Cong-Prashant Kishor Fiasco: All the Lessons the Gandhis Refuse to Learn

From leadership to internal democracy, the debacle underlines all that has gone wrong with the Grand Old Party.

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Sonia Gandhi’s efforts in recent weeks to induct celebrated poll strategist Prashant Kishor into the Congress, both as a member and chief disruptor, to revive a moribund party organisation, was a sign of desperation. Kishor’s rejection, on the other hand, of the final offer made to him – to join the party and become a member of the recently constituted Empowered Action Group for 2024 — is being seen as a snub. In a tweet, announcing his decision, he said, “In my humble opinion, more than me, the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms.”

After eight years of not just being out of power but also observing helplessly a daily erosion of the Congress’s support base, the exodus of many of its members for greener – and in many cases, saffron – pastures, and with son and heir Rahul Gandhi (who briefly served as party president between 16 December 2017 and 3 July 2019) showing neither the will nor the capacity to turn the party’s fortunes around, Gandhi felt that the party required professional help.


'On the Brink of Witnessing a New Congress'

Rahul Gandhi’s hostility to the ‘G-23’, a group of 23 senior party leaders who wrote a letter in August 2020 to Sonia Gandhi, who, at the time was Interim President, requesting an immediate and active leadership, organisational rejig, and sweeping reforms in the functioning of the party, did not make her task any easier. After Rahul resigned in the wake of the party’s second consecutive debacle in the general elections of 2019, in which he lost even his own traditional seat, Amethi, Sonia found her task that much harder. Instead of retirement, she found herself trying to patch together the broken bits of the party, even as her son, though an ordinary member – having voluntarily given up the presidency – continued to wield power without responsibility.

Ironically, much of what the G-23 had suggested found reflection in detail in the plan that Kishor had placed before the party. Both, for instance, talk of addressing the leadership issue, seeking democratic organisational elections, and greater autonomy for Pradesh Congress chiefs.

On his part, Kishor, who had burnt his fingers in 2017 when he had come on board to advise the Congress for the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh that year, was determined that he would not work for the party unless he was given a free hand. He was looking for a position in which he would be answerable only to Sonia Gandhi, and not as a member of a large group where his voice would be one among many.

Now, just weeks ahead of a proposed Chintan Shivir, or a brainstorming session, slated to take place from 13 May to 15 May in Udaipur, and which aims to address the political challenges the party is witnessing, the Congress faces the prospect of hearing the same tired voices enunciating the tried-and-failed formulae; party senior Digvijay Singh has claimed that the country is on the brink of witnessing a New Congress.


An Internal Rebellion Shouldn't Really Be Surprising

So, what does this episode tell one about the state of the Grand Old Party?

Indeed, in recent years, the Congress has not just vacated space for other political parties, but it has also been steadily hollowed out ideologically.

In the almost eight years since the party lost power at the Centre, there has been little visible effort to revamp the party organisation, give it a direction, or marshal its forces for the serious, sustained ideological battle it clearly needs to fight.

If a report by senior leader AK Antony in August 2014 blamed the media – particularly social media – for the party’s defeat, a series of structured discussions towards the end of 2014 led neither to a blueprint for revival nor a re-organisation of the Congress.

Since then, the party has lost several states where it had been in power either on its own or in a coalition. It has lost two consecutive assembly elections in Haryana (2014 and 2019), and Assam (2016 and 2021). Since 2012, it has failed to form a government in Goa; after 2013, in Delhi; in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, since 2014 (currently, it is a junior partner in a Shiv Sena-led government in the latter state). The Congress helped form Telangana but has lost two consecutive polls in the state. In Madhya Pradesh, it won the elections in 2018 but allowed a rebellion in its ranks to lead to the toppling of its government in 2020; in Kerala, since 1982, Congress-led and Left Front governments alternated in the state, but last year, the Left won itself a second term. In Gujarat, of course, it has not been in power since 1995, and despite a good showing in 2017, when it ensured heavy losses – though not defeat – for the BJP, it has in five years frittered away those gains. It remains in power in Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, but both states have two power centres each, thereby undermining the state governments’ authority. And it suffered a humiliating defeat in Punjab earlier this year.

Not surprisingly, rebellion in the party’s ranks has grown.


Beyond Loyalty to Gandhis

Over the years, the effort to check the rise of regional satraps, even those who have delivered, has further weakened the party – Sheila Dikshit in Delhi, Tarun Gogoi in Assam, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana, and Amarinder Singh in Punjab, to name just five.

Where will all this lead? No one in the Congress still believes that the party will split nationally.

Historically, the group that has broken away has, at best, achieved the status of a regional party, the only exception being Indira Gandhi parting ways with the Syndicate in the late 1960s and going on to lead the main party.

Till recently, what held the Congress together was neither a common world view nor a commitment to an agreed set of goals, but loyalty to the Gandhis. Now, even that loyalty is wearing thin and questions about the dynasty’s right to rule the roost are being raised. The G-23 letter in 2020 was the first to hint at this, even though it was not made explicit and sources have indicated that Kishor had also echoed this view in his advice.


Not Just Disillusioned, But Fed Up

A generational transformation has not taken place and the “incremental” changes have made little impact (reports suggest that the Old Guard still favours “incremental” changes as it gives them yet more breathing space). Indeed, the party is yet to be “emancipated from the rootless wonders and spineless creepers who have held sway for two decades”, as senior leader Kishore Chandra Deo – no longer in the Congress – had said famously in the aftermath of the 2014 electoral debacle.

Sonia Gandhi still relies largely on political associates, most of whom date back to the Rajiv Gandhi-era and who have seen her through the almost 24 years (barring the brief Rahul Gandhi interregnum) she has held the presidency. Members of this group, in turn, are naturally reluctant to step down.

Rahul Gandhi lacks the fire in the belly that his uncle Sanjay Gandhi had, or the ability to seize the moment and lead from the front, something that Sonia Gandhi has done and continues to do. The party faithful had greeted his political arrival in 2004 with great enthusiasm and expectations. Today, they are not just disillusioned – they are fed up.

(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and has also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, Times Of India and Hindustan Times. 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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Topics:  Congress   Prashant Kishor 

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