For a party relentlessly criticised by insiders, sympathisers and rivals alike for its organisational inertia and inability to spell out a cogent alternative politics, there seems to be much going on in the Congress that, for reasons inexplicable, rarely enters popular discourse. The Congress story—particularly since Rahul Gandhi abdicated its presidency last year and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, came back as interim chief—largely revolves around a few familiar themes. The party’s ineptness at countering the anti-Congress sentiment persistently fanned by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine, its recurring electoral debacles and failure to keep the flock together in a handful of states it won in recent years, and a seemingly perpetual aspirational flux that keeps veterans and juniors or even contemporaries at loggerheads is heard on loop.
Since March, the Congress has lost its government to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and is on the edge in Rajasthan, where CM Ashok Gehlot has been putting all his political skills, gathered over a career of 46 years, to stall Sachin Pilot and the BJP from toppling his regime. The threat to both governments came not just from the BJP, which has proven its mastery in the art of toppling elected governments, but also from its own leaders. Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia were once touted as NextGen leaders of the Congress on whom Rahul could rely to strengthen the party. Today, one has reportedly made up his mind to sever ties with the Congress, and the other has joined the BJP.
In Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, where the Congress is in power either on its own or in an alliance, the threat of rebellions (particularly in Punjab against CM Amarinder Singh or in Chhattisgarh against CM Bhupesh Baghel) and defections has been a recurring one. Calls for resolving the party’s leadership question have been growing louder too, as also noise over its perennial bane of veterans versus youngsters. Leaders like Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor want party positions—including the presidency and Congress Working Committee (CWC) membership—opened for elections.
As Sonia completes a year as interim Congress president, calls for her 50-year-old son to return to the helm will, predictably, reverberate once again. So did the change of guard effected on August 10 last year really make any difference to how the party functions? And did Sonia use the past year to quietly prepare a new transition strategy that would avoid an encore of the generational flux that was the hallmark—and in some ways the undoing—of Rahul’s 18-month tenure as party president?
Party sources say Rahul’s return as president is imminent, but Sonia won’t be relinquishing the top post at least for a few months. All appointments to the party are now routed through Rahul, while Sonia works primarily as a patron, trying to keep the party’s alliances intact and the old guard at ease about their future, besides pacifying agitated leaders when absolutely necessary. She seems to have also decided, rather belatedly, that Congress CMs must act with a considerable degree of autonomy and not rush to 10, Janpath before taking the smallest of decisions. On issues concerning UP, both Sonia and Rahul invariably defer to the advice of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who in turn relies heavily on inputs from state party chief Ajay Kumar ‘Lallu’.
When Rahul had offered to step down from the Congress presidency taking responsibility for the party’s second consecutive decimation in Lok Sabha polls, his colleagues in the CWC passed a resolution asking him to reconsider it. He was also authorised to carry out a “complete overhaul” of the organisation. In an open letter, Rahul later made it clear that he wouldn’t reconsider his stand and even took potshots at party seniors for not holding themselves accountable for the collective electoral failure. When the CWC asked Sonia to return as interim party chief, the resolution to restructure the organisation was hers to implement.
Jyotiraditya Scindia, who joined the BJP, and Sachin Pilot were once seen as the Congress GenNext
A year on, though the impression that nothing has changed holds true for the Congress at the national level, the party seems to be consistently revamping its state- and district-level organisation. “Almost every second week for the past six months, changes are being made across state units. A few of them, like the appointment of D.K. Shivakumar, Ajay Kumar ‘Lallu’ and Anil Chaudhary as Karnataka, UP and Delhi Congress chiefs respectively, or Hardik Patel as working president in Gujarat, arouse interest for different reasons, but there are hundreds of other district- and state-level appointments no one took note of,” says AICC organisational general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP K.C. Venugopal. Conceding that changes at the central level haven’t been made with the same briskness, he says this is because “a majority of the current appointments, including those to the CWC, were made just two years ago when Rahul was the Congress president”.
