Recently, when eight of the 23 signatories to a letter written in August 2020 to the Congress Interim President Sonia Gandhi, appeared together on a stage in Jammu, it created a huge stir. Six months had passed since these Congress leaders had put their demands — that included wide-ranging changes in the party’s functioning and a full-time leadership — in writing. It was truly a historic moment in the party, but it had gone almost unnoticed.
Barring one meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in the immediate aftermath of the letter being written, and one closed door session in December 2020, when party seniors faced the brunt of heir apparent Rahul Gandhi’s wrath, there had been no real response from the leadership.
Change Needed to Happen; Someone Had to Take the Lead
Since 2014, when the party faced an electoral rout, a great deal of unhappiness at the organisational paralysis, and Mr Gandhi’s refusal to step up to the job for which he had been groomed had been expressed. But it was only in off-line, private conversations. The letter ended that conspiracy of silence. Congressmen, known for their caution, had collectively thrown it to the wind.
For the 23 signatories represented a much larger number of party seniors, closer to 300, according to party insiders. And conversations with a wide section of party leaders revealed that even among those who disapproved of the writing of such a letter, a majority agreed with its contents. Indeed, former finance minister P Chidambaram, who was not among the letter writers, said, shortly after the CWC met to discuss the matter: “Those who wrote the letter certainly are as fiercely opposed to the BJP as I am or Mr Rahul Gandhi is... Unless there is discontent, change won’t happen.”
That was it: change needed to happen – and someone had to take the lead.And with Jammu now, it’s now all out in the open.
Not surprisingly, the appearance of eight of the Congress’s G-23 in Jammu, ostensibly to felicitate Ghulam Nabi Azad on his retirement as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, has triggered off a series of speculative stories.
The G-23 has shrunk. The saffron turbans indicate that the G-8 is headed for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or at least will form a breakaway party that will ally itself with the BJP.
This group has proclaimed its unhappiness from a public platform because, unlike many others in the G-23 who have been accommodated since the letter bomb exploded last year in positions of responsibility, they are still out in the cold. And so on.
It Isn’t the G-23 That Has Shrunk. It is the Congress That Has Shrunk
Of course, this is partly a story of thwarted personal ambitions, about those who feel they have been overlooked for less talented persons – but it is so, so much more. It is about a political party in turmoil, one that has lost its way, thanks to a leadership crisis. It is about an opposition party that is unable to grasp the moment.
Democracy itself is in peril, and yet the Congress that brought freedom to the country and gave it its Constitution, clearly, no longer, has the imagination or vitality to do its job. It isn’t the G-23 that has shrunk. It is the Congress that has shrunk.
Anand Sharma, who made the most aggressive speech at Jammu, stressing that they were “co-owners of the Congress, not merely its tenants”, was a prime mover in the writing of the original letter. He told this writer this week that while the Congress leaders had joined Mr Azad “out of a sense of solidarity” in the wake of the “kind of sentiments expressed in Parliament”, “ we can’t be in denial. We have to tell the truth. The Congress has become weak. There is need for the balance to be restored, for the party to be revitalised and strengthened, so that we can create a platform for other like-minded parties to take on the challenge of the BJP and other communal forces.”
What Congress-Left Combine Should Do to Defeat BJP in Bengal
Publicly, he denounced the Congress-Left alliance’s pact in West Bengal with the Indian Secular Front led by the head cleric of the Furfura Sharif shrine in the state. “Congress’s alliance with parties like ISF... militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism..” he tweeted.
Privately, another G-8 member told this writer that if the Congress-Left combine wanted to defeat the BJP in the state elections, there was little point joining hands with a Muslim cleric; the party would have been better off joining hands with the Trinamool Congress: that would have kept the substantial Muslim vote in the state – almost 30 percent – intact.
“The day you made Adhir Chowdhury Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, you banged the door shut on the Trinamool Congress,” he stressed. Another non G-23 leader concurred with this latter view.
The fact is that when, for instance, electoral strategies are decided in the Congress, they are not discussed in a central forum where a more holistic view might be taken: it is often left to the local state unit alone and, in this case, Mr Chowdhury is calling the shots in the state. His battle is with Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee, and he cannot really see the big picture.
