Congress: Portrait of a party in decline

Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh and other party leaders at a Congress Working Committee meeting. Credit: PTI file photo

Is the Congress party, India’s oldest political outfit and its preeminent political force for much of 72 years since Independence, in death throes?

The party’s current state was foreshadowed by one of its fallen chanakyas – Jairam Ramesh – who as early as 2017 had said the Congress was in a “deep crisis” and an “existential” one. His words have come true in a way, and at a pace, that perhaps nobody, perhaps not even he, could have foreseen – although he did speak of anti-incumbency being no guarantee against what was to befall the Congress were it unable to collectively face up to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah phenomenon.

Ramesh was right on all counts. The party’s existential crisis has deepened today to a point where it must be asked – quite bluntly – what does the Congress mean today? Its latest president, Rahul Gandhi, the fifth-generation legatee of the Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the title, is charting his own course after having resigned after the 2019 election debacle; the old guard – trusted lieutenants of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, are trying to keep the ship afloat somehow; the party’s MLAs whether in Karnataka, where the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance is on the verge of collapse, or in Goa, where a majority of the party MLAs broke off from the parent party to join the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seem directionless. The Congress seems to have lost both identity and function.

In one fell blow, the emergence of the BJP as the central pole of Indian politics and the unquestioned prominence of its mascot, Narendra Modi, has brought the Congress to this state. The BJP appears to have almost achieved its objective of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and the Grand Old Party’s unravelling is perhaps happening in stages. A key competent of the current crisis is Rahul Gandhi’s resignation – in a July 3 letter, he reiterated his decision to step down from the presidentship of the Congress, speaking of the principle of accountability as being the most important one. Heads must roll he proffered, starting with his.

But can the Congress be saved at this late stage by its top leadership taking accountability? Many of these questions continue to surround the Congress like great clouds of dust, as it tries in midst of the debris of a collapsing structure, to build its house again.

What we are now seeing are just the aftershocks of a massive crash, bits and pieces falling off even as some kind of internal structure struggles to hold itself together; but the signs of the party’s collapse were all around for years and years. The Congress has been in, what political scientists call, a ‘secular decline’ for a good part of the last three decades. This may have begun when Indira Gandhi, as Congress president and prime minister, centralised power in her hands and set about making various Congress state units beholden to her in a bid to retain absolute control. However, finally what has brought this giant organisation very close to rubble is the rise of the BJP – which rose through the period that the Congress declined, beginning perhaps with the Ram temple movement and culminating in the Modi moment.

So, what happens to the Congress next? And does it even matter?

According to political scientist Sushas Palshikar, India is now once again witnessing a one-party system, with no real threat to the BJP for the next five to seven years, but with significant departures from an earlier era when the Congress occupied this position.

“India now has a one-party system. There is a towering leader (Modi), the party has the full support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. State-level parties cannot present an alternative to the BJP. The Congress has to reorganise itself. Starting a new all-India party cannot be an answer,” he argued, laying out in a sense, why the future of the Congress still continues to be a matter of national debate.

But is revival going to be possible for the Congress from where it now stands? And which Congress are we really speaking of? Are we speaking of the coterie of leaders around the Nehru-Gandhis, often referred to as the ‘Old Guard’ – who, in the words of one political analyst, are gripped by the “Rajya Sabha syndrome” – or the Congress which Rahul Gandhi tried to build with people of his own, many of them bright, young professionals who have never fought elections themselves or, at best, have just an analytical grip on what it means to be a political leader vying for public office in India.

Between all of them, (some old Congress hands like Captain Amarinder Singh of Punjab standing apart), these Congressmen have neither a mass base nor anything by way of public connect. The Nehru-Gandhis were the public face of the Congress all these years and now that they have decided to pass the throne around to another more fitting contender, many are discovering that there are no chairs left in the room.

Given this scheme of things, the Congress, such as it is, can do one of two things, according to analysts. It can either hand over control to Rahul Gandhi, even if he remains on the fringes of politics, and hope that throwing in their lot with him will somehow lead the party out of the mess that it finds itself in. This can take a long while to happen with the party experimenting with an interim chief in the immediate future. The other option is of course for the party to actually splinter.

This has produced a situation that political scientist and professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Zoya Hasan, described as being in “uncharted waters”. She said: “So far, they (the Congress) have been wholly dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi family as the glue that holds the party together in the absence of a strong ideology, so to speak. Now they are in a difficult terrain. There’s a great deal of uncertainty ahead. They have to figure out a way forward.”

Hasan is of the view that this is not the end of the road for the party. “Political parties face crises. The Congress is no stranger to crises and factional conflicts but this is probably one of their worst crises. In the last few decades, the party has survived many conflicts but with each conflict, the party has got a bit weaker. I expect that they will survive this crisis as well although the present crisis is unprecedented because Congress for the first time will be out of power for 10 years (2014-24), no one from the Gandhi family will be heading the party and it faces a very powerful opponent in the BJP.”