A rarely talked about side of these appointments is the party’s concerted move to push grassroots leaders to key positions—a huge contrast from the popular perception of the Congress either obliging dynasts or political lightweights with such responsibilities. Venugopal says this is an extension of the much mocked effort by Rahul to “promote new talent and democratise the organisation”. A close confidante of Rahul adds another important perspective: “If you look at the UPA years, most young leaders who were elevated as Union ministers were those with a political lineage—Jitin Prasad, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Jyotiraditya Scindia—while hardworking youngsters like Meenakshi Natarajan and Manickam Tagore, who struggled their way up, were kept away. Today the challenge is to keep the Pilots and Deoras happy, while the dedication of those like Tagore remains the same as before. The lesson is clear—pedigree alone doesn’t ensure ideological commitment and the Congress seems to be realising that finally.”
Youth Congress president Srinivas B.V., who earned public applause for relentlessly organising relief camps for migrants and the poor during the lockdown, and is presently touring Bihar’s flood-affected areas to help those stranded, tells Outlook:“I have no godfather in politics. From a booth-level worker of the party, Rahul picked me up to work in the Youth Congress, and I am now the YC president.” Srinivas says the people quitting Congress today are mostly those who “got everything on a platter without any struggle and are now nervous because they have to work on the ground to rebuild the party”. People like Srinivas and newly-elected Congress Rajya Sabha MP Rajiv Satav were among several young leaders Rahul had identified during his talent search programmes between 2004 and 2009, when he was in charge of the party’s frontal organisations, and was experimenting with reintroducing organisational elections.
CM Ashok Gehlot is using all his skills to save his government in Rajasthan
Back then, the internal elections process was mocked by party veterans, media and political rivals alike who routinely scoffed that the experiment would never work in a dynastic party like the Congress. “It takes time to groom new leadership,” says Venugopal. “For people like Satav, Tagore, Jyothimani, Ramya Haridas, Hibi Eden (all MPs now), Jitu Patwari (former minister in MP) and Hardik Patel, it has been a long journey full of hard work on the ground. None of them came into politics with the advantage of money or pedigree. Now these are the people Rahul can rely on to build the next generation of party leaders.”
This trend of upcoming leaders without the trappings of a political family with massive financial resources is visible in the party’s media and social media departments too. In fact, party insiders feel that the changed tenor of the Congress in its media and social media interactions is in part due to the grassroots connect that the still evolving team brings with it. Rohan Gupta, another first-generation politician from Gujarat who was appointed the Congress social media chief in September, tells Outlook that the party began redrawing its social media strategy from scratch after he took over. “We wanted to open our communication strategy to the lowest rung of Congress workers and even the common citizens. We pushed for participation even from the booth level. This gave us a huge mass of content creators. Now we have started another initiative called ‘With Congress’, which involves professionals from various fields who aren’t active Congress members, but believe in our message. As of today, the social media engagement of Congress exceeds that of the BJP by almost 30 per cent and this can be verified using various tools and algorithms,” says Gupta.
Over the past two months, the Congress has launched several online campaigns under the ‘Speak Up’ theme. These campaigns feature video messages by party leaders, workers and supporters on diverse subjects like rising fuel prices, issues concerning students, the India-China standoff in Ladakh and, most recently, the alleged threat to democracy by BJP’s attempts at toppling Congress-ruled state governments. Gupta claims that each of these campaigns emerged as the most trending themes on Twitter with a “minimum original tweet volume of about 3 lakh posts; excluding retweets and other interactions”.
When the delayed coronavirus-induced lockdown was announced by the prime minister, Sonia had set up an 11-member consultative group of the party under the chairmanship of former prime minister Manmohan Singh and with Rahul Gandhi as a member. The brief for the group was clear—firm up the party’s position on various issues of critical importance. The composition of the team, many said then, was an indicator of Rahul softening on his reluctance to be actively involved in the party’s day-to-day functioning. At least five members of the group—Venugopal, Randeep Surjewala, Praveen Chakravarty, Supriya Shrinate and Gourav Vallabh—were appointed on Rahul’s recommendation.
The handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its crippling impact on India’s already stagnating economy were, a member of the consultative group says, two issues handpicked by Rahul to corner the Modi government on. The party’s media cell was instructed to “hold no punches” while criticising the government for its failures, but to also simultaneously ensure that “no personal attacks were made against the prime minister so that the BJP doesn’t get a handle to go on the offensive”.
This initiative was led byRahul, who was the first political leader to warn the government of the perils of ignoring the pandemic on February 12—over a month before the lockdown was announced. He addressed some press conferences while maintaining that he only wished to make “constructive suggestions”. He followed this up with an ‘in-conversation’ series in which he spoke to leading public health and economic experts, businessmen and common citizens about various aspects of the pandemic and the lockdown. These interactions were then shared on social media platforms. Rahul has now begun recording brief videos for his social media channels in a bid to directly share with his audience his views of various issues of national importance.
Meanwhile, Congress spokespersons, long criticised for being insipid while responding to the BJP’s verbal attacks, have turned uncharacteristically combative. The continued border dispute between India and China in Ladakh and Modi’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis saw Congress spokespersons shed their historic reticence in critiquing India’s China policy. Modi’s statement of June 19 denying Chinese incursions into the Galwan Valley, just four days after 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in primitive clashes with the People’s Liberation Army, further helped the Congress slay the ghost of the 1962 Sino-Indian war—arguably the Congress’s gravest blunder from the Nehruvian era. Party spokespersons Manish Tewari, Pawan Khera, Gourav Vallabh, Supriya Shrinate, Jaiveer Shergill, Ragini Nayak, Shama Mohamed, Rohan Gupta, Rajiv Tyagi and several others have had a field day, even managing to stun the BJP’s Sambit Patra, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, Shaina N.C., Shahnawaz Hussain and Sudhanshu Trivedi into relative silence during TV debates—despite evidently partisan anchors who seek to push the government’s narrative.
Vallabh says the aggression of Congress spokespersons is as much a result of the party’s anger at the “steady erosion of democracy and secular polity of India under the BJP” as it is out of “frustration at a section of the media that pushes the government’s agenda instead of speaking in national interest”. That a major chunk of Indian media has become an “enabler of BJP’s fascism” has now become a prominent feature of the Congress’s political diatribe.
The slew of appointments being made across the party’s state units and the hitherto absent cohesion in the party’s communication strategy suggest small steps towards course correction have been made in the grand old party. However, the real test of a political party is at the hustings. This is where the Congress has made little headway. “Electorally we are still in an existential crisis. In the assembly polls due over the next two years, we aren’t even key players in Bihar or West Bengal, while in UP we aren’t sure whether Priyanka’s efforts will yield any tangible results. We can’t challenge the BJP if we have no revival strategy for the grassroots,” says a senior party functionary.
Journalist and Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kumar Ketkar admits that the challenges before the Congress today seem difficult to surmount. However, he says this isn’t purely because of the “so-called leadership crisis or the Congress’s inability to enunciate its ideological position”, but largely for the kind of politics that the BJP has succeeded in perpetuating and how an “embedded media” has helped keep the saffron wave on a crest. The BJP’s ideology has been that of “divide, polarise and rule on the simulated hate”, Ketkar tells Outlook, adding that the only way in which the Congress can respond to this is by remaining steadfast on its own ideology of secularism and liberalism, while building on its grassroots base by reviving its long legacy of mass movements. Ketkar says doubts being raised by many on the leadership of the party need to be put to rest decisively but adds that under the present circumstances the best bet for the Congress is to work under a Nehru-Gandhi. Ketkar points out that between 1991 and 1997, no member of the Gandhi family was in politics—the only such period since 1947—and the Congress failed to rally behind a single leader. Today, there are three Nehru-Gandhis—Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka—in active politics. Can they collectively put the party back on track?