It’s now been eight months since Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress president. In the long and eventful months since then, supine Congressmen (also known as “loyalists”) have done nothing but wait for Rahul to change his mind.
If nothing else, what happened with Jyotiraditya Scindia should wake them up. Not only did the party lose one of its prominent young leaders, it could lose the state of Madhya Pradesh. The writing should have really been on the wall in bold letters after the Delhi elections — where the Congress not only got zero seats, but 63 of its 66 candidates lost their deposits and the party’s vote share was a mere 4.26 per cent. But for the Congress’ so-called High Command, it was business as usual, which is party-speak for doing nothing at all.
The recent violence in Northeast Delhi, where 53 people, mostly Muslims, were shot, burnt or bludgeoned to death were killings waiting to happen: The sectarian divisiveness propagated by Hindutva forces had to explode somewhere; it just happened to be Delhi. Tomorrow, it could be elsewhere. The lawlessness of the UP government of Ajay Singh Bisht, the open expressions of hate in the name of religion all over the country, the venom spewed daily by BJP spokesmen and leaders, all keep the communal pot boiling: When sane voices express dissent at such poison, they are branded anti-nationals and told to go to Pakistan. As a result, India’s delicate social fabric is being torn, and its international image has taken a beating. It doesn’t help that our important institutions have been compromised, and the highest courts in the land have become timid. It is, therefore, important for the Congress to rejuvenate itself, not just for its own sake but for the sake of the nation: Despite its depleted numbers, the Congress remains the only national party other than the BJP.
It is instructive to look at the results of state elections from December 2018. The BJP lost power in five states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. It was routed by the AAP in Delhi recently, while in Haryana it just scraped through to form a coalition government. If this is happening despite a moribund Congress, how much more could a revived Congress achieve?
What Narendra Modi has managed to accomplish is to solidify in the voter’s mind the “TINA factor”. Even those who were disenchanted with the party’s dismal governance record from 2014 to 2019, invoked this: “There is no alternative”, they said. No objective person can doubt Rahul Gandhi’s earnestness and his essential goodness. But he has never come across as a strong alternative to Modi.
It’s heartening, therefore, that many Congressmen have defied the “loyalist” culture and have called for a new leadership to take over. There are, predictably, some who seek Sonia Gandhi’s continuance as president, although it’s clear that the party needs a new, dynamic leadership. Sonia Gandhi saved the party when it was in dire straits, and led it to two election victories, but even the best leaders cannot go on forever. Perhaps, out of respect for her, they should invent a new title — President Emeritus. There’s also talk of Priyanka Gandhi. This is downright absurd: It not only gives the BJP the opportunity to continue its “dynasty” attack, but it also ignores the sentiment of meritocracy which is now driving young India. Here Priyanka fails miserably: In UP, where she has been in charge, the Congress vote share was 6.3 per cent, even below that of the BSP and Samajwadi Party, and where the Congress now has just one MP! Scindia’s defection is no doubt unprincipled and self-serving, but it is said that he couldn’t get an “audience” with Rahul Gandhi for almost a year. A prominent Congressman, supposedly close to the party’s leader, can’t even get to see him!
After the Congress defeat in the 2014 general election, the party has been abandoned by three former chief ministers, six state party presidents, seven former Union ministers and many other prominent members. Some of these were undoubtedly due to opportunism, but much has to do with the High Command’s apathy and imperiousness.
It’s time to recognise that there are far better Congressmen outside the Gandhi family who could fill the role of Congress president. There’s Shashi Tharoor who has gone beyond his international experience at the UN to become a highly effective MP from Thiruvananthapuram since 2009; Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress in the last Lok Sabha and a former minister; Captain Amarinder Singh, the CM of Punjab, Sachin Pilot, who has shown his mettle in Rajasthan. Who knows, given the chance, which of them may emerge as the leader? A precondition for that, though, is a scrupulously fair and well-conducted secret ballot involving all the members of the AICC in which they will vote to elect members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the Congress president. It’s quite an anomaly that a political party, which is such a strong advocate for democracy, doesn’t practice it internally.
Whoever emerges from these elections as the Congress president will have to work towards a national agenda which unites opposition parties. The new leader will, therefore, have to be a consensus builder. But first, let that leader emerge, and as soon as possible. Otherwise, the Congress will just be a sad, distant memory.
This article was originally published in The Indian Express.