A month after May 23's crushing Lok Sabha polls defeat, the good news for the Congress is that things just cannot get worse than this.
Rahul Gandhi remains adamant on stepping down as party chief — but an overtly obedient rank wants to defy the AICC chief’s diktat. Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi have requisite heft to convert Rahul’s sincere bid to own up to the 2019 poll debacle, but seem to be basking in the party's display of loyalty.
For the past month, they have turned into curious spectators instead of active players.
It is an open secret that dynasty culture is well entrenched in the grand old party where sycophancy, servility and submissiveness have become an official passport for preferment. Congress leadership issue, therefore, is appearing to be a proverbial case of “who will bell the cat”. Loyalty is preventing the Congress Working Committee from naming an interim president while Rahul does not want to be seen as nominating a 'proxy' successor. Perhaps it's a bit much to expect from the likes of Manish Tiwari, Rajiv Gowda, Salman Khurshid, Milind Deora, Shashi Tharoor and other ‘thinking types’ to back Rahul’s endeavour and attempt to democratise the Congress.
Can they do it? Many are looking at Milind Deora, Shashi Tharoor and Salman Khurshid to 'democratise' the Congress. (Photo: PTI)
State assembly polls in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand are around the corner. An important Budget session of parliament is ongoing where other important legislative businesses, having far-reaching implications, are also underway. Conventional wisdom demands that the Congress revisit its stand on many issues, including triple talaq, but in the absence of an effective leader, the party is unable to firm up its stand on key economic, social and cultural issues.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while replying to the Motion of Thanks in both houses of Parliament, led a scathing attack on the Congress. His formulation of the grand old party ill-treating PV Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh had huge potential for marshalling counter arguments — but Modi got away with stoic silence from the Congress benches. Rao suffered a huge setback due to the Babri demotion. In his book Ayodhya: December 6, 1992 (Penguin), he had squarely blamed the BJP and Sangh parivar for the demotion.
Like Rao, Mukherjee and Manmohan remained loyal Congressmen throughout their political careers. Mukherjee was the Congress’ in-house wordsmith and ideologue who wrote umpteen party resolutions and position papers, apparently describing the BJP as ‘enemy number one’ and its ideology as ‘toxic.’
Still in his gaze: Manmohan Singh could not dodge PM Modi's verbal volley while replying to the Motion of Thanks. (Photo: PTI)
In this context, the Congress' silly move to boycott TV news channels also gains currency. The AICC’s social media head, Divya Spandana, aka Ramya, has reportedly quit and even deactivated her Twitter account. As a result, the Congress is not communicating enough. What is worse is that self-seekers are preying on the Congress' slot in TV debates as 'party sympathisers' who neither have the credentials, nor the intellectual capacity to articulate anything substantive — these ‘famous for being famous’ wannabes are doing more harm than good.
However, despite all this, Prime Minister Modi’s continuous obsession with the Congress is significant — and it indicates that all is not lost for the principal Opposition party.
Is the Modi-led BJP worried that the Congress is not disintegrating? The Congress saw a major split in 1969, following 1967's electoral debacle. In 1977, it broke vertically and even in 1987, when the decline of Rajiv Gandhi began, the party saw the exit of many under VP Singh’s leadership. Narasimha Rao's regime saw the exit of Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, S Bangarappa, Madhavrao Scindia and others. But post-2014, there have been fewer exits.
The political grapevine has it that over a dozen Congress leaders are knocking on Amit Shah’s door — but there has been no major breakthrough, simply because it is a case of what is available is not good and what is good is not available. In this context too, Congress leadership assumes significance. It perhaps explains the delay and inactivity on the part of Sonia Gandhi as she is aware that any alternative arrangement may open the flood gates of defection and mutiny.
But this masterly inactivity has its limitations and the potential to erode Rahul’s credibility beyond repair.
Is he kidding? Or not? No one even knows anymore. (Photo: PTI)
On a positive note, it should be stated that there is no dearth of party leaders who can serve the Congress particularly when Sonia and Rahul are party MPs from Raibareilli and Wayanad respectively, and Priyanka Gandhi is AICC general secretary. There is a huge pool of talent available in five party chief ministers — Kamal Nath, Captain Amarinder Singh, Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel and V Narayanswamy. There are experienced hands such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, P Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel, Mukul Wasnik, Prithviraj Chavan, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Kapil Sibal, Digvijaya Singh, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tiwari, Shiv Kumar, Ajay Makan and the rest. Some of them may have lost recent polls, but they have a lot of experience.
In addition, the Congress has many veterans, such as Dr Manmohan Singh, AK Antony, Veerappa Moily, Mallikarjun Kharge, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Meira Kumar, Ambika Soni, Mohsina Kidwai, Sheila Dixit and others, to give free advice based upon decades of experience.
The party should look towards setting up the Congress Parliamentary Board which has not been constituted since 1991. Ashok Gehlot was AICC general secretary in charge of organisational affairs during 2017-18 when the party did well in the Gujarat Assembly polls and won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh state assemblies. He hails from a socially backward class and finds acceptance among a large number of Congress leaders outside Rajasthan as well.
Youth Congress (@IYC) leaders have reached 12, Tughlak Lane to request Congress (@INCIndia) President Shri Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) to continue leading the party.#MyLeaderRahulGandhi pic.twitter.com/vspibxnoAD— Dehradun Congress (@INCDehradun) June 26, 2019
Though he can make a stop-gap chief, party insiders are dropping the name of Mukul Wasnik on grounds of him being a Dalit or AK Antony for his clean image — but the Congress needs to realise that symbolic gestures of a Dalit like Wasnik or Meira Kumar have stopped working, so making appointments on the basis of caste would not help. Similarly, Antony has increasingly become politically irrelevant and his presence will create more problems for the organisation which needs decisive leadership.
What the Congress organisation needs is to adopt a “back to basics” approach and reinvent itself as a modern political party.
Leaving the hopeless dependency on the Nehru-Gandhi family is the first challenge before the party but somehow, it is unwilling to take that step and move forward. The party leaders are unable to accept the basic fact that the Gandhis are not deserting them or quitting politics. They merely wish to play the role of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, for decades, did not hold an organisational post, but remained a towering leader and a key election campaigner for the BJP.
Instead, post-May 23, 2019, Congress has adopted an ostrich-like approach. Except for a single CWC meeting, the party bigwigs have chosen not to convene an AICC session or workers' convention to hear voices from the grassroots.
Time is running out.