Lacking leadership, is Congress in terminal decline?

Lacking leadership & resources, is Congress in terminal decline?

Congress has been unable resolve the leadership issue after Rahul Gandhi's resignation as party president in 2019

Congress has bigger problems than the declining popularity of the Gandhis as vote-catchers. Credit: PTI file photo.

Two stalwarts lost to Covid the same week, an election result marking it out yet again as a liability, a Muslim leader threatening to eat its cake, and a thoroughly confused cadre: The Indian National Congress’ miseries are multiplying.

When the party came in with a pathetic 52 seats in the Lok Sabha elections (barely an improvement on an all-time low of 44 in 2014), analysts may have thought things could only get better from there. They were wrong.

The deaths of former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi and key troubleshooter Ahmed Patel in quick succession have underlined that time is running out for veterans on whose strength the party once dominated the political scene. Earlier this year, Congress lifer and royal Jyotiraditya Scindia flounced out of the party into the waiting arms of the BJP. Lower in the hierarchy, no one knows what to do. 

So the party is caught in a cleft stick: The old generation (with which President Sonia Gandhi identifies) on the way out, the middle generation going through existential depression (and occasionally raising the banner of revolt) and the younger generation thoroughly unprepared for responsibility. Elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala loom, and more embarrassments could lie ahead.

Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai feels now the transition in the Congress is set to be speeded up – from a Sonia Gandhi-led old guard era to a young generation party led by Rahul Gandhi, the ever-reluctant monarch-turned-crown-prince, but adds that just a face isn’t going to make a difference.

“What ails Congress is the inability to offer an alternative to the voters. Individuals and ‘chhehra’ (face) are inconsequential,” he says, while noting that dissenters have the choice of either putting up with Rahul’s whims or shipping out to an uncertain future.

Congress has been in constant ferment ever since Rahul quit as president after the 2019 pasting. When 23 leaders wrote to Sonia demanding a 24x7 leader, it was quickly interpreted as seeking a non-Gandhi at the helm.

The conventional wisdom is that only a Gandhi can hold the party together. This may or may not be true, but the days when a Gandhi face would win votes are long gone, and the importance of this as a factor is dwarfed by the other problems the party has.

Congress voters are a confused lot: What do you do when your MLAs shift to the ideological enemy, the BJP, at the first opportunity? This has happened in Bihar, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, helping the BJP either to form a government in the state or win Rajya Sabha elections. And it’s not just the cash-rich BJP that has been able to wean away Congressmen: Even regional parties like the JD(U) have done it repeatedly. The lack of leadership, ideas and money is taking a toll.

The strategy of piggy-backing on one regional party or the other has also run its course. In fact, parties are falling over themselves to move away from the Congress. In Bihar, the alliance with the RJD cost the regional party a shot at power; now the RJD complains bitterly of being arm-twisted into giving Congress more seats to contest. HD Deve Gowda’s JD(S) in Karnataka fell out with Congress, paving the road for the BJP. In electorally vital Uttar Pradesh (polls in 2022), the Samajwadi Party, an ally in the last elections, has already said it would prefer to get into bed with smaller parties. In Tamil Nadu, where Congress is counting on the DMK, its bargaining strength is falling by the day.

The BJP’s strongarm tactics across India resulted in a section of Muslims rallying behind Asaduddin Owaisi’s All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Bihar. This will cost the Congress: Muslims who used to rally behind the national party as a bulwark against communalism now seem to prefer a religious party over a secular one. This could be lethal in Bengal and UP. 

The Gandhis have also committed one strategic error after another. In Assam, they lost strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma in 2015 to protect Gogoi. Sarma helped the BJP form a government there, and now Gogoi is gone. Veteran Virbhadra Singh forced Congress to make him the CM face in Himachal in 2017. He lost, is now facing corruption cases, and there is no second rung. In Punjab, there is no alternative to Captain Amarinder Singh, a rare – and famously independent – CM, who will be 80 when the state goes to the polls in 2022. The Gandhis couldn’t stop younger leaders from humiliating three-term CM Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and now the party is a joke in the Capital region.

Scindia’s exit cost the Congress Madhya Pradesh and for a while, rumours swirled that its MLAs in Rajasthan were cozying up to the BJP to topple the Ashok Gehlot government. Gehlot will be 72 when the state next goes to the polls in 2023 and there is great bitterness with Sachin Pilot, removed from the Deputy Chief Minister’s post this year for rebellion.

Running out of options

So what can the party do? 

“We need to empower leaders, decentralise decision-making and create a fresh political culture, where one is rewarded for performance and not for being part of a cabal or a sycophant. It is possible, but we are losing precious time,” says former spokesman Sanjay Jha, who was sacked from the party for not toeing the line.

Time is an invaluable commodity when one is up against the formidable electoral machine of the BJP, but there is no indication that this wisdom has dawned on the leadership, shown by the paucity of credible young names.

When Rahul stepped aside, the youngest name (briefly) discussed as a successor was Mukul Wasnik , at 61. Others were Mallikarjun Kharge and Amarinder (both 78), Meira Kumar (75) and Ashok Gehlot (69). Former PM Manmohan Singh is 88 and Gandhi family loyalist A K Antony is 79. This when nearly half of India’s population is below 25 years and the average age of Indians is 29.

The party has only looked absurd in its bid to win Hindu votes by declaring Rahul a ‘janeudhaari Brahmin’ and a ‘Shiv bhakt’. Now with AIMIM eating into its minority vote, it needs to come clean on its stand on contentious issues.

The state elections in four states in 2021 will show whether the party is in terminal decline or only going through a prolonged slump. The problem is, unless it acts soon, a slump could turn into something far deadlier.