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Can Congress Exist Without Its Most Identifiable Symbols – The Gandhis?

Many Congress leaders who have raised the banner of revolt within the party following its poor performance in the recent Assembly elections. Complete restructuring and an aggressive overhaul of the leadership are solutions for survival, they say.  

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Congress in need of restructuring?
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63-year old Premchand Singh, a resident of Punjab, had joined the Congress Party when he was 20 years old. A great admirer of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Singh’s foray into the party was to serve those in need. Over the years until her death in 1984, Singh was a regular at the political rallies the late leader addressed. He confesses to being a Gandhi loyalist first and a Congressman next. In the 43 years of his political journey, he has worshipped the Gandhis. He is saddened by the very vocal calls for their exit from the Congress Party. “If they leave the Congress I will never vote in any elections,” said Singh to Outlook.      

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Can there be a Congress Party without its most identifiable symbols – the Gandhis? Following the embarrassing performance of the Congress Party in the just concluded 2022 Assembly polls in Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Punjab the impact of the continuance of the Gandhis on the fortunes of the party has become a hotly debated subject by Congressmen who are for or opposed to the leadership. Though the octaves of dissent are increasing, there have been no concrete solutions emerging from it yet, said sources.  

The party has to be battle-ready, bring back aggression to its ranks, up its credibility factor and address the dissent within, if it has to control the narrative. The Congress Party faces a tougher challenge, of proving that it has not become a liability for the Opposition. The poll debacle has made ordinary Congress worker like Singh scared. It will a daunting task for the party to contain an exodus from its ranks to other political parties, said sources.       

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A statement issued by the CWC after its post-poll meeting said, “The Congress Party represents the hopes of millions of Indians against political authoritarianism prevailing in the country today and the party is fully conscious of its immense responsibility. The Congress Party will be fully prepared to face the electoral challenges in the election going states in 2022, 2023 as well as the Lok Sabha elections in 2024”. When it is the existential issue of the party, statements such as these, ring hollow with party men. 

Two years ago, a group of 23 party leaders – who later came to be known as the G-23 – had written to Sonia Gandhi demanding big organizational changes in the party including an overhaul of the leadership. They were sidelined and their dissent junked.  

A senior leader who is part of G-23 told Outlook that all the office bearers of the AICC must quit immediately. “New members should be nominated in their place. It has to be a thorough exercise. The party high command must talk to the dissident leaders and find out the reasons for their disgruntlement. They should not be allowed to go. The party must stitch up regional alliances and be a part of a strong opposition alliance. The Congress Party has to learn to be a part of a whole. We cannot lose even a day,” said the leader.  

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According to another senior leader of the party, “We are clear that Rahul and Priyanka must not be involved in leadership roles in the party. Take a break, learn and then come back to lead. Not lead and then learn on the job. Both of them shout down senior party leaders in a very humiliating manner. The Gandhis have to adapt to the present-day changes if they have to lead from the front.”     

The popular opinion is that Rahul must step out of the limelight and get to work as a party-man. Leaders felt that the BJP has been successful in obliterating his image by their narratives which include the ‘Pappu’ moniker, the image of a disinterested politician, lack of understanding of hard politics and his poor communication skills. This has left a lasting impression on the minds of the electorate, said sources.  

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Staying out of the limelight for a long spell of time will erase his adverse image in public minds, said the source. Rahul’s long spells of absenteeism and mysterious holidays also received its share of criticism from within the party, said sources. “The leadership has to immediately address this crisis. Soniaji cannot keep shielding the political incompetence of her children. The present situation of the party is because Soniaji is shielding the faults of her children. Both have also failed as leaders, so why aren’t they quitting? Soniaji must ask for their resignations too,” said yet another leader to Outlook. 

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In the 22 years that Sonia Gandhi has been at the helm of the Congress Party, the party has won numerous polls including the General Elections. However, in recent years, she has been unable to stem the decline of the party. Senior leaders told Outlook that the growing disgruntlement within the rank and file of the party is not being addressed. Concrete solutions have to be found, said a leader. “Navjot Singh Sidhu had problems with Amarinder Singh as well as Charanjit Channi. Yet, he was allowed to destroy the party in Punjab. Even Harish Rawat was treated with kid gloves. Today these two have killed the party in two states where we could have won the elections,” said the leader. In the two states - Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh – where the party is in power internal squabbling is very visible and needs to be dealt with.   

