Congress' internal troubles

Congress in disorder, hit by dissension and leadership issues

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party leader Rahul Gandhi arrive for a meeting with senior party functionaries, in New Delhi on October 26, 2021. Photo: PTI

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a rally in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh on October 31, 2021. Photo: PTI

Former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh (right) with State Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu at a meeting in Chandigarh on August 20, 2021. Photo: PTI

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with Congress leader Sachin Pilot at a press conference on the BJP’s attempts to destabilise his government, in Jaipur on June 12, 2020. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

With internal dissension and a floundering leadership, the Congress is in a state of disarray, unable to mount an effective counter-attack to the BJP’s offensive ahead of crucial State Assembly elections.

Assembly elections in crucial States such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are just a few months away, but the principal opposition party, the Congress, is yet to move into combat mode. It does not seem to be in fighting fit condition to launch a forceful counter-attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) propaganda blitzkrieg.

More than two years after Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president, the Congress continues to be led by an ailing Sonia Gandhi while senior leaders such as Kapil Sibal have openly questioned the decision-making process within the party. Ever since Rahul Gandhi stepped down as party president, she has been the interim president. But it is no secret that Rahul Gandhi is the one taking all the crucial decisions in the party, without this being announced in as many words. The leadership was also seen to be floundering, especially when a crisis was unfolding in Punjab.

If the state of affairs within the party is any indication, Modi’s barb of the Congress being a “divided and confused” party does not seem to be way off, as there are several issues on which there is no clarity within the party, and the leadership question remains at the top of them all.

Punjab crisis

Take the Punjab crisis, for example. When a feud broke out between State unit president Navjot Singh Sidhu and the Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, it was amply clear that Sidhu had easy access to Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi and could convey his views to them directly, while Captain Amarinder Singh, despite being a senior leader, was kept waiting before he could present his side of the story. Besides, he was further humiliated when the party, without consulting or involving him, summoned MLAs from Punjab to Delhi to ascertain their opinion on the state of affairs in the State unit. He tried reaching out to Sonia Gandhi then, without any result. It is in the public domain now that after his unceremonious exit from the post of Chief Minister, all he received from Sonia Gandhi was a curt message of apology: “I am sorry Amarinder.”

With the Congress high command meting out this kind of treatment to a Chief Minister and veteran leader like Captain Amarinder Singh, it is no wonder that there are rumblings in the party and they are becoming public knowledge.

Also read: Amarinder Singh announces new political party, open to seat-sharing with the BJP

It is now well known that Sunil Jakhar was the first choice for the top post in Punjab, but Sidhu was strongly opposed to his nomination. As a result, a plethora of names started doing the rounds, including that of Ambika Soni. Eventually, Charanjit Singh Channi emerged from nowhere as the surprise choice. He has carried himself well so far, but such major upheavals in a crucial election-bound State like Punjab do not augur well for the party.

It is another matter that the change of guard in Punjab, in hindsight, has proved to be a smart decision. Channi is the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab and his appointment has resonated with the Dalit community in the State, which accounts for a substantial 35 per cent of the population. The Dalit vote, which used to get divided between the Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is likely to shift substantially towards the Congress.

Senior Congress leaders who spoke to Frontline admitted that barring the initial confusion, the Punjab leadership crisis had evolved into a blessing in disguise and the party hoped to form the government once again. The farmers’ agitation has also been fuelling the party’s optimism in the battle for Punjab.

State leadership issues

Similarly, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan witnessed leadership tussles a few months ago. In Chhattisgarh, MLAs supporting senior Congress leader T.S. Singhdeo camped in Delhi in August demanding that he be made Chief Minister.

Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was summoned to Delhi for a meeting with Rahul Gandhi, but the leadership issue was apparently not discussed. If Singhdeo is to be believed, Rahul Gandhi had promised a rotational Chief Ministership, halfway through Baghel’s tenure, when he completes half of his term in June 2021. Despite several rounds of meetings, the issue has not yet been resolved.

Also read: Congress: Lessons from history

In Rajasthan, senior leader Sachin Pilot took on Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in July last year, complaining that he was being neglected in the government and the party organisation. When Pilot moved to a resort with his supporters, the government seemed to be in danger of falling. Pilot appeared to be going the Jyotiraditya Scindia way. (Scindia rebelled against the Congress leadership in Madhya Pradesh in 2020 and joined the BJP. The departure of Scindia and his MLAs resulted in the fall of the Kamal Nath government.)

But Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi intervened in time and brokered peace between Pilot and Gehlot. Pilot, who was removed from the posts of Deputy Chief Minister and State party president, was promised a bigger share in the government and the organisation. But the promises are yet to be fulfilled and discontent continues to simmer in the Rajasthan Congress.

If Pilot has not gone the Scindia way, it is because he does not have enough MLAs in his camp to topple the Gehlot government. A high-powered three-member committee, which was supposed to look into and resolve the crisis then, has not delivered anything yet.

Ideological direction

The question of leadership, whether at the State level or at the central level, is not the only confusion the Congress is grappling with. The party’s ideological direction is also confusing observers. Wary of the “Muslim appeasement” tag, which the BJP has affixed to the Congress, party leaders have often leaned towards a “soft Hindutva” stand.

Thus, one sees Priyanka Gandhi offering puja at the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and chanting Durgastuti in public meetings. Rahul Gandhi visited Kedarnath and other temples and his cohorts declared him to be a “janeudhaari” (sacred thread-wearing) Pandit.

While the leaders are free to offer prayers wherever they feel like, and are free to visit as many temples as they like, the need to make a public spectacle of it just to prove the BJP wrong is not going down well among observers.

Also read: Congress seeks to beat the BJP at its Hindutva game in Chhattisgarh

The fault lines in the party organisation became visible once again last year, when a group of 23 senior leaders (now infamously called the G 23) wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi, demanding clarity on leadership, the party’s vision and ideology. They were immediately blacklisted, removed from key organisational positions and sidelined in key discussions. The issues remain unattended and those speaking openly about them, including Kapil Sibal, have ended up facing the party workers’ wrath.

Of late, Sonia Gandhi has tried to strengthen her grip on party affairs, declaring that she is a full-time party president and that party members should talk to her directly instead of talking through the media.

This becomes all the more important in the context of the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, which could be an acid test for the party to decide whether it could really pose a challenge to the BJP in 2024. Priyanka Gandhi’s event-based activism in Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP has derisively nicknamed political tourism, will not yield results unless there is clarity on whether Priyanka Gandhi, or someone else, would be the party’s face in the upcoming Assembly election.

Also, the party needs to identify its target audience and declare its plan of action accordingly. Haphazard reaction-based activism may not yield any benefit to the party, no matter how well attended Priyanka Gandhi’s meetings are. Her promise to allot 40 per cent of the party tickets to women candidates in the election could be a politically smart move, but it is too early to say if it will be decisive in a State that votes basically along caste lines even now.

Also read: Congress rift and its larger political ramifications

The Mandal-kamandal brand of politics, a heady mix of caste- and religion-based politics practised by its rivals, proved to be the Congress party’s undoing more than 30 years ago, and the party still has no equally potent alternative that could swing the voters in its favour. Congress leaders, however, are banking on the idiom, “singhasan khali karo janata aati hai” (vacate the throne, the public is coming to reclaim it). They are hoping that fed up with the unkept promises of the Narendra Modi government, the people, who are suffering because of an unprecedented price rise and intolerance and division in society, will create their own alternative and replace the BJP with the Congress, which is the only national alternative.

Senior Congress leader Meem Afzal said: “History is proof that when people suffer, they create an alternative. Our feedback from the ground is that people will seek their revenge from this government because they are suffering at so many levels.”

He added: “We have been raising our voice against price rise, poor law and order, unemployment, corruption and all those issues which directly affect people. Their [BJP’s] agenda is to divide and make people fight with one another, kill people in fake encounters, and muzzle dissenting voices by putting them in jail under draconian laws like UAPA. Rahul Gandhi is the only leader who has been exposing this government on all these issues. I feel people will eventually see the truth and create their own alternative.”

Besides, he said, it is also a media-created myth that the Congress has failed to present an alternative to Narendra Modi. He said: “When the time comes, people will make their choice clear. I am confident the picture will change in 2024.”

Whether the party manages to extricate itself from the cobwebs of confusion and mounts a credible counter-offensive to the BJP’s propaganda remains to be seen. But the fact remains that the Congress is the only alternative to the BJP at the national level.

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