As the Congress lurches from one crisis to another, it desperately needs the emergence of an alternative leadership to take charge of the party and pull it back from the brink of oblivion.
The once-powerful Gandhi family today appears helpless in handling the intensifying factional battles in the party’s state units, preventing the continuous desertions from its ranks or providing any direction to its hopelessly demoralized cadre.
With the party’s “first family” losing its touch and credibility, there is an emerging section in the Congress which believes the Gandhi family should step aside and hand over the baton to someone from outside the family fold who can fix the internal organisational mess and get it battle ready for the coming electoral challenges.
Mountain to climb
However, this is no easy task. To begin with, the Gandhi family is unlikely to “retire” voluntarily. Though Sonia Gandhi is not in good health, she can be expected to continue as interim president of the Congress till her son Rahul Gandhi can be persuaded to return as party chief once again.
At present, Rahul Gandhi holds no formal position in the organisation (he is a party MP) and yet it is the Nehru-Gandhi scion who has been leading the party’s recent election campaigns and handling the crisis in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and other state units. His sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has also stepped in to help douse these bush fires in the states. In the process, she is now yet another power centre in the party.
While the Gandhi siblings have met with little or no success in restoring peace among the warring leaders, Rahul Gandhi has failed to deliver electoral victories for the Congress and, lately, he and Priyanka could not prevent Gen Next leaders from deserting the party. For instance, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada and Sushmita Dev were known to be members of what is referred to as “Team Rahul” and yet they did not hesitate to jump ship once they realized that Rahul Gandhi was proving deficient in rejuvenating the Congress.
While it is clear the pro-change lobby in the Congress does not have the numbers or the capability to stage a coup, an effort was initiated last year by a group of senior leaders, now known as the G-23, when they shot off a letter to Sonia Gandhi, making a case for an overhaul of the party organization and internal elections.
The letter writers, which included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan, also underlined the need for a more visible party president. The subtext here was self-evident: this was a vote of no-confidence in Rahul Gandhi and they wanted a new leader, preferably a non-Gandhi.
However, it has been more than a year since the G-23 wrote that letter. Sonia Gandhi did convene a meeting with the letter writers where action was promised but nothing has come of these deliberations.
On the other hand, the G-23 leaders have made no headway in their campaign for internal elections and an organisational overhaul. As for a leadership change, they have not been able to articulate their demand in clear terms and instead couched it in calls for a “full time and effective” leadership, elections to the party’s working committee and the constitution of a “institutional leadership mechanism” to guide the party. This stems from the realisation that most of the members of this group (with few exceptions like Hooda) are not mass leaders and will, therefore, find it impossible to float a separate party.
A dinner hosted by senior leader Kapil Sibal recently for both the G-23 and other opposition leaders, exposed the group’s limitations in pressing ahead with its campaign. If the letter writers believed they would become a rallying point for other disgruntled and unhappy party members, they were proved wrong. The group has not expanded—instead it has shrunk after Jitin Prasada left to join the BJP.
The organisers had hoped to add to their numbers by persuading other party heavyweights to join them but to little avail. For instance, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and rebel leader Sachin Pilot who were extended an invite for the Sibal dinner, did not show up. The addition of Nath and Singh was meant to add gravitas to the group but Amarinder Singh’s capitulation to the party “high command” came as a real disappointment.
The only other option for the group is to project a young credible face with pan-India acceptability who can emerge as an alternative to Rahul Gandhi. Though Pilot has the potential to evolve into a leader of national statue, chose not to join the Sibal dinner probably because he has already burnt his fingers once when he tried to lead a rebellion against his bete noire Ashok Gehlot last year but was forced to beat a hasty retreat when he could not muster the numbers to topple the Rajasthan government.
Wait-and-watch modeThe G-23 has now decided to wait it out till the next round of assembly elections. If the Congress fares poorly in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa in the 2022 polls, it will strengthen their case for a leadership change. They also hope that a poor performance will embolden many fence sitters to join them.
If the Gandhi family is continuing in the saddle despite the fact that they are unable to revitalize the party, it is not because no one in the party genuinely wants it to remain in charge. It is because the various factions in the Congress are unable to sink their differences and forge a consensus on a common name.
As it is, state leaders are presently embroiled in a battle royale as Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab, Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh are busy battling each other for the spoils of office. Moreover, most regional satraps are influential in their respective states but lack a national presence.What this eventually boils down to is that the Gandhi family retains control of the Congress even though it has lost its raison d’etre: winning elections and keeping the party united.