Till Priyanka Gandhi gave it a breather two days back, the Congress was in the news for the wrong reasons. Quite likely, it will be a short breather. Embarrassing dramas are unfolding in the three states the party currently holds on its own. In the few states where it remains a key contender for power (Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh), state units are either busy bickering or struggling with inertia and defections.
Beyond these diminishing zones of relative comfort, there is little hope. The party appears reconciled to its reduced status in at least three large states — Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Kanhaiya Kumar and Nana Patole, who possibly have ambitions of resuscitating the party in their home states — Bihar and Maharashtra, respectively — have an unenviable task ahead.
Vast Ground is Lost
The Congress’ only serious revival effort in a large state, in Uttar Pradesh, under Priyanka, no less, is a work in progress. Priyanka’s current stand at Lakhimpur may change things, but then, it may not. A similarly bold and astutely-timed intervention in Hathras could not.
Internal rumblings in the Congress, gathering steam ever since the rout of 2014, have loudened further lately. Understandably. For there is no visible plan to retrieve the vast ground lost — indeed, more of it seems to get casually surrendered every day — and politicians get restless when the prospect of power diminishes, the road to it starts looking rockier.
The younger Gandhis, Priyanka and Rahul, have offered the occasional sign of hope with a grand gesture or statement, but that hasn’t happened often enough. Neither is the party machinery imaginative and nimble enough to capitalise on any spark the Gandhi siblings release. And none of it has translated into a flattering electoral record.
The Congress has been contending with indiscipline, lethargy, and questions around the First Family’s stewardship for some time now. The present circumstances are unusually pressing for two reasons.
One, the political turf is getting crowded. ‘Moditva’ can no longer be dismissed as a brief and misguided rightward lurch in popular mood. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is eying the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) space in ‘two-party’ states. Mamata Banerjee is fashioning a giant tent for anyone but the BJP, and people, among them disgruntled Congresspersons, have started checking in.
Moreover, the Congress itself needs to think twice before getting aggressively expansive in Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
This is no time for the party to have foes in both the ruling and the opposition camps. Not a good time to spread its limited resources thin either.
Two, the First Family is under unprecedented heat from within. Of course, they have seen internal criticism before, but things are qualitatively different at this point. The dissenters aren’t just politely calling for broad introspection on the party’s future or reflecting on leadership issues as one among many organisational challenges. They are underscoring the leadership issue as central and urgent, and their tone is less deferential than Congresspersons are said to reserve for the First Family.
The Current Fire Will Fizzle Out, Too
The case being made out is for a more involved, full-time leadership, and for the Gandhis to step aside if they aren’t inclined to invest the time and energy in the job. The real worry is that Priyanka and Rahul may not match up to their mother in terms of strategic thinking, polity-wide credibility, and vote-catching ability. And therefore, among other things, they may not have the weight to play the single-most-important role the Gandhis are expected to in a multi-strand party — being its binding glue. The siblings’ inability to keep sparring camps in check in state after state has confirmed the suspicion.
That the Congress is facing a set of challenging circumstances — external and internal — has been recognised for a while in political circles. What is changing though is the view on whether the First Family can navigate the party out of the crises. For long, there was the belief that the First Family would hold the party together and see it through the toughest of times.
Now, after Sonia Gandhi’s quasi-retirement, a spate of electoral reverses and defections, and clear challenges in keeping even basic order in the house, nobody is particularly sure. There are those who are inclined to give the younger Gandhis a longer rope. But others are impatient, convinced it is time to explore other options. Lakhimpur will be used to support the case for a long rope. Skeptics will cite déjà vu. They have seen energy bursts fizzle before.
Would a presidential election solve the problem? Not really. Irrespective of who wins, whether one of the Gandhis, someone they endorse, or someone who challenges them or their endorsee, there’s little chance of the party harmonising its efforts.
Panic over the future has set in, skepticism and rancour now run deep and will resurface with every electoral setback, every internal skirmish, adding downer to downer every time. There is some solidarity being conjured after Priyanka’s current detention. It will last only till the next high-profile exit occurs, the next tussle escalates. Given the way things are, it shouldn’t be long.
Congress's Confused Positioning is Also to Blame
Something more fundamental is needed because the dissonances are rooted in a set of fundamental questions the Congress has been skirting around for a while. Is Hindutva-lite the antidote to Hindutva-Moditva? Should the party take a left turn as far as its economic stances go? Should hawkishness be the defining feature of its foreign policy? Is it time to stop prioritising the experience-youth balance and back younger, hungrier women and men to take charge?
The Gandhis, Rahul especially, have clearly signalled where they stand on these questions. Their detractors within the party have a different take. The differences are irreconcilable. A party cannot be secular and Hindutva-leaning, leftist and neo-liberal, dovish and hawkish, all at the same time. A large part of the Congress’s problem has been that it has been trying to do precisely that, with predictably confused positionings and predictably disastrous results.
It is time for the younger Gandhis to assert themselves not just on the ground but within the party, read out the riot act, and ask all Congresspersons to make their choice.
The sceptics can go, rather than be allowed to gnaw at the party edifice from within. It will be a purge that has been due for a long time. There will be anger, regret, and fear for the party’s future among the cadres, and managing those emotions won’t be easy.
That’s no reason to let things drift. For far too long, the Congress has gone into electoral battle with troops unconvinced of their own politics. There may now be an opportunity to wade into the arena with a smaller but far more committed force. What if the younger Gandhis don’t want to bite the bullet? In that case, they must pave the way for someone who will. India’s largest opposition party deserves it. Fighting lonely battles is important. But war looms, and someone needs to take charge and raise and galvanise the troops.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)