A party being pulled in different directions

Another chapter in the Congress leadership saga has come to a predictable close. Sonia Gandhi will continue as interim president. While the dust may have settled on the latest eruption of intra-party discontent, it’s time to unpack a problematic assumption that tends to muddy public discourse on this subject.

It can be summed up as follows: the Congress is facing a leadership crisis only because the Gandhi family blocks every non-dynastic talent. This sounds plausible, given the lack of internal democracy. But it also has the misleading effect of rendering every non-Gandhi politician, almost by default, more capable than Rahul Gandhi.


Search for a new president

For the record, though the immediate trigger for the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting of August 24 was a letter from 23 senior leaders seeking internal reform, the current crisis actually began in July last year when Mr. Gandhi resigned as Congress president, taking responsibility for the poor results in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Now, this was a perfect occasion for a new, full-time president to take over. Mr. Gandhi said as much in his resignation letter: “The way forward would be to entrust a group of people with the task of beginning the search for a new President. I have empowered them to do so and committed my full support to this process and a smooth transition.”

But the Congress would not or could not do so. None of the suave young geniuses frequently talked of as worthy alternatives to the Gandhi scions showed mettle, initiative or, for that matter, leadership. Either they were lacking in self-belief — an essential quality for a leader — or they knew they did not enjoy the support of the majority. At any rate, they remained passive, and Ms. Gandhi stepped in as interim president.

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And yet, the inverse of this has become common sense: the party has plenty of talent, all sadly stymied by a feckless dynast. Never mind that if there was outstanding leadership talent waiting in the wings, it would have broken through by now. That it hasn’t displaced the Gandhis suggests that it doesn’t exist — as yet.

The merits of the letter

It is true that for more than 20 years there have been no elections to the CWC. The high command-cum-coterie culture still prevails. Regardless of their individual motives, the apprehensions expressed in the letter of the ‘dissenting 23’ are genuine. But that still does not mean that their interests and the party’s interests coincide.

Most, if not all, of the leaders linked to the letter are at a crossroads with regard to their political career. They are Congressmen by instinct. But they are, first and foremost, pragmatists. They are concerned about their political investment in a party that looks increasingly incapable of offering tangible returns — returns of the kind that are only possible if the party is in power or looks like it’s returning to power.

So yes, they do earnestly want the Congress to end its current drift and return to its winning ways. If that requires the party to take cognisance of changes in the political landscape and make ideological compromises, then so be it. Unfortunately, there is a stumbling block to such adjustments: Mr. Gandhi and his team of advisers, who share a different vision and often bypass party veterans on key decisions. For these and other reasons, the ‘old guard’ is more comfortable working with Ms. Gandhi, and allergic to Mr. Gandhi.

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The root cause of the leadership crisis, as well as the reasons for Mr. Gandhi’s refusal to officially take charge, is there in black and white in his resignation letter of 2019. “We didn’t fight a political party in the 2019 election,” said the letter. “Rather, we fought the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition. It is now crystal clear that our once cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India.”

The very starting point of Mr. Gandhi’s politics was liable to be dismissed as ‘too radical’ by his party seniors. It got more interesting. “I personally fought the Prime Minister, the RSS and the institutions they have captured with all my being,” he wrote. The way forward is for the Indian nation “to reclaim and resuscitate our institutions” and the “instrument of this resuscitation will be the Congress party.” He added for good measure: “The stated objectives of the RSS, the capture of our country’s institutional structure, is now complete… There is a real danger that from now on, elections will go from being a determinant of India’s future to a mere ritual.”

Is it any surprise that the old guard is alarmed at the prospect of being led by a man who not only says that his fight “has never been a simple battle for political power” but also believes that a) India’s electoral apparatus is not neutral anymore; b) the RSS has captured India’s institutions; and c) Congressmen should sacrifice the desire for power in order to fight a “deeper ideological battle” against the RSS?

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Is it not possible that some of the 23 signatories might share Mr. Gandhi’s perspective? “At times,” he wrote in his resignation letter, referring to the 2019 poll campaign, “I stood completely alone.” Even now, with the exception of his small group of loyalists, Mr. Gandhi stands alone on the question of fighting the RSS ideologically, a project that today carries the risk as well as the political costs of being branded as ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-national’. Not surprisingly, elements of the old guard have a different view on how the party should respond to the saffronised reality of ‘New India’. The contradictory pulls exerted by the two divergent approaches are partly responsible for the stasis plaguing the party.

Uncomfortable questions

Thus, the leadership crisis in the Congress is primarily not about personality traits. While they do matter, the real issues are the differences over ideology and strategy. Should the Congress bet on wooing back the upper caste vote that it has lost to the BJP or should it focus on OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis, and minorities? If the latter, then shouldn’t the face of the party be an OBC or Dalit rather than a ‘janeu-dhari’ like Mr. Gandhi? Should the party try to neutralise Hindutva politics by ‘Hinduising’ itself or should it wage an ideological war against the RSS? If the latter, then will its stance carry credibility without a proper reckoning of past dalliances with communal politics, not least the 1984 riots?

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Another troubling question looms: Given the gigantic mismatch of power and resources between the Congress and the BJP, will a non-Gandhi Congress chief be more vulnerable to external pressures than a Gandhi scion? The burgeoning list of Congress leaders who’ve recently joined the BJP might suggest so.

Clearly, the path that Mr. Gandhi wants the party to walk is not an easy one. It will only be made tougher by a lack of clarity and internal divisions on these questions. What is beyond dispute is that the party could end up in two very different places depending on whether it follows Mr. Gandhi’s own political vision or a ‘consensus’.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 6:24:56 AM |

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