Is Congress Beyond Repair?

The challenge before the Congress, before the Gandhis, before the Gandhi coteries and the G-23 rebels is this: how to resuscitate the political fortunes of the party. What are the reasons for the successive electoral defeats?

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
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RECENTLY Congress president Sonia Gandhi met a few dissident leaders of the party at her residence in Delhi. The leaders, also known as G-23, is a grouping of senior party functionaries who have been demanding an organizational overhaul following the Congress’ dismal performance in the recently concluded Assembly elections in five states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. Rebels wanted to return to Gandhi’s’ Charmed Circle ‘after Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 gambit failed. Senior leaders can help re-strategise. G23 seeks a constructive role in galvanizing the party. They do not want to lead. They want to advise. This debacle of the Congress party in the assembly elections induces the worst crisis it has ever faced. 

At The Worst

The present crisis in Congress began after the defeat of the party in the 2019 general election when Rahul Gandhi as President of the party led the campaign and stuck to his campaign buzzword of ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ with reference to the Rafale, the French jet fighter deal. It did not work. And he resigned when the results came. And while resigning he also said that neither he nor his family members would be the president. He had effectively pre-empted his mother Sonia Gandhi and his Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from taking over. But the party prevailed upon Sonia Gandhi to hold the office of the president as a temporary measure.

RAHUL_GANDHI_-_OIL_PAINTING-2

It does not appear that Rahul Gandhi can bring himself to admit that his plans had gone wrong. He sincerely believes that the political battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must be an ideological one, and there should be no compromises

So, for nearly three years now she has remained the interim president of the party. But Rahul Gandhi as was inevitable remained the central figure in the party, not just in terms of the public image, but also in terms of organizational matters, who would be the chief minister in a state, who would be appointed to the post of a general secretary. And there has grown around him a group of people, which is inevitable. And this has created a barrier of sorts between the senior leaders and the party. 

He was never too comfortable with senior members and of course the senior members would deny that they have any differences with Rahul Gandhi. There was also the vague inter-generational struggle. The young leaders hovered around Rahul Gandhi but remained marginal in the overall affairs of the party. The perception had grown that there is a rift between the men and women in the party who worked with Sonia Gandhi when she was party president from 1998 to 2018 and of those who worked with Rahul Gandhi. No one in the Congress would however admit to it.

It is also necessary to remember the meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) after the 2019 election, when Rahul Gandhi expressed his frustration that none of the senior leaders worked for the party, and all that they were worried about was about getting tickets for their sons. This was an indirect reference to former finance minister P. Chidambaram seeking a ticket for his son, Karti Chidambaram. But this was not the only instance. There were others too. All the senior leaders like chastened schoolboys requested Rahul Gandhi not to resign. But he had made up his mind. 

Vicious Inner Circle

There was then a window of opportunity to elect a President. But the fear in Congress, especially in some quarters, that if anyone other than the Gandhis were to become the president, they would lose the little clout they have in the organization. Call it a clique, a coterie, or cabal. But they are entrenched and would not allow anyone to take over the party. This becomes a vicious circle. Rahul Gandhi wants to step aside but there are those in the party who will not allow that to happen.

The deadlock over leadership, and the dog-in-the-manger attitude of those who are around the Gandhis makes it difficult for the party to move ahead. The rebellion of the senior leaders with the nickname of G-23 is against the Gandhi loyalists in the party. And so far, they have not made any progress. The defeat in the latest round of assembly elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur, and Uttar Pradesh has raised concerns and even the Gandhis seem a worried lot. But even now, it does not look like there would be any major changes. The G-23 rebels are not ambitious enough to take over the leadership of the party. They want to be the inner circle of the Gandhis and manage the affairs of
the party.

There is no guarantee that the middle-rung and senior leaders who had been pushed out by the Rahul Gandhi coterie will work out a winning formula for the party. They may fail too, but the party would have the benefit of their experience in other ways. What Congress desperately needs is new blood, and the young members will have to show political spark other than expression of loyalty to the Gandhis. Indira Gandhi could spot talent. Sonia Gandhi learned to trust that was there in the party, and even reached out to people beyond the political class. Rahul Gandhi tried too when he reached out to former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan and economics scholars like Kaushik Basu. 

Congress’ Revival Plan

P V Narsimha Rao

There is no possibility of non-Nehru Gandhi members of the Congress managing the Congress organization. P V Narasimha Rao was able to do it because he was chosen President of the party

CONGRESS has no revival plan worth speaking of. Party President Sonia Gandhi and others at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) had pointed to organizational elections which are supposed to be an elected CWC and an elected President. The promise of organizational elections is offered as a carrot to the so-called dissenters with the acronym G-23. It may partially lead to an elected CWC, but not to an elected President because there will hardly be a contest for the President’s post. Even the G-23 is not staking any claim to the President’s post. All that they want is a place in the elected CWC. And do not be surprised if the G-23 members fail to get elected to the CWC.

This is what had happened in April 1992 when the elections were held at the Tirupati session of the party under P V Narasimha Rao. Rao had to nominate senior members who failed to get elected to the CWC. There is no possibility of non-Nehru Gandhi members of the Congress managing the Congress organization. P V Narasimha Rao was able to do it because he was chosen President of the party and the party managed to form the government, though a minority one, in June 1991. And Rao managed to hold the organization under his thumb as it were because he was the Prime Minister and there was a Congress government.

