Limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery.
Those who have read Inferno, the first part of Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy, will know the nine words represent the nine concentric circles of torment that depict hell and a journey towards God.
An analysis of each event and torment the Congress has gone through in a decade will match one level of Dante’s work. The question is: Has the Congress passed through all nine levels to head towards revival or more levels remain?
Present imperfect future tense
The Congress’ misery has just been heated to a boil by the party’s Delhi debacle — it scored a second consecutive duck. News anchors and analysts on debates have been terming it as implosion. Even those who have stood for the party read the loss and the ensuing sniping as a sign of bad times getting worse.
Currently, the Congress seems to be passing the level labelled “limbo” in Inferno. Insiders say Rahul Gandhi has turned incommunicado. War veteran chief ministers like Amrinder Singh, Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot are operating more as regional satraps in the absence of a central command system in a high command driven party. Rahul Gandhi, as president, wanted the old guard to make way for the young Turks. Today, the leaders of tomorrow are under attack and the old guard holds sway.
These are clear sign of a free fall which the Congress is failing to arrest. Before anointing Rahul Gandhi as president in December 2017, his mother Sonia Gandhi had initiated a grooming exercise. Every time someone used to approach her with a party issue she would send the person and the problem to Rahul Gandhi, her vice president. Now, her hands are tied. Since she took over as interim president, she has resisted playing a full throttle pivotal role as that would reduce the relevance of Rahul Gandhi especially because she and Congressmen are keen that he returns to the top party job.
This has created a critical flaw in the Congress matrix. The Gandhi family, for all its shine and shimmer, hasn’t been merely the vote earner for the Congress. Long ago the Gandhi family had crafted a mandate for itself to keep the Congress together. The first family had the authority to stop the buck. Its ruling member would adjudicate or even take sides and matters would end. But at this moment in the long Congress history, the buck is flying all over and there is no final arbiter.
The Congress quotes with glee that the BJP is losing ground. The Congress tied up with unnatural ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra to keep the BJP out. But Sena got the throne. Its alliance with Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) succeeded in Jharkhand. But Hemant Soren got the chief minister’s chair. The likes of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress are defending their citadel well but wouldn’t allow Congress to regain toehold. In Bihar, the Congress piggy rides Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and MK Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu.
With 52 MPs and 19.01 per cent national vote share, it’s a pan-India party, which is adrift and being pushed out of contention. When the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won Delhi it was bad news for the BJP and Narendra Modi as in yet another Indian state a regional satrap has managed to thwart the BJP’s nationalist-Hindutva pitch yet again. But that’s partial reality. Regional players are strong and many, but they have neither allowed the Congress to grow on their turf nor have they accepted Congress as the opposition’s national charioteer.
This political ground reality and the ongoing disarray in Congress means when it comes to a Lok sabha election there is no national alternative to Narendra Modi and the BJP. That’s advantage BJP.
What’s past is prologue
The Congress resembles a ship without a captain or crew right in the middle of the political tempest. Commenting on the handling of the sliding economy ex finance minister P Chidambaram recently said, “If only the government admits the problem it can find a solution. The government remains in a state of denial.”
For a revival the Congress first needs to shed its denial mode. Admitting the mistakes will help the party identify ways to rise past the levels of torment.
The Congress’ passage through Dante’s levels predates the 2014 loss. The scams in UPA-2 were a tale of greed, gluttony and fraud. PM Manmohan Singh pushed for the Nuclear Deal. The Left Front dumped UPA-1 and the Congress leaned on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). That eroded the Congress further in all important UP.
BJP was building an anti-corruption narrative when the UPA government tried protecting Lalu Yadav from getting barred from contesting polls. Rahul Gandhi added to the weak government narrative by threatening to tear up an ordinance created by the Manmohan Singh-led Cabinet. All such events belong to one level or the other.
The Congress is in a free fall mode till now. Leaderless liberal entities have a tendency towards anarchy. During the Delhi polls, Congressmen were not working for a Congress win but praying for an AAP victory over the BJP. Post AAP’s triumphant return Chidambaram celebrated on Twitter with a post that said “salute the people of Delhi”, who according to him, defeated BJP’s bluff and bluster to help AAP win.
AAP won, bluff and bluster lost. The people of Delhi, who are from all parts of India, have defeated the polarising, divisive and dangerous agenda of the BJPI salute the people of Delhi who have set an example to other states that will hold their elections in 2021 and 2022— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) February 11, 2020
Rank junior in the party, Delhi Mahila Congress president Sharmistha Mukherjee, whose father Pranab Mukherjee as a Congressman had a tumultuous relationship with Chidambaram lashed out on Twitter to ask him if the Congress has “outsourced the task of defeating the BJP to state parties”.
