Congress sinking: Muddled ideology, work-from-home strategies & inertia

Congress sinking: Muddled ideology, work-from-home strategies & inertia

Beware, the Ides of March, a soothsayer warns Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s 16th-century play titled after the great Roman general. The prophetic cautionary note, now a common metaphor for bad omen, should perhaps find resonance with Sonia Gandhi, the seemingly perpetual general of India’s Grand Old Party.

On March 13, when interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi held a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to discuss her party’s abysmal performance in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa, she faced a barrage of criticism for her failure — along with that of her son, Rahul Gandhi, and daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – for all the rot in the party. She said she was aware that many held the Gandhi family responsible for the Congress’s inability to resurrect itself politically.

Sonia offered, as she has several times in the past at the first hint of a challenge to her authority, to “sacrifice anything” for the Congress — a statement seen as an expression of intent by the ‘first family’ to withdraw from all organisational posts. Of course, unlike Caesar, who was stabbed 23 times by his comrades and closest associates, the CWC members – including Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma of the party’s ‘rebel’ group or G-23 – reaffirmed their faith in her leadership.

After a nearly five-hour discussion that did see the CWC members discuss some uncomfortable home truths — organisational inertia, ideological vacuum, inaccessibility of the high command, the party consistently ceding ground not just to the BJP but now also to AAP — the party’s highest decision-making body passed a familiar and insipid resolution. The resolution called upon Sonia to “lead from the front, address organisational weaknesses, and effect necessary and comprehensive organisational changes in order to take on the political challenges”.

Also Read: Why the Congress is still relevant, vitally so

For Sonia, the current situation she finds herself in must evoke a sense of déjà vu from that day in March 24 years ago when she first took over as Congress president after the dramatic – and ugly – revolt in the CWC against then Congress chief Sitaram Kesri.

On March 16, 1998, two days after she had formally accepted the CWC’s decision to replace Kesri with her as the new Congress president (she was officially appointed Congress president at an AICC session on April 6, 1998), Sonia addressed AICC members at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. Sonia, who had resisted pleas by Congress members to take the reins of the party for seven years after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991, told the AICC members that she had assumed office at a “critical point in the history of the party”.

She added, “Our numbers in Parliament have dwindled. Our support base among the electorate has seriously eroded. We are in danger of losing our central place in the polity of our country.”

On the eve of the 24th anniversary of her first anointment as Congress president, when Sonia sat down with her CWC colleagues to autopsy the poll rout, her Siri Fort Auditorium speech seemed more relevant than ever. After the recent decimation, the Congress is now in power on its own in just two states – Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – besides being a junior partner in the ruling coalition in Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

But unlike 1998, when she could, without accusations of shirking responsibility, claim that the challenges she was inheriting were not of her making, the present mess within the Congress affords Sonia no such luxury.

The Congress’s steadily eroding footprint – it has lost over 30 state Assembly polls and two consecutive Lok Sabha elections in the past eight years – has brought the party to a state worse off than what it was in when Sonia had first plunged into the rough and tumble of politics nearly a quarter-century ago. By the time the Congress finishes its ongoing process to elect a full-time president in September this year; Sonia would have held the party’s presidency for over 22 years. For the brief period that she wasn’t at the Congress’s helm between December 2017 and August 2019, the presidency was with Rahul.

As such, for a quarter of a century, the Congress presidency has been with the Gandhi family. Those repeatedly reaffirming their faith in her leadership assert that only Sonia can provide the stability that the party currently needs, particularly after the turbulence that Rahul caused with his penchant for disrupting the status quo-ist organisation by attempting to evict deadwood and induct younger – and thus, inexperienced and often uninspiring – whippersnappers.

Sonia had led the Congress as its president for 19 consecutive years – the highest any individual in the 137-year history of the party has held the post – before handing over the baton to Rahul. She had taken over the party’s reins after it suffered consecutive defeats in the 1996 and 1998 general elections as well as a number of Assembly polls. Though the party lost the 1999 Lok Sabha polls under her command and preference for shunning pre-poll alliances, it made a surprise recovery in 2004, when Sonia adroitly stitched together the UPA coalition, and went on to win the 2009 general elections with a bigger mandate to stay in power at the Centre till 2014.

While much blame for the Congress’s present morass is often laid at the doorstep of her son, it is a fact that the party’s decline had begun when Sonia was still at its helm. She was still Congress president when the party registered its worst-ever Lok Sabha performance of 44 seats in the 2014 elections that saw the rise of Narendra Modi as prime minister.

Though Rahul Gandhi is the target of attacks made by G-23 members, most reforms that this splinter group of erstwhile Gandhi family loyalists have been seeking are against practices that became common during Sonia’s 19-year-long presidency. Ironically, nearly every G-23 member, beginning with Azad and Sharma, personally benefitted from the very practices that they now condemn ad nauseam. Yet, the merit in the reforms suggested by them can’t be questioned.

Sonia did away with the practice of elections to various posts within the party, including to the much-coveted CWC. Instead, she stacked the working committee with her nominees; obviously, those who never challenged her authority. The last elections to the CWC were held in 1997 and the last elections for a Congress president in 1999.