When Congress lost the election in 1996, Rao was replaced without much ado as the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) leader and as President of the party. In the presidential contest that followed, Sitaram Kesari beat Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot without much sweat. But the followers of the Nehru-Gandhi family pushed out Kesari and brought in Sonia Gandhi in a ruthless coup in 1998. 

It is unlikely that all the rebels will be accommodated. It is quite possible that Kapil Sibal, who spoke out against the Nehru-Gandhis, could be expelled from the party. He alone among the G-23 spoke on the Nehru-Gandhis. In Congress, this amounts to treason. The rebels will be put to the sword over time, one after another. None of the rebels has any base of their own except Bhupinder Singh Hooda, former chief minister of Haryana. 

Internal Challenges

The challenge before the Congress, before the Gandhis, before the Gandhi coteries and the G-23 rebels is this: how to retrieve the political fortunes of the party. What are the reasons for the successive electoral defeats? 

There was an AK Antony report which was set up after the debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The committee identified four main reasons for the defeat: pitching the poll battle as one between secularism versus communalism, the perception of minority appeasement by Congress, anti-incumbency at the Center and in the states, and lack of coordination between the central and state units of the party. 

After the 2019 poll debacle, there was no such focused effort in analyzing the reasons for the defeat. But the general blame was laid at the data analytics department that Rahul Gandhi had created after he became President of the party. Senior leaders blamed the overreliance on data, which was used as base for decisions, as the reason for the defeat. The leaders also blamed the overemphasis on the Rafale deal and on pitting Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi as some of the reasons for the defeat. It seems that Rahul Gandhi led the 2019 campaign all one his own with the help of his team, and it boomeranged. 

The missing factor in the Congress today is a man like Ahmed Patel, who serves as political secretary of Sonia Gandhi for many years. He could reach out to all sections of the party. There is no one like him in the party organization today

The senior leaders when they are demanding collective leadership, they do not mean to replace the Gandhis in any way. They want to guide the party’s strategy for 2024 in a nuanced way so as to avert the poll disaster of 2019 and the successive defeats in the assembly elections. This would require Rahul Gandhi to implicitly acknowledge that his poll strategy in 2019 and 2022 did not work and he is now willing to get back to the old team to devise a strategy for 2024. 

Sonia Gandhi is the flexible leader who can of course correct, but it does not appear that Rahul Gandhi can bring himself to admit that his plans had gone wrong. He sincerely believes that the political battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must be an ideological one, and there should be no compromises. In some ways, it is good that he is not at the helm. This will enable the party to adopt a more pragmatic plan for 2024.

Missing Factor

The missing factor in the Congress today is a man like Ahmed Patel, who serves as political secretary of Sonia Gandhi for many years. He could reach out to all sections of the party. There is no one like him in the party organization today. Had there been someone like Patel, the G-23 rebellion would not have happened. Changes would have been made without hullabaloo. Former Gujarat chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela said, “after Ahmed Patel’s demise, there is no such leader in Congress who can guide the party’s top leadership, and the party is suffering because of that. If the party had found his replacement, there was no reason to form this G-23.” Vaghela is not associated with any political party now, after quitting Congress in 2017. The veteran leader termed the Congress’ decision to give the responsibility of Uttar Pradesh elections to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as “misfire”. “The recent performance of Congress in elections shows the party is suffering because of Ahmed Patel’s absence,” he added.

 By 2024, BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be facing the anti-incumbency sentiment in the same way that Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh government did in 2014 after 10 years in power. It will be argued that there is a huge difference between the personalities of the two. Modi has created an image for himself, and the question whether it is truthful or not. In contrast, both in 2004 and in 2009, the Congress fought the elections without a conspicuous face. It can be said with some justification that the victory in 2009 was that of Prime Minister Singh, but it was more a Congress Party victory on both occasions. People voted for the party.

Is Priyanka Gandhi a ‘Misfire’ ?

IT would be unfair to dismiss Priyanka Vadra for failing to make any meaningful gains for the party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections or blame Rahul Gandhi for losing the 2019 general elections. There were weaknesses in Priyanka’s campaign in UP elections 2022 and Rahul’s in the 2019 elections. Priyanka carried out an energetic and clean campaign in UP. But that did not connect. Most critics of the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka triumvirate do not recognize the simple fact that Indian politics has changed and the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis have not. India has left behind Congress. The problem of the Congress party is not the Nehru-Gandhis but India of the
21st century. 

There was a time when Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were the mascots of the party, and the reason why the party clung to them. But that chapter is over. Rajiv Gandhi’s victory in 1984 was not his own though he and friends campaigned cunningly for it. But the defeat of 1989 was his own. And the party was not heading for a victory in 1991 when he was assassinated in the middle of the election. In contrast, Modi has become the mascot of the party in 2014 and in 2019, and the BJP has been reduced to a subordinate status. Congress can defeat the BJP if it can work around Modi.

The basic challenge is to rework the political perspective of the Congress. There is no clarity on this issue right now. It looks like that Modi has grabbed all the new ideas of modernization like digitization, start-ups, skilling and spreading broadband connectivity. And the Congress is left to respond to it. Modi has pressed all the right points, but he is weak on basics – education, institutions. There can be no great future without a knowledge base. The BJP and Modi are afraid of new knowledge because it changes the attitudes of people. It is on the knowledge front that Congress can press forward.


Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who's worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian.

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