The road to some sort of respectability for Congress will come not from a change in its central leadership but by making that leadership largely irrelevant and instead giving strong regional politicians the chance to grow.
The better-than-expected showing in Haryana and, to a lesser extent, Maharashtra, suggests that the Gandhi family should now encourage the emergence of leaders in the states of the kind that Indira Gandhi actively cut to size through the 1970s and 1980s.
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai says the strong regional leaders were the bedrock of Congress strength in the past, with their capacity to bring the party to power in their respective regions on their own, even if they were often at loggerheads with the central leadership.
“Later this High Command culture came in, starting from Indira Gandhi’s time, with all decisions left at the Gandhis’ doors,” he said. “It’s time Congress invests hugely in the leadership of the states. Currently, states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Bihar that have more than 200 Lok Sabha seats have no leaders to steer Congress.”
The latest elections showed how a 78-year-old Sharad Pawar, once a Congressman, rebuilt his regional party NCP in Maharashtra and how an aggressive veteran Bhupinder Singh Hooda pulled Congress out of a morass in Haryana.
When the Congress gave a free hand to state leaders veteran Kamal Nath, Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia in the Madhya Pradesh elections, it managed to end its 15-year- long exile from power in the state. Similarly in Rajasthan when Congress reposed its trust in former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, the party managed to come back to power last year.
What is most striking is that Congress could perform well in Haryana under a local leader at a time when there is deepened confusion over the central leadership. While Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally in these polls, Rahul Gandhi, who quit as President months back, addressed a few meetings but did not interfere in the management of elections, keeping an arm’s length from key decisions like ticket distribution.
AICC Secretary Communications Pranav Jha argues that as the only organically evolved all-India party which held at least 20 per cent of votes even in the last elections, the Congress is still the only national alternative.
“It is, of course, true that our state units are on the front foot of beating the BJP,” he said but added quickly: “However, state results don't always get emulated in the Lok Sabha elections and vice versa as many examples show.”
Congress has to look back only a decade to find the concrete benefit of having a tall leader in a key state.
The late Y S Rajashekhar Reddy won 30 and 33 seats respectively for the party in the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls, playing a key role in the formation of UPA-I and UPA-II governments, Kidwai recalled.