One may argue that the high command culture, set in place by Indira Gandhi, was perfected by Sonia and a corollary to this was the gradual but palpable widening of the void between the leadership and the ordinary party workers. The Janata Darbars that Indira, and even Rajiv for a time, famously held to get first-hand feedback from party workers on the ground was replaced with a system of garnering second-hand information through a select coterie of confidantes, who often generously seasoned this feedback with their own biases and self-serving agenda. The public outreach programs and padyatras that Congress was famous for in the 1970s or even 1980s have all become history; replaced with hurried dashes during election season.

In the 10 years that the Congress-led UPA was in power, Sonia made little effort to rebuild her party in states where it had already lost ground when she had taken over the Congress’s command. Thus, the Congress continued to atrophy in Uttar Pradesh (barring a surprise and substantial improvement in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls), Bihar – states where the post-1990 Kamandal and Mandal churn in politics had put the BJP and caste-based parties on the ascendant at the cost of the Congress – Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Gujarat, etc.

Also Read: How BJP’s revised one-on-one strategy made them win UP again

And through this all, while the RSS-BJP combine or even secular, regional allies of the Congress continued to expand their base, the Congress witnessed steady attrition of leaders as well as usurping of its traditional citadels by rivals.

By the time Sonia began pushing Rahul to the party’s vanguard, making him general secretary, then vice-president and eventually party chief, the Congress had already lost much of the political ground it once was a natural claimant of. Rahul merely hastened the decline with his wanton disruption that stemmed from a fatal combination of evidently poor understanding of electoral politics and an uncanny knack for showering key party positions on people who had little to show in terms of organisational or electoral strength.

A chunk of the original Team Rahul and NextGen faces of the Congress – Jitin Prasada, RPN Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ashok Tanwar, Pradyot Debbarma – have quit the Congress at regular intervals; most have made their way to the BJP.

The Wayanad MP, who couldn’t even retain his family turf of Amethi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, has, however, continued undeterred, working behind the scenes to push personal favourites for key responsibilities with no audit of their evidently poor performance. As such, leaders like Jitendra Singh, Randeep Surjewala, KC Venugopal, Devendra Yadav and others continue to hold crucial organisational posts despite losing successive elections or presiding over the rout of the party in assembly polls in states where they were sent as in-charges.

Simultaneously, the party’s ideology too has become hard to decipher. While there is no doubt that the Gandhis, particularly Rahul and Priyanka, are vociferous in their condemnation of the RSS-BJP’s communally divisive agenda, they have been complicit in diluting the party’s Nehruvian legacy of separating religion from politics. Flaunting their ‘real Hindu’ credentials, chanting Hindu shlokas at election rallies or as part of poll campaign songs and hopping from one temple to the other while staying conveniently silent on the BJP’s venomous attacks against Muslims has become the hallmark of the Congress.

A muddled ideology, absence of mass outreach programs, promotion of uninspiring leadership and preference of the Gandhis to largely work-from-home and make only intermittent electoral outings have found a permanent place in the party’s standard operating procedure. So has the Congress’s unique proclivity to create challenges for itself.

Consider how the party created an unmitigated disaster for itself in Punjab months before it went to polls. It was at the behest of the Gandhi siblings that Navjot Sidhu began his revolt against Amarinder Singh in Punjab last June. The Gandhi siblings pushed ahead with Sidhu’s appointment as Punjab Congress chief, despite resistance from Singh and a majority of the party’s MPs from Punjab as well as several MLAs.

When Singh was made to resign as Punjab CM, the high command decided to shun Sidhu’s aspirations and named Charanjit Channi as CM instead. The mercurial Sidhu went on a warpath against Channi, while former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar opened a front against both Channi and Sidhu. As Punjab Congress went into a tailspin, the Gandhis gawked helplessly at the unfolding chaos that eventually cost the party its re-election bid.

At Sunday’s CWC meet, Sonia sought to take the blame for the self-goal her party scored in Punjab. She conceded that she had been “protecting” Amarinder Singh despite adverse reports against him. Whether she was speaking as Congress president or a protective mother trying to shield her children from further criticism, notwithstanding, the Punjab story was a clear pointer of how stunted the Congress’s internal mechanisms of sound feedback and rational decision-making have become.

The CWC has now decided to organise a ‘chintan shivir’ (brainstorming session) after the ongoing budget session of Parliament concludes on April 8. This had been a long-standing demand of G-23 members like Manish Tewari to find that elusive flight path which would put the Congress back on a trajectory of electoral revival.

However, no amount of brainstorming will help the party if its leadership refuses to acknowledge its own failures and keeps pussyfooting on crucial challenges. The Congress is also presently in the midst of finishing its internal process for electing a full-term president. A large chunk of Congress leaders and workers have been demanding that Rahul be re-instated as party chief when the election takes place in August-September.

Also read: Will AAP’s Punjab win strengthen India’s alternative political front?

The Wayanad MP has remained non-committal and rumours have once again begun on the possibility of the Gandhis pushing a loyalist for the post instead of keeping the hot seat for themselves. Either way, the election of a full-time Congress president will take place just months ahead of the assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal where the party will not only face stiff challenges from the ruling BJP but may also have to contend with a contest from the AAP, now formidable since its stunning victory in Punjab.

The new Congress president – Rahul, Priyanka or some figurehead who will hold in the post with the blessings of the Gandhis – will already have a litany of challenges to address whenever she/he assumes charge. Whoever replaces Sonia may want to borrow her Siri Fort Auditorium speech of March 1998 and begin rehearsing it already – even 24 years later, it won’t require much tweaking.

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