Till recently, the Congress was in the news for all wrong reasons. Embarrassing political dramas unfolding in the states it currently rules kept it in firefighting mode till the Lakhimpur Kheri episode happened; it gave the grand old party a temporary breather from uncomfortable questions about the sorry state of its affairs.
While the political anger that Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have shown against the Yogi Adityanath-led government in Uttar Pradesh over the Lakhimpur killings has given the Congress an opportunity to galvanise a sizable section of voters in the state, it’s too early to say it will translate into any serious political gains.
UP and beyond
It’s a long road ahead for the Congress to get any kind of electoral heft in Uttar Pradesh, which is dominated by identity-based parties on the one hand and the champion of Hindutva nationalism, BJP, on the other. Though the Congress is attempting to go beyond immediate identities and offer a pro-poor development vision in the state, it will require a long-term strategy and massive political effort over a longer period of time to gain a sizable foothold in UP, which it has lost over the past three decades. Therefore, the Congress party’s revival effort in a large and politically crucial state like UP under Priyanka Gandhi is a work in progress and her recent stand on Lakhimpur may not change things much for the party.
In fact, it’s not just in Uttar Pradesh, but the Congress needs a serious strategy for its revival nationally. In the few states where it is currently in power, things aren’t hunky-dory. Punjab is still in a mess for the party where Navjot Singh Sidhu is back to his old game of one-upmanship. In the states where it remains a contender for power – Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh – internal rumblings, factional fights and defections have weakened the state units.
Beyond these diminishing zones of relative comfort, the Congress does not count for much electorally and is reconciled to its reduced status. Thus, the Gandhi siblings not only have an enormous task ahead of them to revive the Congress nationally, but Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mewani and other state leaders also face the unenviable task of resuscitating the party in their respective home states.
Since its rout in 2014, followed by a repeat in 2019, internal rumblings, factional fights and defections have not only diminished the Congress’s status as a national party, but in the absence of a visible plan to retrieve the vast lost ground, voices of dissent and defiance have got louder in the party.
With the prospects of power diminishing and regional parties like the TMC and AAP attempting to occupy the space vacated by the Congress in two-party states, there is an all-round feeling of helplessness and restlessness in the Congress, while the party’s top leadership seems to be in a state of inertia. In fact, with the leadership vacuum at the top continuing for nearly two-and-a-half years, the Congress has had to contend with indiscipline, lethargy and occasionally, open defiance of the party’s current leadership.
All this is primarily because the Gandhi family, particularly Rahul Gandhi, has been undecided and dragged its feet over the party’s leadership issue. It’s difficult to comprehend why a national party which has been in a state of constant drift since 2014, save a few attempts to reclaim some lost ground in 2017 and 2018, has casually surrendered political ground to rivals almost on a regular basis.
Its failure to resolve the all-important leadership issue has allowed its rivals to weaken it further, by allowing disgruntled Congressmen to check into their fold. This has been going on for too long and has resulted into a poor electoral record and falling vote share in state elections. Though the Gandhi siblings have shown occasional signs of hope with a grand gesture, the party has been unable to capitalise on it; neither has it benefited the Congress in terms of electoral gains.
Its current predicament is largely a result of two factors: one, a leadership vacuum and two, the lack of clear ideological vision to counter the BJP’s Hindutva nationalism. Of the two, the leadership crisis has the potential to wreck the Congress, while the latter can weaken its traction with voters. Both have been the Congress party’s major weaknesses in recent years and debilitated the party considerably.
Today, if the BJP is very strong both politically and electorally, it’s because the Congress is equally weak on both fronts. It is for these reasons that the Gandhi family has been facing unprecedented heat lately, from within. Not that the party has not seen internal debate and criticism on ideology and the leadership issue before, but things are qualitatively different now.
The dissenters have not just called for broad introspection on the party’s future and ideological clarity, but have also raised their voice on the leadership issue as one among the many organisational challenges the Congress faces. And they have not done it politely but quite vocally and openly, underscoring the leadership issue as central, and most urgent. The less than deferential tone that Congressmen usually reserve for the Gandhi family underscores their impatience and frustration, many of them party veterans. The case they have made out is for a fully involved and full-time leadership, instead of de facto leadership without formal responsibility.
The issues raised by dissenters also call for the Gandhis to step aside if they are not inclined to invest time and energy in the job that calls for total commitment for the party’s organisational overhaul and political and ideological revival. While the Gandhi family seems uninclined to let the leadership mantle go outside the family, its major worry has been whether the Gandhi siblings will be able to helm the party as effectively and credibly as Sonia Gandhi in terms of strategic thinking and consensus-building.
Gandhis cut a lot of slack
For long, there has been the belief within the Congress that the Gandhi family would hold the party together and see it through the roughest and toughest of times. This belief has not changed much and majority of Congressmen are willing to give the younger Gandhis a long rope to pull out the party from the crisis.
This was clearly seen at the CWC meeting on Saturday where Rahul Gandhi came under pressure because of the unanimous view of the gathering that he become the party chief again. Apparently, he is reported to have agreed to consider their request, indicating that he may be getting ready to retake the reins of the Congress, though only around September 2022, after the organisational election process which will start next month and culminate with the election of the party president next year. The assumption of the Congress president’s post will potentially place Rahul in a position to lead the party into the 2024 general elections.
With every electoral setback and internal skirmish, the Congress has suffered massive setbacks. It now needs an organisational makeover to resolve the questions about its future, for which there are no quick fixes. Something more fundamental is needed to revive the party out of the crisis. This includes a clear ideological position, not confused positionings. There is no reason to let things drift anymore. It’s time for the Gandhi siblings to assert themselves, take responsibility to revive the Congress nationally or step aside and pave the way for someone who will do the job.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist