Forty nine per cent of the respondents questioned for the India Today Mood of the Nation survey said only a non-Gandhi, non-dynast could revive the Congress. Yet, when asked to name the leader most likely to revive the grand old party, 15 per cent reposed their faith in Priyanka Gandhi and another 11 per cent in Rahul Gandhi.
This contradictory response perhaps best illustrates the lack of an alternative leadership in the Congress party. The sequence of events so far following the party’s second consecutive drubbing in the Lok Sabha election in May demonstrates how the Congress has no strategy or narrative beyond the Gandhis. Enough voices within the party have advocated a fresh and young leadership, yet the Congress think-tank has fallen back on the Gandhis.
When Rahul resigned as party president on May 25, the Congress Working Committee was clueless about a future course of action for the next 75 days. Its solitary reaction was to persuade Rahul to withdraw his resignation, and failing to do so, fall at the feet of Sonia Gandhi. Rahul took charge of the party in December 2017 after Sonia’s two-decade-long reign at the top. Twenty months later, she has succeeded her son, taking over as interim president till the party can elect a new president.
So what does Sonia’s return to the top mean for the Congress? Business as usual. Before December 2017, when Rahul became president, the party had two power centres-10, Janpath and 12, Tughlaq Lane, Sonia’s and Rahul’s homes, respectively. The two groups owed their allegiance to one or the other, and often clashed on multiple issues. After December 2017, several of those leaders who had no political capital but remained powerful in the party because of their loyalty to Sonia got sidelined. Most of them will now be back in circulation, though Team Rahul is unlikely to cede space. If the developments of the past two months are any indication, Rahul and his team have been working on a narrative that will dissociate him from the uncomfortable legacy of the Congress-dynastic politics and the corruption-tainted charges against the UPA government.
Sonia’s return now has undone one of the most significant goals Rahul had hoped to achieve by resigning-to nullify the Modi-BJP charge of him being a dynast. That the saffron party’s narrative against dynastic politics has succeeded is evident in the MOTN findings: 65 per cent say the Indian voter has at last decisively rejected dynastic politics. Rahul had long realised this; his mother succeeding him was not a possibility he had envisaged on May 25. On two occasions, he had specified that the Gandhis would not occupy the top post in the party.
Besides, this rewind to the pre-December 2017 era is unlikely to solve the crisis the party is facing within and outside. The contrasting working styles of the two power circles and its different lieutenants will further slow down decision-making in the party. Plus, with a third power centre emerging within the party-around Priyanka, general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh-the confusion and bureaucracy in the party is only likely to increase. This when the Congress has to fight a firmly entrenched BJP, with a formidable electoral machinery, in an India where Hindu nationalist sentiment is at an all-time high. Its summary sacking of the special status for Kashmir under Article 370 has elicited only a muted response from the opposition and will only cement the perception of the BJP as a party that does not hesitate to take tough decisions. The Congress is electorally devastated at a time when fast-paced action is required to rebuild its organisational structure across the states and it needs to project an alternative ideological narrative to the BJP.
In fact, in the past two months, the Congress has exposed to the nation its bankruptcy of ideas and inability to function as a cohesive unit. It refused to even enforce symbolic changes to indicate that the party had been trying to learn from the hostile electoral mandates. The selection of the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha is one example. Despite having senior, articulate leaders such as Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, the Congress chose West Bengal Lok Sabha MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. Loyalty to the party’s First Family clearly trumped all else.
Worse, Chowdhury’s appointment has led to two undesirable developments. A bitter critic of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, his elevation and subsequent praise by Sonia-she introduced him to the Congress parliamentary party as the Bengal tiger-has further widened the gap between Mamata’s Trinamool Congress and the Congress when the opposition parties need to stay united to counter the BJP’s brute majority in the Lok Sabha and its gradual majority in the upper house with the help of allies and often of rivals. Mamata, in fact, has emerged as the leader to replace Rahul as the face of the opposition parties, with 19 per cent MOTN respondents backing her.
Moreover, the Congress being the national face of the mostly regional opposition parties devolves on its acceptance among them. Apart from the DMK, NCP and RJD, the Congress failed to form an alliance with any of the significant anti-BJP parties for the Lok Sabha poll. After the general election, the RJD has drifted away, while the DMK and NCP now have more bargaining power than the Congress. “Instead of emerging as the leader of these parties, we are increasingly facing challenges or indifference from the parties, which are not yet part of the BJP-led NDA. Even the AAP, BJD and TDP supported the BJP on Article 370,” says a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress.
Lack of a clear directive from the brass has not only put the party in an embarrassing situation in Parliament but also exposed the fact that the Congress has no coherent stand on any particular issue. When the repeal of Article 370 in Kashmir was being discussed in the Lok Sabha, Chowdhury termed it as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, much to Sonia and Rahul’s shock and dismay. It was evident that the Congress members were clueless about the content of their leader’s speech in the lower house. There were contradictory voices floating in public. Even leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia or Deepender Hooda, who are circumspect with their words, went public against the party’s stated position on Article 370.
This confused state of functioning has also led to a series of desertions from the party. In Karnataka, over a dozen Congressmen quit the party leading to the fall of the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition government. While the BJP did lure them, the Congress brass had long ignored the internal conflicts growing within the state unit of the party. The disillusionment with the party-heightened of course by the abetment from the BJP-led to 10 Congress MLAs in Goa joining the BJP. But the most shocking resignation was that of Congress chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, Bhubaneswar Kalita, an old Gandhi family loyalist. He resigned the day the resolution to dilute Article 370 and the bill to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir were tabled in the Rajya Sabha, refusing to issue a whip asking the party members to vote against the resolution and the bill.
It won’t be easy for Sonia to pull the party out of this abyss. This is a déjà vu moment for her and her trusted lieutenant Ahmed Patel. Two decades ago, when the party was disintegrating under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, Patel did the necessary backroom manoeuvring to create an environment conducive for Sonia to take charge. For the next 20 years, she remained the fulcrum around which the Congress operated, pre-empting any major split. The fact that the 72-year-old ailing leader is still the last hope of the Congress does not augur well for a party with an illustrious legacy.