With due respect sir, just want to know- has @INCIndia outsourced the task of defeating BJP to state parties? If not, then why r we gloating over AAP victory rather than being concerned abt our drubbing? And if ‘yes’, then we (PCCs) might as well close shop! https://t.co/Zw3KJIfsRx— Sharmistha Mukherjee (@Sharmistha_GK) February 11, 2020
Ex Mumbai MP and ex-Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s one time go-to man Milind Deora praised the “fiscal prudence of Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal” on Twitter.
Sharing a lesser known & welcome fact — the @ArvindKejriwal-led Delhi Government doubled its revenues to ₹60,000 crore & maintained a revenue surplus over the last 5 years.Food for thought: Delhi is now one of India’s most fiscally prudent governments pic.twitter.com/bBFjbfYhoC— Milind Deora मिलिंद देवरा (@milinddeora) February 16, 2020
Congress’ Delhi leader Ajay Maken shot back on Twitter, which seems to be the favourite mode of communication between Congressmen. He jeered “leave the party if you want to” with a bro prefixed. https://twitter.com/ajaymaken/status/1229107574034718720
Milind returned the fire with a bro dig, reminding Maken that he ran down Sheila Dikshit, who kept Delhi with Congress, his campaign didn’t speak of Dikshit’s achievements and he had favoured an alliance with AAP.
Brother, I would never undermine Sheila Dikshit’s stellar performance as Delhi CM. That’s your specialty.But it’s never too late to change!Instead of advocating an alliance with AAP, if only you had highlighted Sheila ji’s achievements, @INCIndia would’ve been in power today https://t.co/aiZYdizdUL— Milind Deora मिलिंद देवरा (@milinddeora) February 17, 2020
The Congress in-charge of Delhi PC Chacko chose a news agency to declare, "The downfall of the Congress party started in 2013 when Sheila ji was the CM. The emergence of a new party AAP took away the entire Congress vote bank. We could never get it back. It still remains with AAP.”
The Congress versus Congress battle has now a national presence. In Delhi, it’s a mutiny among the soldiers of a vanquished army. In Congress ruled states, its war over the spoils between the victors
In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia aspired to be CM when in December 2018 Congress derailed the BJP’s bid to regain the state. But when Rahul Gandhi had to make a choice between the old guard and the new horse in the stable, he chose kamal Nath.
Since then Kamal Nath, as per Scindia’s supporters, has sidelined the young Turk. Seething Scindia recently threatened to hit the streets against his own party’s government over its failure to deliver on the promises made in the run up to the polls. Old fox Kamal Nath dared Scindia to hit the streets. Scindia has refused to holster his guns.
In neighbouring Rajasthan too the Congress battles internal fires. When the Congress won Rajasthan in 2018, Sachin Pilot didn’t hide his ambition to be CM. Rahul Gandhi picked Gehlot, ignored pilot. So recently when a political storm rose over the death of infants in Rajasthan’s Kota district deputy, achin Pilot, after meeting the relatives of deceased children fired at the CM to draw blood. He said, "Cannot shirk away from fixing responsibility by getting into the web of statistics.”
Leaders bicker in every party. What’s not fine with the Congress today is that it suddenly resembles a class without a teacher or a school without a principal.
Forget bickering. Take for example how the party is fighting elections or what it’s doing after losing an election. Rahul Gandhi and sister Priyanka hit the campaign trail in Delhi in the fading moments of the period for canvassing. The BJP was driving a divisive campaign to dwarf the local issues on which AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal was trying a re-election.
The AAP has stolen the Congress’ bread butter and lunch. But Rahul Gandhi came up with a soothsayer’s prophecy that the unemployed youth in near future would hit the PM with “dandas” (sticks). Every voter must have wondered who was he fighting and how.
Congress didn’t build on what Sheila Dikshit had achieved as chief minister. Perhaps, the Congress had a reason. In 2017, the party facing a rout in the UP Assembly election out of sheer desperation announced Sheila Dikshit as its CM face — just two years after she had served a 15 year term as CM of Delhi. The move was silently withdrawn but it had ridiculous written all over it.
Let’s move off Delhi.