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In Uttarakhand, the Congress Party perception that anti-incumbency would hit the BJP hard took a big hit after the latter was voted back to power. The outcome has sealed the fate of former chief minister Harish Rawat for another five years. He is facing the ire of his party men and senior leaders who lay the blame at his door for the party’s debacle. Rawat had been made responsible for the Congress Party campaign in Uttarakhand and was the party in-charge in Punjab – both states where it saw humiliating defeats.  

Insiders confirm that Rawat was tasked by AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to remove Capt Amarinder Singh as CM of Punjab, a mistake that had an adverse impact on the electorate. Rawat stands accused by his party men of “sinking the Congress ship” and “selling party tickets”. The allegations say that he has profited from giving tickets to five candidates who were “adjusted” to various constituencies. “Shifting of candidates at the last moment had sent a wrong signal in the state. Rawat also contested from Lalkuwa instead of his traditional Rampur seat. The leaders who had nurtured their seats for the past four years should have been given the tickets,” said Pritam Singh, former chief of the Congress Party in Uttarakhand and a fifth-time winner from the Chakrata assembly constituency.  

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The working president of the Congress Party, Ranjit Rawat, too was shifted from Rampur to Salt in Almora, where he lost the election. It has not stopped here. Rawat has taken to social media and questioned the identity of the party leaders who had “patronized” an office-bearer Mohammed Aquil who had demanded the setting up of a Muslim University. This demand was used as a weapon by the BJP-RSS combine to whip the Congress Party. The party’s Uttarakhand unit is in complete disarray.  

The Congress Party is expected to select a new leader of the 18-member Congress Legislature Party (CLP). The fact remains that leaders like Pritam Singh – who was made the CLP leader in the past – was sidelined by Rawat. In 2016, the Rawat Government was brought down by the defections of nine of the party’s MLAs as they were not happy with the former’s style of functioning, said sources. Senior Dehra-dun based journalist Jay Singh Rawat says, “Right now the Aam Aadmi Party has not done well in Uttarakhand as it was concentrated on Punjab. If the Congress high command continues to let matters be as it is in Uttarakhand, the AAP will definitely make a serious bid in the next elections.” 

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The defeat in Uttar Pradesh has dampened the spirits of those who believed that the entry of Priyanka into the state would infuse new energy into the party. She had brought focus on women, coined the slogan ‘Ladki hoon Lad Sakti hoon’ gave party tickets to as many as 159 women. None of it was, however, to bring voters to the party.  

Speaking to Outlook, UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu said that he believed in the mandate and will work harder from here on. “We did whatever we could. We led the campaign for justice for the Hathras victim and then in Lakhimpur Kheri. We accept the mandate. In a democracy, people are supreme. We will introspect and lead a new campaign on issues that matter to people in the state,” said Lallu.  

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At one time the Congress Party had dominated the state’s politics, but since 1989 it has not been able to form a government in UP. The party first failed to challenge the rise of Dalit and OBC politics and then the BJP pushed it out of the game completely. Rae Bareilly, the the Lok Sabha constituency of Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi is the barometer to gauge the impact of the defeat. For decades the party’s First Family had dominated Rae Bareilly and its neighbouring Amethi. Rae Bareilly LS constituency has been electing Sonia as its MP since 2004, with Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi winning this seat on several occasions in the past. 

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Amethi has been represented by Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi for several terms until BJP’s Smriti Irani trounced Rahul from this seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.  

A day after the G-23 meet, ex-Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda who is a part of the group, met Rahul Gandhi and apprised him on the situation in the state with remedial suggestions. Hooda is locked in a feud with the Haryana Congress Party chief Sheilja Kumari, who is perceived to be close to the Gandhis. A group of 18-Congress Party leaders comprising a mix of the G-23 rebels and newcomers, met on Wednesday night and batted for leadership that was collective and inclusive, said sources.  

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The solutions being bandied for the party’s revival include choosing winnability over empty gestures (like ticket to the mother of the Unnao rape victim when rape is a taboo), aggressive re-routing of the party from the booth level as was done in the past, leadership must be held accountable for losses when they are credited with wins and the sycophancy and complacency must be done away with by restructuring the party across the states. There are two power centres within the party – Sonia and Rahul – and the latter calls the shots. There should only be one powerpoint. Leaders also felt that the Congress party has to reach out to those industrialists and business houses who do not contribute to the BJP election kitty.  

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The Congress Party has fallen short in countering the checkmate moves by the BJP. While it is waiting for a new president – a successor to Sonia – which will take place in August this year, the BJP is already in election mode in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, states which will see assembly polls later in the year.    

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