India’s oldest political party, the Congress, today stands divided between the ‘loyalists’ and the ‘critics’. The fault-lines run so deep that it has reached a stage where the very existence of the organisation as a single, undivided and unified entity stands threatened.
In popular perception, the party looks so vulnerable that it is unworthy of challenging or taking on the ruling BJP or any adversary for that matter. The question that is being widely asked is whether there is a way out for the Congress, or if is it going to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
There aren’t definitive answers, but the problems and its genesis are well known. At present, the party is divided between a few ‘yes-men’ or ‘loyalists’, who are always out to please and charm the top party leadership, and ‘critics’ or dissenters seeking a change at the top.
A burgeoning section of the second-rung Congress leaders are seeking replacement of Rahul Gandhi. This is a new development as only a few months ago the same leaders were requesting him to take up the mantle and lead the party instead of prevaricating. His ‘on’ and ‘off’ political activism has been off-putting these leaders. As compared to Rahul, party leaders are sympathetic towards Sonia Gandhi as she is suffering and keeping an indifferent health. Coronavirus and related restrictions have further restricted her space. The loyalists, on the other hand, keep reminding that the party has had several crises in the past and has always emerged stronger. The critics rebut this saying that the situation on the ground has changed and the argument doesn’t hold good any more.
The degree of sullenness of the party men may vary but they are unanimous on one issue — that the party is going wayward and the drift is due to lack of leadership. This must be arrested immediately, they say. There are still some fence sitters in the party but they are expected to wither away as the internecine battle is getting from bad to worse with each passing day.
The genesis of the crisis could be traced to the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president in the wake of party’s humiliating defeat in the 2019 general elections. Now, nearly 18 months later the issue has come to head with party’s poor performance in the Bihar Assembly elections.
The Congress failed to take on the NDA despite the incumbent facing popular resistance. The inept handling of COVID-19, the hardships caused to hordes of migratory labour, 15 years of incumbency and widespread employment were readymade issues that the Congress failed to cash in on.
Rahul’s detractors in the party say that months before the Bihar polls, they had warned against the top leadership’s lack of focus on issues faced by the people. As many as 23 Congress leaders, who soon came to be known as G-23, had written to Sonia in August seeking among other things the need for a change in the leadership. After the Bihar debacle, the same issues have once again been flagged by former Congress Union minister Kapil Sibal. This has been decried by Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary, the party leader in the Lok Sabha, besides other loyalists.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram, in a recent interview to a Hindi newspaper, bemoaned the party’s poor performance not merely in recent Bihar polls but also by-elections held alongside it in several States. Chidambaram is not a signatory to G-23 petition.
The crux of the problem
To cut the long story short, the party’s current main woe lies in its inability to make its stalwarts put their heads together and speak in one voice. This is despite the fact that besides the electoral drubbing, the party’s top leadership has been facing individual investigations and cases. Cases are slapped against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Chidambaram and Karnataka strongman, DK Shiv Kumar. The latter two were arrested and had to seek bail in courts. Despite such trials and tribulations the party leaders have not been able to come to terms with themselves. They say there is a ‘generation divide’ between Rahul and his supporters on the one side as opposed to much older second and third rung leaders on the other side.
This has resulted in a ‘virtual revolt’ by the second-line party leaders at the Centre against the ‘High Command’ and its select band of managers. The loss of a large state such as Madhya Pradesh in the recent by-elections is seen as direct outcome of the conflict.
The old guard of the Congress has raised its banner of revolt after a class of younger leaders seen close to Rahul Gandhi deserted him. It began with Jyotiraditya Scindia, who left the party in Madhya Pradesh and joined the BJP; Sachin Pilot kept the party on its edge in Rajasthan by crossing swords with Ashok Gehlot; Navjot Singh Siddhu in Punjab is unable to reconcile with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh; former Union minister Jitin Prasada in Uttar Pradesh has openly expressed his displeasure with the top leadership. All these new generation leaders were once seen close to Rahul.
Grievances against Rahul
While quitting his post as party president, Rahul blamed party higher ups for failing to stand by him and attacking the government in the run up to the 2019 parliamentary polls. The other side was miffed as he was inaccessible and had surrounded himself with ‘gatekeepers’ who won’t let him know the ground realities. They say that this has resulted in a communication gap between the leadership and the cadre.
The dissenters cite the example of a former Union minister from Uttar Pradesh who was close to the younger Gandhis. He has been writing letters to Priyanka, Rahul and Sonia highlighting the issues on the ground but did not got a reply until Samajwadi Party leaders reached out to him. The MP, an active Congress leader, belongs to a family of politicians who have been Congress loyalists for generations. Such treatment of veterans has irritated several party men.
Is there a way out?
Interestingly, howsoever badly divided the Congress may be, Rahul’s detractors do not deny his or his family members’ ability to influence the electorate and catch votes for the party. What they lament is the weakening of the party’s base and structure that limits its outreach. They are upset over the shrinking opportunities for them to grow within the organisation. Chidambaram seemed to reflect this when he pointed out in his interview, “I am more worried about the by-poll results in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. These results show that the party either has no organisational presence on the ground or has been weakened considerably.”
According to many party-men, persons handpicked by Rahul have complete sway over the Congress. They can give or block access to Rahul and Sonia. Besides, most Congress leaders feel that Rahul should become more consistent both in his interactions with party leaders and the general public if he wants to stay in the business of running a party like the Congress.
The current sad state of affairs dogging the party is further worsening with the recent illness of Sonia’s point-man Ahmed Patel, who acted as a bridge between the leadership and old guards. A party insider speculated that Patel’s illness for the past two weeks or so has stalled a possible showdown or exodus of more leaders from the party.
Party insiders say the top leadership has to take initiatives to redeem the party. A few senior leaders are still hopeful that the ‘high-command’ will devise a mechanism (like it did during the Manmohan Singh rule) to build bridges with the party. Sonia chose to be head of national advisory council which served as a bridge between a group of experts headed by her and the government. Such a mechanism made Congress welfare-ism possible which benefited the party in the 2009 polls. This did not work in 2014 when Narendra Modi countered this with a promise of directly crediting ₹15 lakh to every person’s account and ushering in ‘Acchhe Din’, or better days, for everyone.
As for the other side, or the disgruntled group, the few well-meaning leaders still in the party say that both the dissenters and the top party leadership have to find a common purpose to first keep the party together and subsequently strengthen it. The leaders hoping for a reconciliation say that a consortium or a group of well-meaning Congress hands should be formed to take the party out of its current stalemate.
Given the current level of animosity between the two sides, this looks more of a pious wish.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He can be reached via Twitter @abidshahjourno)