MLAs jumped ship and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A few months later, as things reached breaking point in Punjab, the State unit’s strongest leader, Amarinder Singh, was put in charge. And now reports from Madhya Pradesh suggest that party MLAs are coalescing around former Union minister Kamal Nath, the party’s longest-serving MP who was passed over for Congress leader in the Lok Sabha, who they would like to see lead the campaign for State polls in 2018.

Over the years, the effort to check the rise of regional satraps, even those who have delivered, has further weakened the party: Sheila Dikshit in Delhi, Tarun Gogoi in Assam, and the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh to name just three.

Party and the family Where will all this lead? No one in the party believes that it will split nationally: historically, the group that has broken away has at best achieved the status of a regional party, the only exception being Indira Gandhi parting ways with the Syndicate in the late 1960s and going on to lead the main party.

Today, if anything still holds the Congress together, it is neither a common world view nor a commitment to an agreed set of goals but l >oyalty to one family, the Gandhis .

But that loyalty is under strain: party members are concerned that it is not just a weak leadership but, perhaps, divided as well. Conversations with a wide-cross section of the party indicate that the relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi — as far as party affairs goes — is not as cordial as it should be, with the word “tension” freely bandied around in Congress circles.

The cheerleaders would have it that Ms. Gandhi has handed over all decision-making to her son. The reality is very different, reflected, for instance, in the fact that there has been no reshuffle of the central office-bearers, something that has been on the cards since the general election. If even a quarter had been changed in 2014, the process of a generational change could have started. Indeed, the party is yet to be “emancipated from the rootless wonders and spineless creepers who have held sway for two decades”, as senior leader Kishore Chandra Deo said famously in the aftermath of the 2014 electoral debacle. There are also no signs that Rajya Sabha slots that open up in coming days will be filled with fresh entrants.

Ms. Gandhi apparently is loath to jettison any of her political associates, most of whom date back to the >Rajiv Gandhi era and who have seen her through the 18 years she has held the presidency; members of this group, in turn, are naturally reluctant to step down. Her son, on his part, lacks the fire in the belly that his uncle Sanjay Gandhi had, or the ability to seize the moment and lead from the front, something Ms. Gandhi has done — and continues to do. The party faithful who had greeted his political arrival in 2004 with great enthusiasm, and expectations, are now disillusioned.

Idea-implementation lag Unlike his mother, Rahul Gandhi has chosen largely “non-political” advisers. “Rahul Gandhi has staff, not political advisers,” says a party activist wryly. They lack the heft to mediate between him and party workers in the way Ms. Gandhi’s general secretaries did, ensuring, among other things, that disgruntled State leaders — if significant — were granted an audience with her. >Vijay Bahuguna , who led the rebellion in Uttarakhand, apparently sought for months to get time with Mr. Gandhi without success.

Too often, there is a lag between the decisions that Mr. Gandhi makes and their implementation. It took months, for instance, for the Congress to challenge legislation passed by the BJP-ruled Haryana and Rajasthan governments to exclude those who do not have set educational qualifications from contesting local elections. Eventually, the Congress brought an amendment during the reply to the President’s Address in the Rajya Sabha during the first half of the Budget session. It secured support from other sections of the Opposition, and defeated the government, a significant development in itself. But while the defeat made news, the issue on which it was based failed to resonate as it was no longer in currency.

Similarly, on the nationalism issue, Mr. Gandhi made a splash with his public >support for Kanhaiya Kumar in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), but the party failed to follow it up, largely because of differences within on whether it could win the nationalism debate against the BJP. Clearly, that discussion should have preceded Mr. Gandhi’s impulsive visit into JNU. Since then, the BJP has repeatedly said that Mr. Gandhi stood in support of those who shouted anti-national slogans, a statement that is not true but which the Congress has failed to scotch.

What makes the current situation different from similar occasions in the past is this: the Family may have been the default option since Indira Gandhi’s time, but the leader changed every so many years. Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, but Sanjay Gandhi in 1975 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1980 — after his brother’s death — infused new energy and brought in fresh faces into prominence. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, there was a brief interregnum without the Family during which P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, in turn, headed the party. In 1998, >Sonia Gandhi took over its reins, her energy willing the Congress back to power within six years. Since then, there has been no such change.

Shrinking in the States In recent decades, particularly over the last quarter of a century, the Congress has seen its core support base — of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims — shifting elsewhere, particularly in the Hindi heartland States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But it also lost power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, in Gujarat in 1995, in Odisha in 2000, in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 — and failed to recover that ground since.

The Congress, of course, did head a national coalition from 2004 to 2014. In 2004, its victory owed as much to the strategic alliances it forged with smaller parties as it did to Sonia Gandhi’s spirited leadership — and a hunger in the country for restoration of the pluralist ethos after six years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. In 2009, the Congress triumphed again, adding seats to its previous tally, thanks largely to Manmohan Singh’s stewardship of India’s economy at a time of global crisis (the party even swept all the metros that year) as well as to the BJP’s failure to present a leadership that could replace the ageing Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo.

But if the >Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh combine ensured the party 10 years in power, there was no real revival of the party organisation on the ground. For that decade did not see the Congress win back U.P., Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Odisha or Madhya Pradesh. Instead, it witnessed the gradual decimation of the party in another stronghold, Andhra Pradesh, where, after its bifurcation, it was wiped out in both States.

Worse, the Congress has not just vacated space for other political parties, shrinking as it did to double-digit ignominy in the general election of 2014 — it is now also being steadily hollowed out ideologically.

In 2012, it lost its Gandhi cap and slogan (“Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath ”) to the go-getting Aam Aadmi Party that now rules Delhi and is seen to be a serious challenger in Punjab next year. And since 2014, many of its icons have been appropriated and its inclusive style of nationalism — forged in the fires of the freedom struggle — rebranded by the BJP: the protagonists of those who have promised us a Congress-mukt (free) Bharat have given it a sharp Hindutva edge.

The Congress is fraying at the edges and the current round of State elections may not bring too much cheer. The party cannot perennially wait for a politically auspicious moment to make Rahul Gandhi president: he must therefore either take up the challenge of leadership or step aside, for uncertainty is taking its toll on the morale of the party’s rank and file. Mr. Gandhi cannot be heir apparent and still shy away from power politics.

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