Leadership vacuum in the Congress party

Print edition : August 16, 2019

At the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi on May 23. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi on July 26. Photo: PTI

Congress MPs stage a protest on Parliament premises over the Sonbhadra violence and the detention of the party’s general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in New Delhi on July 22. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

For two months, even at the cost of the party’s disintegration in many States, the Congress has been staring at the vacuum left by Rahul Gandhi’s decision to quit as party president.

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi may not have succeeded in accomplishing his goal of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” yet, but he seems to have inspired Rahul Gandhi enough so as to complete his agenda. The way Rahul Gandhi has acted after the electoral debacle two months ago seems to suggest that he is bent upon letting the party disintegrate, as has been seen in Goa and Karnataka. By disappearing from the leadership without putting a mechanism in place to select a new leader, he has pushed the party downhill and there seems to be no imminent attempt to stop its downward slide. With crucial State elections approaching and with States such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the party is in power, showing destabilising signs, it is anybody’s guess whether the Congress party will continue to have its footprints anywhere in India.

Shocked by the electoral debacle, Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to quit as party president on May 25. He said he would continue only until the Congress Working Committee (CWC) selected a new party president. Seeing the CWC take no initiative in that direction, Rahul Gandhi made his resignation letter public on Twitter on July 3 so as to remove any doubt in the party echelons about his decision. The letter is specific, hard-hitting and leaves the CWC with no excuses for delaying the selection of a new leader. But unfortunately, Congress workers are so unused to even thinking about a non-Gandhi as leader that even this push from him has not worked so far.

No senior Congress leader is willing to talk about any plans for a change in leadership. Nor does any senior party functionary seem to be aware of any movement in that direction. No party worker is willing to admit that Rahul Gandhi is no longer the party president. The overwhelming feeling seems to be that by just delaying the process of finding a new leader, they will be able to make him change his mind and that eventually he will assume the leadership role again irrespective of what he has stated categorically in his letter. The ostrich-like attitude in the party is baffling, to say the least. Congress leaders are behaving as if it is business as usual for them. It is another matter that even as they put on a brave face, the coalition government in Karnataka with the Congress as a partner has fallen, the party’s Goa unit has virtually merged with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have started shaking.

Veterans’ response

Though no Congressman is willing to speak on the subject, a few veterans have begun to respond to the situation. Karan Singh, for example, said he was “aghast at the state of confusion and disorientation in the Congress party”. In an interview, he said Rahul Gandhi should have initiated a leadership plan before disappearing like this. Janardan Dwivedi, who at one time called the shots in the party but was nudged out after Rahul Gandhi took over, has also issued statements saying Rahul Gandhi should have put a mechanism in place for selecting a new leader. But the fact remains that Rahul Gandhi has specifically asked the CWC to start the process and said that he will continue to be the party chief until a new person is found.

Rahul Gandhi’s missive

In fact, Rahul Gandhi’s letter is so specific that it should have spurred the CWC into action. “Accountability is critical for the future growth of the party. As president of the Congress party, I am responsible for the 2019 loss….The way forward would be to entrust a group of people with the task of beginning the search for a new president,” his letter states, suggesting a mechanism for selecting the new party president. He made it clear that even though he would not be president, he would continue to work for the party because “my fight has not been for political power”. He said he was fighting a specific brand of ideology as propounded by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an ideology which was divisive, based on hatred and aimed at capturing the democratic institutions of the country. He added that this fight would continue until his last breath.

“We did not fight a political party in 2019 election. We fought the entire machinery of Indian state, every institution of which was marshaled against the opposition. It is now crystal clear that our cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India. The stated objective of RSS—the capture of our country’s institutional structure—is now complete,” the letter states. He mentions that at times he found himself alone in his battle with the RSS. “I personally fought the PM [Prime Minister], the RSS and the institutions they have captured with all my being…. At times I stood alone,” he says, adding that it was important for the party to regroup and revive itself and pick up from where he had left.

“The Indian nation must unite to reclaim and resuscitate institutions. The instrument of resuscitation will be the Congress party,” Rahul Gandhi’s letter says, making it clear that the party as a political institution has to stand on its own feet again and “radically transform itself”. This radical transformation can only come with each and every Congress worker becoming inspired by the idea of India as envisaged in the Constitution, he says, which “is not one voice but a symphony of voices”.

For a shake-up?

Congress watchers say the idea put forth by Rahul Gandhi perhaps has its roots in the realisation that the party cannot revive itself unless each and every party worker is geared up to take the BJP head-on. “The only way to shake the average party worker into action is to just throw them into the deep sea, to fend for themselves. And if they actually believed in an ideology different from the BJP, they will definitely make the right moves,” said a leader, not wanting to be named. When Rahul Gandhi talked of defeating the opponent, he did say this would not happen without “sacrificing the desire for power and without fighting a deep ideological battle”. Rahul Gandhi has said in his letter that the India being shaped by the RSS ideology will “result in unimaginable levels of violence and pain for India, especially farmers, women, tribals, Dalits and minorities”. He said the BJP was crushing the voice of the people and it was the duty of the Congress party to defend these voices.

One wonders whether Priyanka Gandhi’s visit to Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, with the entire State administration geared up to stop her from meeting the victims of the massacre of tribal people there, was a first step towards making the Congress party the defender of “people’s voices”. Is the way this galvanised Congress workers across the country any indication of the way things will move forward in the future? Only time will tell that, but the fact remains that the Gandhi surname is actually the life force for this party.

Senior political observers say the Congress party’s rank and file are so dependent on the surname that its absence puts them into inertia. Whenever a non-Gandhi has been the president, the party has splintered. For instance, during Sitaram Kesri’s tenure, various Congress leaders such as Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and M.L. Fotedar quit to form the Tiwari Congress. They came back only when Sonia Gandhi took over. She was literally hoisted by Congress leaders as president, almost throwing Kesri out.

This Gandhi fetish was visible when Priyanka Gandhi sat on a dharna to meet the victims of the Sonbhadra massacre. Although she is just one of the general secretaries of the party, the way the entire Congress rallied around her makes it obvious how dependent the party is on the family. The Gandhi surname is the glue that keeps party workers and party together. Party insiders are of the view that if the CWC keeps delaying, perhaps Priyanka Gandhi will be forced to don the mantle and take the party forward. Though Rahul Gandhi has ruled out Priyanka Gandhi’s name, she herself has not said anything on the matter yet. In fact, she has given hints that she is cut out for politics by posting a picture of herself with Nelson Mandela and commenting that before anyone else, Mandela had told her that she ought to be in politics.

Even though no action is visible on the surface for selecting a new leader, when senior leaders, including P. Chidambaram, Anand Sharma, Ahmad Patel, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Hooda, met recently, there was speculation that there could be some announcement on this. But Randeep Surjewala, the Congress spokesman, said the meeting was to discuss the Karnataka developments.

Even as the mystery about the Congress leadership continues, some incorrigible optimists in the party say that whatever is happening is for the good of the party because the churning would separate the chaff from the grain and eventually the party would emerge in a new avatar with a clear ideology and a fresh leadership. “With our diversities, India can never be just one set of people, with one ideology, with one political theory. It has to have its multiplicities and the day people of the country realise that, the day they decide to do something about it, the Congress party would be their choice, as Rahulji has said in his letter,” said a senior Congress leader.

But until that happens, the Congress seems to be simply melting away in various parts of the country.