Salman Khurshid’s latest comments on what ails the Congress is in line with the criticism mounted by several leaders who are suddenly taking on the Congress leadership. Khurshid has accused Rahul Gandhi of walking out as Congress President “in a huff”, thereby preventing the party from analysing the reasons for its defeat. Before we come to what ails the party, let’s look at its present condition.
The sniping in the party comes on the eve of the October 21 elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, where the party is fighting with its back to the wall.
Not consulted about tickets in Maharashtra, Sanjay Nirupam, who headed the party unit in Mumbai till recently, has threatened to leave the organisation. Ashok Tanwar who was divested of party presidentship in Haryana on the eve of the elections has spoken in a similar vein. Jyotirditya Scinda, eyeing party presidentship in Madhya Pradesh and engaged in a battle of wits with CM Kamal Nath and Digivijaya Singh – Scindia was once considered to be the closest to Rahul Gandhi – has publicly called for the party “to introspect”.
Along with other “younger” leaders like Milind Deora and Deependra Hooda, he had welcomed the abrogation of Article 370 by the BJP, exposing the total confusion that prevailed in the party on its Kashmir policy.
What took the cake was the public call of Sushil Kumar Shinde for a “merger” of the Congress and the NCP, because both parties had become “tired”. This, 11 days before polling in Maharashtra. Naturally, the BJP latched on to it to underscore the sorry state of the two parties, and many were left wondering whose side Shinde was on.
Any Congressman knows that a merger exercise, if serious — and some have advocated the return to the Congress of all those who left the party at one stage or another, like Sharad Pawar, or Mamata Banerjee or Jagan Reddy — has to take place behind the scenes. And made public after the Ts have been crossed and the Is dotted.
But what propels these Congress leaders to act in this way now? The fact is that while some are trying to buy protection from potential cases which might be unleashed against them, and the message of someone as powerful and legally and financially endowed like P Chidambaram behind bars, is not lost on them.
These leaders may calculate that they might ward off cases by attacking their own leadership which would please the BJP dispensation. Others have their political futures to worry about. If the Congress collapses like nine pins, what is there in store for them?
The leadership vacuum
The Congress party suffers from many ailments but the central crisis that afflicts it today can be summed up in one word — leadership. The absence of a leadership which can mount an effective challenge to Narendra Modi is the root cause of the Congress’ continuing decline. Given the position that the Congress enjoys even today as a national party, clearly the leadership in the Opposition has to come from the Congress, and not from regional parties.
The country views with a wariness any motley group of parties coming together to offer a challenge. Agree or disagree, a strong, decisive and presidential type of leadership seems to be what the country, particularly the aspirational class, and the youth, want today. And ‘leadership’ (of Narendra Modi) is the reason why the BJP has been on the upswing during the last five years, in power (with allies) in 21 out of 29 states, and with 303 Lok Sabha seats in its bag. But in 2019, the Congress virtually stood still in the Lok Sabha, and is in power only in four states and one UT today.
It is not just the loss of power in states, it is the deep demoralisation that has set in in the party leadership and its rank and file that is disturbing.
There is little doubt that Rahul Gandhi was no match for Narendra Modi, though he took on Modi, more stridently than any other opposition figure. A very large number of people feel that he does not have what it takes to run a country like India.
Rahul’s sudden exit has made the crisis of leadership even more acute in the Congress. Though Sonia Gandhi stepped into the breach, as the most acceptable figure in the party, she has made it clear that she is a stop gap arrangement, given her ill health, and that does not generate a sense of public confidence.
Moreover, it is Sonia’s old team that is calling the shots again in her name, displaying the old, jaded ways of conducting politics and decision making. They have no idea of how to counter an aggressive Hindu nationalist party driven by an ideology and a 24x7 political leadership, displaying a killer instinct for power, and backed by a centralised command structure. And most important, with a large mass of Hindus having got Hinduised, lending the BJP dispensation support and legitimacy.
The implication of what Salman Khurshid has said is actually quite chilling. Once Rahul Gandhi had submitted his resignation - and surely he had the right to quit and make way for someone else to lead - there was no one in the party who was willing even to call a meeting, formal or informal. Or put in place an interim arrangement, if Rahul was not to be persuaded to take back his resignation. Or even to meet, simply to 'introspect' and 'analyse' the reasons for the party’s rout - the very demands which are being raised today - five months down the line.
The senior most leader of the party is empowered to take charge in an emergency situation. If he did not act, surely ten concerned leaders could have petitioned him to do so. Or called a meeting themselves. Or publicly mounted pressure that such a meeting be called. But no one stirred. The reason is simple. The Congress stopped being a political party a long time ago. It is only a conglomerate of leaders with their individual agendas.
The only thing the party can do, which could help rebuild a dying organisation, is to opt for democratic elections in the party at every level. For the CWC to be put in place after genuine elections and for the next party chief to be elected through a democratic process. We have to wait and see if the Congress can find it in itself to take this step or face an existential crisis of a kind it has never faced before.
(Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator)