The Pulse

Is India’s Congress Party in Self-Destruct Mode?

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Is India’s Congress Party in Self-Destruct Mode?

India’s Grand Old Party is in need of bold and cohesive leadership.

Is India’s Congress Party in Self-Destruct Mode?

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress party.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sidheeq

The recent renovation of the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar in Punjab, the site of the massacre of innocent Indians under British colonial rule, has evoked strong criticism from several quarters. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi lambasted the revamp by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which critics have accused of “Disneyifying” the important monument, saying that “only a person who does not know the meaning of martyrdom can inflict such an insult on the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh.”

“I am the son of a martyr — I will not tolerate the insult of martyrs at any cost… We are against this indecent cruelty,” Rahul tweeted.

However soon after, Punjab Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, raised eyebrows when he described the revamp as “very nice.”

This is but one instance in which Gandhi and Singh, both Congress leaders, have spoken in discordant voices. This should be of concern to the Congress party as Punjab will vote in assembly elections next year.

Harish Rawat, the Congress leader in charge of Punjab, had to be rushed to the state to resolve the ongoing tussle between the chief minister Singh and the chief of the Congress’ Punjab unit, Navjot Singh Sidhu, a popular cricketer-turned-politician.

It is no coincidence that the handful of states with Congress governments, be they Punjab, Chhattisgarh, or Rajasthan, are all in the news for rebellion in their ranks. Last month, much to the embarrassment of the Congress high command, Chhattisgarh chief minister, the dynamic Bhupesh Baghel, herded his supporters to New Delhi in a show of strength to stamp out any challenge to his position from his party rival T.S. Deo.

In Rajasthan, the long-drawn tussle between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and the young Sachin Pilot has been put on the backburner, but only for now; the fire has not been doused.

The leadership crisis at the helm of India’s Grand Old Party is corroding its influence. With Rahul resigning as party president in 2019 after a two-year stint, the mantle has fallen back on the ailing Sonia Gandhi to steer the 136-year-old party through difficult times.

Ever since the Congress was swept out of power by the BJP in the 2014 general elections and its strength further diminished in the 2019 general elections, the party has seen desertions in droves. The most recent of these was Sushmita Dev, the dynamic president of the Congress’ women’s wing, known to be a Rahul Gandhi loyalist. Commenting on this, senior Congressman and lawyer, Kapil Sibal tweeted: “While young leaders leave we ‘oldies’ are blamed for our efforts to strengthen it [the party]. Meanwhile the party moves on: Eyes wide shut.”

When Rahul succeeded his mother Sonia as Congress President in 2017, Congress workers hoped that the sense of drift plaguing the party since its defeat in 2014 would end. But Rahul was in many ways a reluctant leader. In addition to that, his stint saw the party suffer a series of electoral losses in state polls and when the party failed to topple the Narendra Modi-led government in 2019, he resigned, accepting moral responsibility for the Congress’ defeat. Sonia was then forced to step in as “interim President.”

The crux of the problem is that there is no clarity on whether a non-Gandhi Congress chief would be accepted by the party rank-and-file or even by the Indian electorate at large, for whom the Congress has long been synonymous with the Gandhi family.

Rahul, it must be acknowledged, has been a trenchant critic of the Modi government and its authoritarian policies, including its imposition of its Hindutva agenda. But these attacks are restricted to press conferences, Twitter, and social media.

He has stopped short of hitting the streets in planned protests and crafting a sustained long-term strategy to oust the BJP. In fact, he has the reputation of not being consistent in his political engagement. For Rahul to emerge as a credible alternative to the strong albeit dictatorial leadership of Modi, he needs to offer a concrete alternative vision to voters.

Notwithstanding a host of liabilities for Modi – the astronomical price rise of gas, diesel, and petrol; the crisis set off by the demonetization of currency; the migrant labor crisis; the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; the yearlong farmers’ agitation over farm laws; the Rafale aircraft deal scam; the staggering unemployment in the country; and the crushing of free speech – the Congress has not been able to crystallize any of these burning issues into a deadly arsenal to topple the Modi government.

Moreover, the party has come in for criticism for perceptibly drifting away from its core ideals of secularism, of upholding the rights of minority Muslims, and instead pandered to populist demands for a “soft Hindutva.”

In contrast, the BJP, when it was in opposition, in the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (2009-14), harangued the Congress over the 2G spectrum scam, which later turned out to be unfounded. The BJP created the bogey of a “corrupt Congress” government until the electorate was convinced that a “tainted government” was not to be tolerated and brought in the BJP.

Importantly, every party or organization needs to reinvent itself to keep itself relevant in changing times. However, Rahul and the Congress appear to be in stasis.

What has also made matters difficult for Rahul is the power struggle within the Congress between the party’s “old guard,” whose leaders have been calling the shots for decades, and its new generation of bright young leaders, who are eager to take over the reins. Over the past few years, the Congress leadership has sided with the former, leaving a trail of disgruntled young leaders.

Rahul’s attempts at democratizing the party, including his bid to rejig the process of selecting election candidates, have also been repeatedly thwarted, forcing him to be content with implementing his plans in the Congress’ Youth wing alone.

A year ago, Sibal along with the party’s Group of 23 senior leaders (called the G23) wrote a letter to Sonia urging her to overhaul the party and its leadership. Even this did not stir the party to action.

Several of Rahul’s inner circle – the “Young Guns” as they were called, including Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, and Sushmita Dev – have quit the Congress. While the first two have defected to the BJP, Dev has joined the Trinamool Congress. Pilot, also a “Young Gun,” has been allegedly placated for now, but it’s a matter of time before the fissures reopen again.

The Congress, unlike the BJP, is not a cadre based party, where there is unwavering obedience to the leader. Therefore, the need of the hour for the Congress is bold and cohesive leadership at the top.

To be in the reckoning, the Congress must recognize that it is no longer the force it once was. More importantly, it has to put its own house in order and then come on board with other regional parties to form a formidable opposition to take on Modi.

With the BJP managing to successfully radicalize the electorate, it is no longer possible for any single party to oust the BJP. The Congress needs to also realize that regional party leaders like Mamata Banerjee, boosted by her electoral success in West Bengal, are now being seen as secular leaders with national prospects. So it is imperative that the Congress sheds its “ruling party” attitude and joins forces with other opposition parties.

If not, it might be in danger of being consigned to electoral oblivion.