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Congress Leadership Crisis | Internal rebellion is an intermittent problem

As the Congress is facing rumblings from within in its state units in Punjab and Rajasthan, the central leadership will do well to understand that succumbing to such pressure tactics is not an option 

June 15, 2021 / 10:47 AM IST
(Image: Twitter/@SachinPilot)

(Image: Twitter/@SachinPilot)

The latest episode of Rajasthan Congress MLA Sachin Pilot and his band of followers playing out in the state, brings to the fore a crisis that keeps recurring intermittently in the Indian National Congress. It stems out of a problem in which the vaulting ambitions of leaders eager to take the centre-stage crosses a delicate line that converts healthy competition into a rebellion.

Over the last two decades, a period that coincides with Sonia Gandhi’s tenure as its president, the Congress witnessed similar efforts made by sons of influential party leaders of heft. There are limited options. For those who moved away from the grand old party to chart an independent course, a handful struck political success, while some quietly tiptoed their way back to the party.

A quick glance leads to the discovery of the likes of Kuldeep Bishnoi, GK Vasan, Jagan Mohan Reddy or the latest in the series being Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada. Pilot can follow the path of any of these fellow travellers to draw appropriate lessons.

Take the case of Bishnoi, catapulted on to the national stage in 2004 winning the Bhiwani Lok Sabha seat by trouncing two heavyweights, Surender Singh and Ajay Chautala, both of whom like Bishnoi enjoyed a rich political lineage. All three were sons of heavyweight Haryana leaders who also were the Chief Ministers.

Yet over a period of time his differences with the Congress grew after the party backed Bhupinder Singh Hooda as Chief Minister, as against a strong pitch by Bishnoi’s father Bhajan Lal. It was natural for these differences to drive the gap wider in the state unit of the Congress. Eventually, it translated into a fall out and Lal floated the Haryana Janhit Congress.

Close

Contrary to calculations, the nascent party could not garner enough seats during the 2009 assembly polls. After a brief tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Lal’s death, Bishnoi merged his party with the Congress. If Lal, known for accumulating the non-Jats to emerge as a leader, hoped to transfer his political legacy to his sons, it remained unfulfilled.

Crossing across the Vindhyas, in Tamil Nadu the Congress and its fortunes withered since the advent of Dravidian parties in the late 1960s. The altering landscape put an end to the Congress rule which shone under a towering leader like K Kamaraj. Its presence dwindled over a period of time and the party kept afloat striking a working power-sharing arrangement with the Dravidian parties to mark its presence in Parliament from the state and the legislature.

GK Vasan is the son of legendary Congress leader GK Moopanar, who was closely associated with Kamaraj. Like Kamaraj, Moopanar remained an influential figure both in state politics and in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) till he fell out in 1996 with then Congress president and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao over the decision to continue the Congress’ tie-up with J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Moopanar floated the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) that also had P Chidamabaram, and the party entered into an electoral pact with M Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to reap a rich harvest.

After Moopanar’s demise in 2001 and under pressure of the TMC cadre and the changing scenarios, Vasan merged the TMC with the Congress. After the 2004 general elections, Vasan was inducted into the Manmohan Singh Council of Ministers. He was one of the youngest to be given responsibility of the state unit of the party, an attribute Vasan shares with Pilot.

Vasan remained a reluctant minister whose grip on the Congress’ state unit was challenged and he drifted away to re-launch the TMC (Moopanar) a few years ago. The party has an alliance with the ruling AIADMK-faction that helped him re-enter Rajya Sabha in April 2020. In the recent assembly elections, Vasan’s TMC contested six seats in alliance with the AIADMK, but failed to secure a seat.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy offers a radically different picture. The son of erstwhile Congress leader and former Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, Jagan Mohan Reddy opted to confront the Congress central leadership after his father’s death in a helicopter crash in September 2009.

Rajasekhara Reddy kept pushing another tall state leader and Chief Minister Vijaya Bhaskar Reddy. Among his friends was Sachin Pilot’s father Rajesh Pilot, whom Rajasekhara Reddy backed while he challenged Sitaram Kesri for Congress presidency.

The Congress central leadership was in no mood to accommodate Jagan Mohan Reddy as a Chief Minister in 2009 even though a majority of legislators backed him. One can call it a case of mishandling that forced Jagan Mohan Reddy out of the party to form the YSR Congress in 2011.

Jagan Mohan Reddy struck electoral success in 2012 with his party winning a clutch of by-elections and in 2014 it emerged as the second-largest party in the Andhra Pradesh assembly. The Congress was routed and the grand old party is still struggling to piece together the shredded canvas, while Jagan Mohan Reddy stormed to power in 2019.

There is also another lesson here. Through the time she led the party as its president between 1998 and 2017, Sonia Gandhi empowered Chief Ministers to carry on with the task of governance while tackling dissidence largely through accommodation. Rarely the party president affected a change of leadership, and here Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh can vouch, as he tackles dissenting MLA led by Navjot Singh Sidhu.

All put together, for the Congress leadership succumbing under pressure is not an option — irrespective of the political price.
KV Prasad is a senior Delhi-based journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Jun 15, 2021 10:43 am

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