The Congress will need to tackle three major challenges, she held. “The party has to agree or elect a non-Gandhi leader who can keep the Congress united, restructure and reconstruct its organisational structure, and, finally, project an alternative ideological narrative to the BJP.”

Can the Congress do all of that? Political thinkers and scholars such as Yogendra Yadav and Ramachandra Guha have argued for the Congress to fold up in its current form. While Guha called for the Congress to “dump the dynasty”, Yadav has spoken of the need for the Congress to “die” so that another alternative can emerge to the BJP at the national level.

Rahul Gandhi as factional chief

Much of what the Congress will do in the weeks and months ahead depends in a big way on how Rahul Gandhi will conduct himself. Will Gandhi influence the election of the next Congress chief? Will he be the mentor to the party’s next chief? According to those who are close to Gandhi, this is unlikely to happen in a way that will once again attract the dynasty charge. “The selection of the next Congress president should not be a fake process. People should believe that this is not orchestrated,” said a leader who did not wish to be named, indicating that Rahul would not be well-disposed to the idea of meddling in any direct way with the priorities of the new leader or the team the person in question assembled.

Gandhi, it would seem, is of the mind to let the party organically find a replacement for him rather than pushing someone forward as his representative. However, this does not mean that he will remain aloof from the machinations in the party. The names of a number of younger leaders – the likes of Milind Deora, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot – are being discussed as possible substitutes to Gandhi. In such a scenario, he may not be averse to guiding them but will not be seen, after having resigned, as imprinting his ideas on them about how they should conduct themselves.

From among the old guard, there is talk of leaders such as Mallikarjun Kharge, Sushikumar Shinde or even a younger face like Mukul Wasnik (who has some links with the Rahul Gandhi establishment) as possible Congress chiefs. There is all likelihood that these two factions will go head to head.

What all of this indicates is that Gandhi, despite his decision to step down from the party and remove the dynasty from the controlling position, has now become a factional chief within the party that he led just weeks ago. He has in effect become the leader of today’s ‘young Turks’ — a term used in the past to describe a group of young Congressmen with strong socialist leanings whom Indira Gandhi effectively used to keep the Congress old guard, called ‘the Syndicate’, at bay.

But if Gandhi is thinking of the Indira Gandhi model, there is all likelihood that he will falter. Though the two situations are starkly different in terms of the overall political context and the strength of the Congress nationally, the key difference is that Rahul Gandhi, for all his good intentions and gentlemanly approach to politics, lacks the political nous that came naturally to his grandmother.

Palshikar summed up the various phases through which Gandhi’s career has careened since he joined electoral politics in 2004. “In that sense, this (today) is a new chapter for Rahul Gandhi altogether. In the first phase of his career, his legacy was completely inherited. In the second phase, he made special efforts to emerge, and in this third phase, he has now emerged out of this charge of dynasticism after his resignation. Only trouble is that he appears to lack in political dimension. He does not seem to have his own political plan.”
So caught between an ex-party president who has no clear vision, or rather a vision that seems to be disconnected from the twin objectives of fighting the BJP and reorganising the party in a manner that can make it a fighting unit, and the spectre of an unstoppable BJP, what lies ahead for the Congress?

Both Palshikar and Hasan feel that matters are at a pass where one cannot predict which way the party will go. Though Hasan remained optimistic that Gandhi will be influential and hopefully use his moral capital after his resignation to push for internal elections in the party (a long-cherished dream of his), Palshikar saw it as being unpredictable.

He said the party could either head for a split and various factional leaders (as well as elected leaders) would break away from it forming new outfits or the party would “trudge along” with the old guard “buying peace with the BJP”. The third option would be that Rahul Gandhi will muster strength over a period of time to assert himself as the leader of the party again.

But in the absence of a political plan, this last road too seems to be one leading to a kind of deathless death for the party. Some still think that the Congress has an option that it hasn’t explored fully – that of bringing Priyanka Gandhi to the fore. However, the 2019 election results proved beyond doubt that the Gandhi family has lost its ability to draw the adulation of the people in the manner that it did. This is a plan that will have to be shelved, perhaps indefinitely.

Even as the Congress continued to roil, Karnataka’s political crisis reached its zenith on July 11. Rahul Gandhi was missing in action. He was away in Amethi, choosing this particular day of all days since results were announced on May 23 to visit the family pocket borough that had voted him out. Sonia Gandhi, in contrast, was back in the saddle, holding consultations with senior leaders to find a way out of the crisis.
 

This is how a Grand Old Party declines. Its future? A deathless life, but also a lifeless one.

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