The Key to Congress’ Revival May Lie in Filling These 3 Vacancies

Congress faces a difficult dilemma: Do they choose a leader who inspires cadre or one who can win over BJP voters?

Published
Politics
8 min read
Image of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi used for representational purposes.
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Congress president Sonia Gandhi's meeting with a section of the "dissenters" on Saturday 18 December may have brought about a truce in the party, at least for now.

The meeting was attended by several members of what has come to be called the "G-23" or the group of 23 leaders who had written a letter to the Congress president a few months ago, expressing concerns over the state of affairs in the party. Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan were some of the G-23 attendees in the meeting, among others.

The Quint spoke to a few leaders who attended the meeting as several others who weren't part of it but are in the know.

Most of the dissenters felt that though all their concerns weren't addressed, the meeting was "an important step in the right direction". They said that at least it cleared the air that their letter was merely an expression of "concern" and not an act of rebellion or an attempt to split the party.

The meeting made it clear that the letter written by 23 leaders was “an expression of concern” and not an act of rebellion.

One of the letter's signatories said that a "shared grief" at the death of senior party leader Ahmed Patel made such a meeting possible.

"Ahmedbhai united the party even in death," the leader told The Quint after the meeting.

A day after the meeting, the party was further saddened due to the demise of party veteran Motilal Vora. Despite being 92, Vora continued to work for the party until the very last.

Three Important Vacancies

While differences and apprehensions still persist in the party, a schism has been prevented. And the path towards the next organisational election may have become smoother.

However, the Congress still faces a major challenge: To fix its own broken parts and then prepare for the fight against the BJP.

To accomplish both these tasks, it has three important questions to answer:

  1. Who will be the party's face against PM Modi?
  2. Who will be the strategist directed solely towards the Congress' electoral success?
  3. Who will be the Congress' new crisis manager following the death of Ahmed Patel?

The second and third positions may not necessarily be two separate individuals, it could also be an empowered team of leaders.

Who Will be Congress' Face Against Modi?

Ideally, the Congress needs a leader who can fulfill four criteria:

  • Energise its rank and file
  • Consolidate its core base
  • Win over floating voters from the BJP
  • Address the sizeable funding deficit of the Congress compared to the BJP

Unfortunately for the Congress, it doesn’t have have one leader who fulfills all the criteria.

Speaking to Congress workers individually, Rahul Gandhi emerges as the firm choice of a majority of party workers and best placed to fulfill the first criteria.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and PM Narendra Modi.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and PM Narendra Modi.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

If surveys conducted before the 2019 general elections are any indication, then he might be in the best place to fulfill the second criteria as well - that of consolidating the Congress' core vote and preventing any further leakage.

The Congress may well choose Rahul Gandhi due to these factors and there will be sufficient justification for it.

But if third and fourth factors are playing on its mind, then it may have to search for alternatives.

Who Can Win Over Floating Voters From BJP?

The results in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Jharkhand showed that while the Congress is able to win over floating voters very effectively at the Assembly level, it isn't able to do that at the national level.

In the 2019 general elections, the BJP won a huge victory by making it a presidential contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, playing the national security card to the hilt following the Pulwama attack, and outspending the Congress many times over.

It’s not as if Rahul Gandhi ran a bad campaign in 2019. But the problem is that Brand Narendra Modi has been built around everything that Rahul Gandhi is not: “self made vs dynast”, “Hindu nationalist vs secular”, “pro-corporate vs left of centre”.

As a result, Rahul Gandhi begins the contest at a disadvantage.

This wouldn't be a problem if the core base of the BJP and Congress were broadly equal, as is the case with say the Republicans and Democrats in the US, where a small chunk of floating voters decide the elections.

In the 2019 polls, BJP secured 37 percent vote and the Congress 19 percent, just a little over half of the BJP. So merely consolidating core votes won't do, the Congress has to win over a much bigger chunk of BJP votes.

At the state level, the Congress and parties like AAP and JMM have done that effectively but so far no one seems to be in a position to do it nationally.

To do that at the Centre may require the Congress to project someone who the BJP isn't able to pigeonhole as easily as it does with Rahul Gandhi.

The question that arises is, who can this leader be?

There are no easy answers to this, only a few broad criteria based on prevailing political realities: Since the Congress' weakness seems to be most in the Hindi heartland and among Hindus, it should be someone who comes from both these demographic categories.

Then it should also be someone who commands some mass support, has a nationally recognisable profile, a clean image and can be trusted to take the entire party along.