In Haryana last year, just ahead of the Assembly polls, Rahul Gandhi was promoting state unit chief Ashok Tanwar. Two-time CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda was sidelined. Tanwar was removed and Kumari Seilja replaced him.
Just before polls in his home turf Rohtak, Hooda dared the Congress: "My workers will decide whether I should be with the Congress or do something else.”
In Delhi, Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party as interim president at that very moment. Sonia, who in the past has displayed better leadership skill and sagacity, realised Hooda could neither be silenced nor ignored.
When Hooda was given charge of Haryana campaign it was a sign he would be CM if the Congress won.
In response Ashok Tanwar resigned from the primary membership exactly 16 days ahead of the Assembly polls. He alleged, “A conspiracy was on to eliminate all leaders groomed by Rahul Gandhi. Congress is going through existential crises, not because of its political opponents but because of serious internal contradiction.”
Tanwar brought to public domain the battle for supremacy in the Congress between the old guard that faced the spectre of extinction under the young Gandhi and those he was grooming. His walkout from the party symbolises the cries of political agony from the younger set of leaders like Scindia, Pilot and Deora, who were part of his Congress revival formula, but when the critical moment in the battle arrived he exited exposing them completely.
The 2019 Lok Sabha drubbing was its passage through another Inferno level. On the ruins of a loss, Rahul Gandhi decided to trigger a blame game.
One fateful day in May 2019 during a post-mortem meet of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), Rahul pointed out that Congress had done badly in states where it was in power. He said chief ministers, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan and Kamal Nath of Madhya Pradesh, insisted on tickets for their sons. In some ways he was right. Critics said he was deflecting blame for the loss, while his campaign deeply depended on the Rafale deal and “chowkidar chor hai” chant was rejected by the voters.
At the CWC meet he made another fatal error. He offered to resign.
For almost 40 days his party stayed wondering “will he won’t he”. Then one July afternoon came his letter on Twitter.
He accepted the blame for the loss by saying:
It is an honour for me to serve the Congress Party, whose values and ideals have served as the lifeblood of our beautiful nation. I owe the country and my organisation a debt of tremendous gratitude and love.Jai Hind 🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/WWGYt5YG4V— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) July 3, 2019
By adding that “it is important for someone new to lead our party, it would not be correct for me to select that person”, he left the party rudderless as everyone knows that no person outside the first family could be the party president without the first family picking him or her.
The move was similar to a driver shutting off the engine while going downhill and jumping off the car. The steering and the power brakes of the Congress collapsed and the party could do little but hurtle down.
Experts assess that he needed to display a thick hide, broad political shoulders and nimble feet, not frail ego and royal tantrum.
Before this, the last time a president of a big party had resigned owning responsibility of a loss was in 1984. Post Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a sympathy tsunami catapulted Congress to an unprecedented majority and drowned the BJP, which won just two seats. It’s then that BJP president Atal Bihari Vajpayee stepped down.
Vajpayee could resign as he had a deputy called LK Advani to take charge. His party wasn’t tied to a family. The BJP had RSS as the ideological external hard drive to lean on during the transition from Vajpayee to Advani.
Rahul Gandhi didn’t have an LK Advani. The party hadn’t groomed a number 2 for years barring Rahul Gandhi. Unlike BJP, the Congress’ ideological and political hard drive was and is the first family. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation meant that the main drive was ejecting itself out
After intense speculation over “will the Congress look beyond its first family for a leader”, the first family chose to go back to the first family. Sonia Gandhi had groomed Rahul Gandhi for 15 years before handing over the throne to him. The longest serving Congress president with an almost 20 year term had to return as interim president.
Is there a way out?
Most die-hard Congressmen are confused. They say the situation is too complex and there are too many ifs. Should the Congesss go for a quick fix — anoint Rahul Gandhi again and pray for revival? What if a new person is brought in to lead the Congress? Would he have the authority and elbow room to operate out of the shadows of the first family? Will the elders accept him? Will it create multiple power centres? What role will the Gandhi family play?
The Congress is in a habit of depending on the Gandhi family for leadership and direction on what the party stands for. Commentators say that the biggest problem is that Rahul Gandhi is the chosen one and the party doesn’t know what he stands for.
A senior Congress leader at a Lutyens Delhi dinner recently said, “The human heart proves that the strength of the system is the weakness of the system. The heart keeps the body alive but if it fails, there is death. The Gandhi family has been the strength of the Congress system.”
I left the dinner remembering what Dante had said in Inferno, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
The Congress needs to decide to buy a spade and a shovel.