Even before campaigning for the Delhi assembly polls began, the eventuality of yet another wipeout was not lost on anyone in the Congress. Notwithstanding the mild signs of electoral revival witnessed some months ago in Haryana or Jharkhand—or that of political savvy as seen in Maharashtra—even the dwindling breed of optimists in the party agreed privately that the Congress would fail to wrest a single seat in the city-state it ruled for 15 consecutive years before the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) pushed it to the fringes.
Yet, somehow, the predictable Delhi election result is being touted as a catalyst for the ongoing implosion of the Congress. Over the past fortnight, a bevy of Congress leaders have revived calls for urgently resolving the party’s leadership vacuum, effectively communicating its stand on critical socio-political issues and, as Jairam Ramesh said, “collective submergence of individual egos”.
True to Congress-style, the electoral drubbing also triggered unseemly reactions from party veterans like P. Chidambaram who applauded the AAP’s victory because it meant a defeat for the BJP, only to be met with criticism from the party’s Delhi leaders—Sharmistha Mukherjee being the most vocal—who wondered if the Congress had now “outsourced the task of defeating the BJP” to other parties. Running a parallel verbal duel were party leaders P.C. Chacko and Ajay Maken who sought to absolve themselves of responsibility for the defeat in Delhi by criticising the late Sheila Dikshit and got slammed in return by Pawan Khera, Milind Deora and Sandeep Dikshit.
Yes, much of this cacophony erupted as a direct consequence of the election result but could these rumblings be the harbinger of a greater churning within the decaying Congress? Since October, interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has made some changes within the party, essentially to streamline the Congress’s narrative on important issues and keep disgruntled leaders happy. She formed an informal advisory committee to help the party formulate its strategy on important issues. She also formed committees in Congress-ruled states to supposedly oversee manifesto implementation and keep factional heads in good humour. None of these efforts, however, have contained the dissent.
The noise is set to grow only shriller in the days to come. On March 26, at least 55 Rajya Sabha seats will be up for election. Of these, 11 are currently held by the Congress. Several of these seats are from the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana where the Congress is now in a position to have its leaders elected to Parliament’s Upper House. However, the party will need to strike a difficult balance between the old guard embedded around Sonia and the restless, not-so-young leaders who claim proximity to Rahul Gandhi.
Several Congress leaders conceded that the ongoing skirmishes are, in part, due to the impending RS elections. Earlier this month, Jyotiraditya Scindia had put the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh on notice. He publicly threatened to start a stir if the year-old Congress government in the state did not fulfill its manifesto promises. There are three RS seats falling vacant in MP in April, one of them currently held by Scindia’s bitter rival Digvijaya Singh. In the 230-member MP Vidhan Sabha, the Congress has 115 seats against the BJP’s 108. This means that both parties can have one nominee each elected to the Rajya Sabha while the election to the third seat could go down to the wire.
Sources say that Scindia, who lost the Lok Sabha polls, wants an assurance from the party high command to be elected to the Upper House. Similarly, Rahul’s whippersnappers Deepender Hooda, Randeep Surjewala, Milind Deora and Jitin Prasada are also hopeful of RS nominations. Accommodating these leaders over veterans like Singh, Kumari Selja, B.K. Hariprasad, Motilal Vora and Raj Babbar could be tricky.
Sources say the push for a Rajya Sabha nomination for party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a “ploy” to put young leaders vying for an Upper House ticket to the test. “The suggestion to send Priyanka to the Rajya Sabha has come from chief ministers of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, backed on the rationale that having a Gandhi in both houses of Parliament would help the party confront the BJP more effectively but how does that help Priyanka with her task of reviving the Congress in UP,” asks a Rahul-confidante who is hopeful of a Rajya Sabha nomination. He says rumours like the need to “send Priyanka to the Rajya Sabha so that she can retain her government accommodation in Lodhi Estate are being spread by a section of leaders who have spent their political careers without facing an election and don’t care about the party”.
There has also been growing rumour within the party that Sonia may not continue as interim party chief beyond April. It is no secret that efforts to keep Rahul as Congress chief had begun even before he quit the post last year after a disastrous 18-month stint. For the past six months that Sonia has been interim party chief, she has refrained from making any sweeping changes to the party organisation despite the Congress Working Committee authorising an overhaul. Party veterans say the much-awaited AICC reshuffle will happen only after a full-time president (read Rahul) is appointed and if the change of guard is likely in two months, “leaders aspiring for important roles have to make some noise to be in contention”.
Party MP Shashi Tharoor recently reiterated his demand for the party’s “need to fix our current leadership issues…through a participatory, transparent and democratic electoral process”. While he backed calls for Rahul’s return as Congress president—or even the election of Priyanka to the post—Tharoor asserted that “resolving the uncertainty about long-term leadership is an indispensable aspect of our process of revival”. As expected, party veterans were quick to dismiss Tharoor’s demand, falling back on the oft-repeated ‘only a Gandhi can lead the Congress’s idiom.
A party veteran who has worked closely with both Sonia and Rahul tells Outlook that this burst of demands for a course correction is just posturing for personal gains. For Congress leaders truly concerned about the state of affairs within the party, it may not be a bad idea to refer to their party’s constitution occasionally. Within the Congress, the forum to discuss crucial matters has historically been the AICC session. Though the Congress constitution mandates convening an AICC session at least once a year, it also states that a joint representation specifying reasons for an urgent meeting made to the CWC by 20 per cent of AICC members with voting rights must force such a session within two months. Given the numerous voices for course correction, one would imagine that the Congress had the required quorum to force an AICC session and discuss its existential crisis threadbare. The absence of such a demand begs an obvious question—do they really care?