Speak to any Congress leader or even mid level functionaries, the two names other than Rahul Gandhi that keep coming up are: Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Gehlot has some obvious advantages: He has a great deal of administrative experience, is a self-made leader from a humble background and an OBC from the Mali/Saini community that has a small presence across several Hindi belt states.

UP Police manhandling Priyanka Gandhi. 
UP Police manhandling Priyanka Gandhi. 
Photo Courtesy: Twitter (@JBiswal)

Priyanka Gandhi is still electorally untested and a key milestone for her would be the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. While the Congress is unlikely to win, if Priyanka Gandhi manages to substantially increase the party's vote share and seat share, she could emerge as a potential challenger at the national level as well.

Funding Deficit

The fourth criteria is even more difficult to fulfill. Just to understand the scale of the problem, according to an ADR report from 2019, BJP accounted for 94.5 percent of all electoral bonds and Congress and all the other parties got the remaining 5.5 percent.

For whatever reasons, some of them unjustified, a section of corporate India has a distrust of Rahul Gandhi and perceives him to be too much towards the Left, especially give his open attacks on a few industrialists and past involvement in anti-land acquisition agitations.

The poor state of the economy has ironically increased industry's dependence on PM Modi and not many may be willing to go out of their way to back the Opposition.

It is not clear if any leader from the Congress will be able to address the massive funding deficit it faces. With Ahmed Patel no longer there, an important bridge between the party and industry has been lost.

Two leaders who could have played an important role in the context of raising funds - P Chidambaram and DK Shivakumar - have both been embroiled in cases.

Does Congress Need an Amit Shah?

The BJP's expansion hasn't just been due to PM Modi but also very effective political strategists like Amit Shah, Himanta Biswa Sarma, JP Nadda and others.

Most insiders in the Congress admit that the best phase for the party since 2014 has been a brief period between 2017 and 2018 that began in the run up to the Gujarat Assembly elections and ended with the Congress' wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

During this period, the Congress gave its best performance in Gujarat in three decades, formed governments in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and MP and managed to keep the BJP away from power in Karnataka (The BJP has now managed to capture power in two of these states).

Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot.
Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot.
(Photo: PTI)

It was also in this period that the BJP was facing flak over the effects of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. The focus to a great extent was still on economic issues and the Congress seemed to be reasonably successful in winning over floating voters.

In this period, the Congress was being managed by a reasonably effective combination of Rahul Gandhi as party president and Ashok Gehlot as General Secretary (Organisation) and de-facto second in command.

Many in the Congress may ideally want to go back to the 2017-18 combination - perhaps with Rahul Gandhi as president and Gehlot as working president, or Gehlot as President and Gandhi as the main face of the party.

But there are two hindrances - Rahul Gandhi may not be keen on returning as president and even if he does, the 2019 defeat did reveal his shortcomings in a presidential style contest against Modi.

The second problem: It is well known that Gehlot's heart lies in his home state Rajasthan and he won't be too keen on shifting to Delhi.

Who Will be the Next Ahmed Patel?

Ahmed Patel has left extremely large shoes to fill as the Congress' main crisis manager. He was someone who could use his convincing skills and the endless number of favours he had given people, to ease tensions and smoothen relationships for the party leadership.

It would be nearly impossible for the Congress to find another Ahmed Patel but a committee of leaders could play that role. Even Congress president Sonia Gandhi had recently appointed a six-member committee to advise her on key issues, comprising Ahmed Patel, AK Antony, Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik, Randeep Singh Surjewala and KC Venugopal.

Image of Ahmed Patel used for representational purposes. 
Image of Ahmed Patel used for representational purposes. 
(Photo: Altered by Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

Though Patel has passed away, a similar committee could help address party crises. Someone like Mukul Wasnik is an important leader in such a context as he knows the party organisation better than most others and has personal rapport with functionaries at every level across the country.

What Lies Ahead

In the end, there are no easy solutions for the Congress. The party is faced with a dilemma that many centrist and social democratic parties face worldwide when faced with right wing populists - should it choose a leadership and ideological stance that appeals to core voters or one that would help win over floating voters?

Both choices are right and wrong in some ways.

More immediately, the party would need to institutionalise a mechanism for managing crises and preventing rebellions at both the Centre and state levels. This could be in the form of a individual crisis manager or a team.

Whatever leadership gets chosen in the organisational elections, it would need to face this trade-off and take these steps.

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