Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

Revamp Of Congress: Despite Desertion And Dissent, Party Workers Want Gandhis On The Top


Revamp Of Congress: Despite Desertion And Dissent, Party Workers Want Gandhis On The Top

Only time will tell if Congress, the Grand Old Party, can tackle its leadership crisis and rejuvenate ideologically, but young cadres suggest the Gandhi family remains relevant

Illustrations: Saahil

Senior Congress members have abando­ned the party in droves over the past two years, and in their scathing resignation letters, most of them have cited Rahul Gandhi’s leadership style as the main reason for their disillusionment. On August 26, in his five-page resignation letter, Ghulam Nabi Azad alleged that the party organisation is in a shambles, chi­efly because a “new coterie of inexperienced sycophants had started running the affairs” of the party at 24, Akbar Road.

Congress has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons for several years now, as sco­res of its leaders have either resigned citing disgruntlement, or simply defected to their arch-­rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Alth­o­ugh the spate of resignations is a recent pheno­menon, the party had started losing its electoral sheen since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. From leading governments in nine states during the 2014 polls, their fortunes have plummeted to just two—Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Political observers feel the Grand Old Party is now being com­pelled to create and invest in a second-rung leadership. However, there’s staunch consensus within the party, especially among young cad­res, that the Gandhi family remains the panacea to their recent problems and must remain at the helm of important and visible affairs.

The main reason for the party’s downfall is the presence of inefficient leaders at key positions, say the young functionaries Outlook had reac­hed out to. A Delhi-based functionary pointed out that for much of its existence, Congress’s politics has been oriented towards governance. He said several politicians from the party were chosen and groomed during Indira Gandhi’s time, and they grew into trained and efficient ministers, serving key positions in successive Congress regimes. The problem is that these senior-most leaders have exposure to a minister’s office, but not the field. Since the party has been kept out of power by the Modi wave, these leaders are trapped in a quagmire that dema­n­ds a different skillset altogether.

Rather than running the government, the 137-­year-old party’s focus has, over time, shifted towards running the party. “The party realises it needs to engage in a lot of activism, and conn­ect to people on the ground, en masse, and all the members of the Congress ought to deliver on these lines,” the young functionary tells Out­look. “But some leaders, especially those of the older generations, only want to sit in their cosy cabins,” he adds. They could be good ministers, he says, but are not effic­i­ent leaders and are now lying dormant. Other functionaries similarly believe that many older leaders, clueless about what to do, have realised that they are a misfit for the present-day Congress and want to exit.  “They just want to find an escape from the party and make sure while leaving, they sling mud on individuals like Rahul Gandhi,” says a senior party worker who has been with the Congress for over a decade. He adds that the older lot is not used to running party machinery or garnering electoral mileage.

Turncoat Ghulam Nabi Azad
Turncoat Ghulam Nabi Azad Photo: PTI

All India Congress Committee secretary Chr­i­stopher Tilak reveals that he found Azad’s res­i­gnation letter ironic because “Azad was not a peoples’ leader”, and that he left the party be­c­ause he was not given a Rajya Sabha ticket. Amid the escalating dissent from the senior pla­y­­ers—most of whom are part of the infamous G-23—keeping the party together in one piece is becoming a time-sensitive exigency.

Sonia Gandhi, who has served as party presid­ent for over two decades, continues to do so in an interim role. Analysts believe she used to be surrounded and managed by leaders who were poli­t­ically grounded and well-versed in realpolitik. “Rahul Gandhi has ironically replicated the very high command model of his mother and grandm­other, with the difference that his team is politic­a­lly inept and rudderless,” wrote Heidelberg Uni­versity pro­fessor Rahul Mukherji in a leading Indian daily recently. He adds that Rah­ul Gan­dhi is surrounded by top leaders who do not pos­sess the political acumen of Digvi­jay Singh or Ashok Gehlot. “None of these and other advi­s­ers have honed the art of winning elections,” he adds.

Rahul Gandhi will soon lead the Bharat Jodo Yatra and march across India, seeking to alert people about growing inequ­a­lity, polarisation and division in the country.

A Congress member close to Rahul Gandhi tells Outlook, “We will see more seniors crying and leaving the party. The revamping of the party is happening with a lot of push and pull, and most of the people who are in their 60s or 70s are disg­runtled because they find themsel­ves as misfits in the new setup, and hence they are all but exhi­b­iting their dissatisfaction with Rahul Gandhi. Pol­iticians like Kapil Sibal, Azad (who have rece­ntly resigned) or even P. Chida­m­baram or Anand Sharma, are not battle-hardened to mobilise peo­ple or win elections.” He adds, “Without power or a ministry portfolio, these people are just lawyers and book authors, not leaders.”

A leadership overhaul is as indispensable for the Grand Old Party as is the need for a Gandhi face at the helm of affairs. Tilak, who has been working closely with Rahul Gandhi since 2018, says, “A universal feeling that we get from across the country within our party is that someone from the Gandhi family must be in the picture. That is a general view of most of the workers and the off­ice bearers. For instance, how can we expect to win elections in south Ind­ia, the states that used to be the bastion of Congress, wit­hout a Gandhi face?” The sentiment in the south, he says, is of deep attachment to the Gan­dhis. “To keep the Congress together and to keep the sentimental attachment of every wor­ker alive, the Gandhis are needed,” says Tilak.

A political observer who works at Delhi-based thinktank Samruddha Bharat Foundation, says the Gandhis have a bigger role to play than just being the face of the party. Congress, he says, is right now aiming at rejuvenating its ideological radar, an anchor that will not only re-root the party on the ground but also distinguish it from the BJP and the RSS. “Congress won’t aim to tackle BJP by employing right-wing politics. They are now trying to offer something fresh, and a narrative strong enough to counter the government in power,” he says, adding, “Rahul Gandhi is keen on steering his party on these lines, and since he’s a popular face in the country, nobody from Congress can do it better.”

To rejuvenate its cadre and app­eal, Congress has planned a marathon campa­ign, aka Bharat Jodo Yatra, led by Rahul Gan­dhi, who will mar­ch across India to alert people about growing economic inequality, social polarisation and political division. With the electoral relevance of its communal-cum-secular projection having faded, the Bharat Jodo Yatra could be the first purposeful attempt by an Opposition party since 2014 to develop a counter-narrative.  “Congress is at the cusp of its history,” a young leader sums it for Outlook.

(This appeared in the print edition as "At the Cusp of its History")