Punjab Is a Wake-Up Call. Leadership Crisis Can Wreck Congress
The poor handling of the crisis by the Gandhi siblings can give a fresh lease of life to the G23 leaders’ demands.
The ongoing Sidhu soap opera and the poor handling of the Punjab crisis by the Gandhi siblings have given a fresh lease of life to the group of 23 Congress leaders (G-23) who had shot off a strongly-worded letter to Sonia Gandhi last year, seeking an overhaul of the party organisation and the election of a full-time president.
Even as the drama in Punjab was in full play and questions were being asked about Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi’s lack of political judgment, the group got an opportunity to mount pressure on the Congress leadership to highlight their pending demands.
Who Really Calls the Shots?
Kapil Sibal, senior Congress leader and a leading member of G-23, lost no time in addressing a press conference to draw attention to the continuing leadership vacuum, the spate of recent desertions from the party and the long-delayed elections for the president’s post and to the Congress Working Committee.
“In our party, there is no president. So, we don't know who is making these decisions. We know and yet we don't know," Sibal remarked in reference to the Punjab fiasco.
At the same time, Punjab MP Manish Tewari, one of the letter writers, gave a series of interviews to television news channels, in which he pointed out that four key elements — leadership, organisation, narrative and adequate funding — must be aligned for the party to move forward.
Clearly, this is not the case in Congress. For one, there is no clarity on the leadership issue. Sonia Gandhi was asked to serve as interim president when Rahul Gandhi stepped down as Congress chief following the party’s disastrous performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But, from all accounts, Rahul Gandhi, now joined by Priyanka Gandhi, continues to call the shots and take all key decisions. Sonia Gandhi merely endorses them. In other words, there is no accountability.
A Move That Backfired
On their part, the Gandhi siblings have failed to contain the infighting in various state units, and when they did make a decisive move in Punjab, it ended up backfiring on them. While Punjab is on the boil, the situation is no better in other states, where factional leaders are busy slugging it out. The weakening of the central leadership has resulted in the hollowing out of the Congress. The lack of direction in the party has predictably demoralised party workers, forcing them to look for better alternatives.
More importantly, the party has not been able to come up with an ideological counter to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the people with its brand of Hindu nationalism.
Rahul Gandhi has been attempting to position the Congress as a party that champions the cause of the poor and underprivileged sections, but it has few takers as the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi scion personally lack credibility.
Rahul Gandhi’s inability to win elections has put a bigger question mark on his leadership capabilities.
Irked by the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s tendency to wield power without taking any responsibility and getting the drift in the party, the group of 23 leaders has periodically highlighted the urgent need for a visible leadership and the conduct of internal organisational elections.
After lying low for some time, the group reactivated itself last month, when Sibal hosted a dinner that was attended by a galaxy of opposition leaders. But the senior leaders, who have banded together to seek far-reaching changes in the party organisation, hit a pause due to the lack of clarity on how they should press ahead with their battle.
As the G 23, which includes senior leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan and Manish Tewari, were mulling their next steps, the Punjab crisis provided them with the necessary opening to highlight what ails the Congress organisation and press the leadership to take necessary steps for rejuvenating and revitalising the party. They also got a chance to take an indirect swipe at Rahul Gandhi, pointing to the exit of leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada and Sushmita Dev, who were known to be his team members.
Rahul Is The Real Target for the G-23
Though the G-23 leaders have not spelt it out clearly, their real target is Rahul Gandhi, who they feel does not have the necessary qualities to lead the party. They privately maintain that the Sidhu fiasco has vindicated their stand.
The group hopes that others in the party, who have been lending their silent support, will feel emboldened to speak up after the Gandhi siblings created a royal mess in Punjab.
It is no secret that Rahul and Priyanka were instrumental in appointing Navjot Singh Sidhu president of the party’s Punjab unit despite stiff resistance from his bete noire, Amarinder Singh, or Captain, as he is popularly called. Sidhu, however, persisted with his strident attacks on Singh and eventually prevailed upon the Gandhi siblings to show the Captain the door. But act two of this drama unfolded on 28 September, when Sidhu abruptly resigned as Punjab Congress chief in protest against several appointments made by the new Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi. Needless to say, this episode has left the Gandhi siblings red-faced.
The question is, where does the Congress go from here? And this is not just about Punjab. Will it be business as usual or will more party members join the 23 leaders to press for a change in the party?
(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at @anitaakat. 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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