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A Gandhi Could Still Lead Congress – But They Need to Democratise

Gandhi family need not worry about opening up leadership contests at every level. Democracy will strengthen them.

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Opinion
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Amid much debate around the internal strife in the Indian National Congress, The Quint has invited two senior political journalists to weigh in on the situation. This article is the second part of the series. The first article, by senior journalist Arati R Jerath, can be accessed here.

The Congress party has staved off the challenge mounted to the Gandhi family’s leadership by reducing it to a question of discipline, decorum and disapproval. The signatories to the letter demanding a ‘collective leadership’ have surrendered in the face of the concerted attack launched against them in the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Although the putative putsch failed, the party is in no position to take action against those behind the attempt. Nor are the challengers in a position to split the party as others in the past. Rahul Gandhi has emerged stronger but the party remains organisationally comatose.

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Why The ‘Direct Attack’ On Sonia And Rahul Gandhi?

The collective letter by 23 Congress leaders had raised three important issues: the question of a full-time and effective leadership, organisational rejuvenation and the party’s attitude to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ‘mis-governance’.

The reference to ‘full-time’ president was an allusion to Sonia Gandhi, whose poor health presumably did not permit her to devote all her energies to the Office of President, especially when Rahul Gandhi was in renunciation mode. The direct attack was on her inability to deliver and on her son who was ‘held responsible’ for the electoral failure of the 2019 general election.

The party’s stand on criticising the BJP government’s inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the steep economic decline, growing job losses and poverty, and the threat to India’s security by China, was never really in question, and wasn’t even opened for discussion. The important issue of organisational renewal of the party through democratisation, especially in the states, was entirely skirted.

Only the issue of leadership was settled –– with a sledge hammer. Rahul Gandhi, the veiled target of attack, has emerged stronger.

The CWC has said the only ‘collective leadership’ acceptable to the party is the joint leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. This is underlined by the phrasing of the CWC Resolution.

It states that given the unprecedented crises facing India, the “two voices that have been at the forefront of exposing the government’s inadequate responses, divisive politics and audacious propaganda” were those of the mother-son duo. While Sonia Gandhi’s interventions have “rankled and embarrassed those occupying the highest office in this government,” Rahul Gandhi “has led the fight against the government from the front.”

Underlining the idea of joint leadership, the resolution declared: “The CWC, reflecting the overwhelming view and desire of the rank and file of the Congress, unanimously resolved to strengthen” their hands.
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Snapshot
  • Although the putative putsch failed, the Congress party is in no position to take action against those behind the attempt.
  • Rahul Gandhi has emerged stronger but the party remains organisationally comatose.
  • The CWC has said the only ‘collective leadership’ acceptable to the party is the joint leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. This is underlined by the phrasing of the CWC Resolution.
  • While it is true that in the current circumstances there may be no other option but to have a Gandhi at the helm, it was unnecessary to make an allegiance to the family the litmus test of organisational loyalty.
  • Democracy has to be accepted as a matter of principle.
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Congress Crisis: Democracy Must Be Accepted As A Matter of Principle

With one stroke, the wide acceptability of Sonia Gandhi by the party rank and file has been used to shield Rahul Gandhi from possible blame. Also the constant reference to leadership in plural, ‘our two leaders’ and ‘their leadership’, the party has undone the renunciation of party leadership by Rahul Gandhi in the CWC held after the general election debacle in July 2019.

It lends lending credence to the speculation that Rahul Gandhi is now ready to return as party president.

Although his anointment may happen only at the next All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting, should his mother desire to demit her interim presidency before that, he can step into her shoes till his formal elevation. The CWC at least seems to have settled the leadership issue. However, it is far too brazen a way of functioning, as it creates the impression that the CWC was called with the sole purpose of marginalising those who protested, and to ‘threaten’ them to fall in line.

While it is true that in the current circumstances, when the party stands diminished because of its electoral defeats, there may be no other option but to have a Gandhi at the helm, it was unnecessary to make an allegiance to the family the litmus test of organisational loyalty. Democracy has to be accepted as a matter of principle.

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Why Organisational Elections Will Help The Congress

It is curious that the CWC only called for an AICC session. No intention for holding organisational elections was expressed. In an AICC session, the full-time leadership question can be settled conveniently by nomination. It would have been better to announce a plan to hold organisational elections that would lead to a plenary session where the new president, presumably Rahul Gandhi, would assume charge. The plenary would then elect fifty percent of the CWC members, leaving the rest to be nominated by the president.

This should happen at regular intervals as mandated in the party’s constitution.

The CWC resolution virtually bans dissent and shows that the Congress has not given up its old ways of functioning. It could afford to function in this manner when it was in power. But in the present context, when immediate prospects of coming to power are slim, and younger political activists have other political parties to choose from, such tightly-centralised organisational functioning is pointless . The Congress is no longer the party of first preference for Dalits, OBCs or tribals, for example.

In such circumstances, total loyalty to the family cannot be the criterion for being in the Congress.
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Gandhi Family Must Not Fear Opening Up Leadership Contests At Every Level

Political loyalty has to acquire a much wider ideological and organisational basis. Isolating and marginalising dissenters whose rebellion was announced through media leaks may be easy to quash once, but the problem can resurface more virulently. Nearer election-time, the ruling party can easily manipulate such divisions within the Congress and create a major crisis for it. Democratising the party organisation is the best long term medicine to prevent such problems from resurfacing –– just squashing the symptoms is not enough.

The Gandhi family, which has the unique distinction of holding the Congress together, should not be worried about opening up leadership contests at every level. Democracy will only strengthen –– and not weaken them.

Rahul Gandhi’s leadership may indeed be the way forward for the Congress. Yet there is no reason why that should deprive the party of organisational democracy and elections at every level from blocks and districts to the state and the AICC. Elections alone will lend vibrancy to the party and ginger up its structure for future electoral battles.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. 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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