How Decisions Are Taken in the Congress
In fact, this is just one instance of how decisions are taken in the Congress: there is no sense of participation in the party when it comes to deciding on policy matters, party strategy or indeed, any subject on which a collective view should be taken. Ms Gandhi, though Interim President, and reportedly upset at the state of affairs in the party, no longer has much of a say. It is now Mr Gandhi and his coterie of largely inept Congressmen who are calling the shots.
The 23 Congress leaders who had initially sought reform are neither dissidents nor young Turks planning a coup.
The party’s spokespersons have sought to portray them as an ‘untalented’ and ‘ungrateful’ lot. But those who wrote to Ms Gandhi seeking sweeping changes in the Congress defy categorisation. They span generations; they belong to different regions of the country, and come from disparate backgrounds. Mr Azad, Mr Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Manish Tewari grew into their present positions, starting out in the Youth Congress.
Others such as Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor were accepted into the party fold for their talent. Of the former chief ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, Veerappa Moily and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Mr Hooda and Mr Chavan belong to political families. Mr Moily is a village boy who made good, and Ms Bhattal has had a long stint in regional politics.
The group included second-generation leaders such as Milind Deora and Jitin Prasada, once considered to be part of the inner circle of Rahul Gandhi, who has been indirectly criticised in the letter for not providing full-time, active leadership to the party.
Widespread Discontent With Congress Leadership
The only conclusion one can draw from the list of signatories is that discontent with the leadership is very widespread.
Ms Gandhi, unlike her son, wants a solution. She called a special Congress meeting on 19 December 2020, to see if a reconciliation could be worked out with the dissenters – but only after they sought a meeting to discuss the letter they had earlier written. She agreed as she knew she could not afford to alienate so many senior leaders, especially at a moment when she herself was so vulnerable.
At the meeting, Ms Gandhi stressed the need to work unitedly to strengthen the party; the letter writers balanced their demand for internal elections at the five-hour-long meeting with pledges of loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family and the party.
If Ms Gandhi was aware of the precarious situation she was in, the dissenters were conscious that they could neither quit the party nor pose a serious challenge to the Gandhi family. The meeting produced a stalemate, not a solution.
And if Ms Gandhi was in peacemaker mode at that meeting, Mr Gandhi chose to attack Mr Kamal Nath and Mr Chidambaram.
“You thought you were the chief minister but in reality the state was being run by the RSS, which has infiltrated the bureaucracy,” he told Mr Nath, who, far from being one of the letter writers, was the principal mediator at the meeting.
Much Will Depend On Results of Upcoming State Polls
Rahul Gandhi ticked off Mr Chidambaram, too, saying that the Congress was not in the reckoning in Tamil Nadu and that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) was the real political player in the state.
How will all this end? Much will depend on the results of the states going to the polls next month.
- Can the alliance that the Congress has forged with the AIUDF and the Bodoland People’s Party in Assam bring the state back to the Congress fold?
- Can the Congress-led United Democratic Front replace the Left Democratic Front – and keep the BJP at bay in Kerala?
- Can the Congress win back Puducherry where its government was prematurely toppled?
- Can its alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu win back the state?
- Will its alliance with the Left and the ISF in West Bengal win a respectable number of seats or will it only help the BJP by cutting into the TMC’s votes?
If the Congress under Mr Gandhi’s leadership – he is actively campaigning – can win back Kerala and Assam, retain Puducherry, and be part of the winning combine in Tamil Nadu, the dissidents will for the moment have to retire into the background. But if the Congress performs poorly, support for them will swell. And the number of genuine crisis managers in the party has shrunk. Ahmed Patel, Ms Gandhi’s man for all seasons died last year; Mr Azad has been pushed into the category of dissidents. And Mr Gandhi is on poor terms with Mr Nath, who could have stepped into the job.
That’s in the short term.
What Congress Must Do in the Long Term
But in the long term, the party will have to hold organisational polls. When that happens, will Mr Gandhi contest for the President’s post? If he does that, no one is likely to oppose him. But if he puts up a dummy candidate – as has been talked of – a G-8 or G-23 member could emerge as a challenger.
The demand for elections to the CWC and other bodies remains; the demand for a Parliamentary Board will stay on the table. A positive outcome in next month’s elections can only delay the day of reckoning, nothing more.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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