Congress party

Congress' missed opportunity to elect a new chief

Print edition : September 13, 2019

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on August 10. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The Congress party opts for Sonia Gandhi as interim president, dashing hopes raised by Rahul Gandhi that a non-Gandhi could lead the party.

The Indian National Congress, the grand old party of India, continues to be in disarray after remaining leaderless for 77 days following Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as party chief, owning responsibility for the party’s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha election. In an elaborate, day-long exercise on August 10 when the Congress Working Committee (CWC) met, the party was back to square one as far as the leadership issue was concerned: party men went pleading with folded hands to Sonia Gandhi to lead them, and she acquiesced, obviously reluctantly. Rahul Gandhi’s insistence that a non-Gandhi should lead the party finally meant nothing because, obviously, Congress members cannot think beyond the Gandhis.

The argument that Sonia Gandhi has been selected only as an interim president, until the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) members meet and vote to elect a leader sounds vacuous because even a layman knows she will be acting with full authority and command. This is obvious because through the day-long exercise to discuss names for the party chief, not a single name came up as an alternative. The CWC meeting, which was later expanded to include State unit chiefs and office bearers, Chief Ministers, former Chief Ministers and special invitees, spent the first half of the deliberations trying to convince Rahul Gandhi to withdraw his resignation. It even passed a resolution to this effect. When he refused, the unanimous decision was to plead for Sonia Gandhi to accept the responsibility.

The immediate fallout of this decision was seen in Haryana. Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the veteran Congressman and former Chief Minister who was almost on the verge of walking out of the party, just stopped short of announcing a new party and, instead, held a show of strength. He not only declared himself the future Chief Minister of the State, but also announced in advance a number of measures for the welfare of people.

This is significant because Haryana is due for election later this year and the uncertainty and confusion in the party’s central unit was causing confusion in the State unit, frustrating State leaders. It is a well-known fact that Hooda shares a good rapport with Sonia Gandhi and party sources said she had a conversation with him over the phone a day before his show of strength. It is also learnt that she also reviewed the situation in Jharkhand with general secretary in-charge R.P.N Singh. Jharkhand is also due for elections later this year.

With three State elections due later this year, including Maharashtra, followed by Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections next year, the point being discussed in political circles is whether Sonia Gandhi can repeat her past record and make the Congress an election-winning party once again. Is she capable of countering the formidable challenge put up by the Modi-Shah duo across India?

Sonia Gandhi’s record

A look at the Congress party’s performance after she took over the party’s reins in 1998 reveals an interesting fact. Even though she led the party to power at the Centre in 2004 and 2009 and helped it win many Assembly elections despite the then formidable Vajpayee-Advani challenge, the party’s vote share has remained almost the same since 1999, around 28 per cent.

In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, the Congress, which was then led by Sitaram Kesri, won 141 seats, with 25.8 per cent of the vote. In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, after she had taken charge of the party, there was a slight increase in its vote share, to 28.3 per cent. But the seats tally went down to 114. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a coalition government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 2004, when the “India Shining” hype proved counterproductive for the BJP, she took the Congress tally to 145 seats, even though the party’s vote share had come down to 26.5 per cent. But her leadership skills became evident when she successfully managed to sew up a coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with the most unlikely of allies, the Left parties supporting it from outside. The 2009 Lok Sabha election was arguably the best for the Congress under her leadership when the party won 206 seats, with a vote share of 28.6 per cent.

According to party insiders, it was not as if her leadership was accepted across India, as was evident by the modest vote share. But the fact that she could bring on board disparate political forces, led by Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan and M. Karunanidhi, emphasised her leadership qualities. “She once again made the Congress party an umbrella organisation where diverse social groups, across castes, classes and religions, could find representation. Her leadership skills were established,” said a senior Congress leader, adding that once again it was time a tried-and-tested leadership took charge.

“There is no doubt that these are difficult times for the party. This is not the time for adventure,” Sunil Jakhar, a prominent Congress leader from Punjab, was quoted as saying after the CWC meeting.

P.L. Punia, another senior leader, said the question of who should lead them was the party’s internal affair. “She has successfully led the party in the past. Besides, this is only an interim arrangement until a full-time president is appointed,” he said, after the meeting.

According to senior Congress leaders, the exodus from the party immediately after the Lok Sabha election was not a good sign and a strong central leadership was needed to hold the party together. They recall the days between 1991 and 1998 when the party was led by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri respectively and how many senior leaders had then left the party to form their own small outfits. This senseless running around had stopped only when Sonia Gandhi took charge in 1998. The average Congress worker hopes Sonia Gandhi will once again prove to be the glue holding the party together.

But political observers are sceptical because the India of 2019 is not the same as the India of 1998. According to them, the resurgence of Hindutva politics and the new political narrative being spun by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah is a huge challenge for the Congress party. The ideological confusion in the Congress ranks over crucial issues such as Article 370, which was witnessed during the debate in Parliament too, further weakens its position. Observers are of the view that the party should first clearly spell out its ideological positioning on crucial issues instead of beating about the bush, and go back to real bread-and-butter issues in order to connect with the masses.

Though it is still early to say how the party would achieve that, it goes without saying that the sense of despondency that had gripped the party after the Lok Sabha election has eased slightly after Sonia Gandhi’s arrival.

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