Congress' Udaipur roadmap gets marred by party’s leadership issue
The three-day brainstorming session or Chintan Shivir of the Congress party that concluded in Udaipur, Rajasthan, last Sunday (May 15) was mainly meant to revive the party after a series of electoral setbacks. The party has for years been in disarray. And it needed a roadmap to rev it up to life where it can win back some of its waning sheen vis-à-vis the BJP.
Thus, Congress has come out with a declaration at Udaipur alongside a programme for mass contact with people and agitation against the ruling party. But the question is how far this can take the Congress when it has been dogged with the leadership issue right from the day of its defeat in the 2019 general elections?
No doubt that the main public face that the Congress had in 2019 in Rahul Gandhi, and which it continues to have even today, is quite well-intentioned and sincerely devoted to the party. But he gets, or may look, angry, anguished and unduly anxious at most of the times whether justifiably or not so. This is all the more conspicuous since his party is known for being pacifist and its mandarins cool and calm where they could take a detachedly considered and mature view of things even under most trying circumstances that have thus far posed numerous challenges before them in the long and chequered history of their party.
These two rather contradictory traits of the leader and the party betrayed hardly any signs of change through the three-day Udaipur conclave of the party and are also unlikely to go away any time soon.
Among other things, this mismatch of sorts has created a communication gap between the de facto leader of the party and its ranks on the one hand and it has the potential, on the other, to send confusing signals in the public arena in future. It is more so since the variance in the attitudes of Rahul and his senior party peers remained unresolved even after the Udaipur show of the party.
This divergence becomes all the more crucial and also difficult to overcome, since it is in the party’s higher echelons rather than coming from its lower rungs or having been created by the outright rivals or other parties. It had also played a role in Rahul’s quitting the post of Congress president soon after the party’s defeat in the general elections held in 2019 though at that point of time the Congress Working Committee (CWC) showed willingness to shoulder the responsibility for the debacle collectively.
This episode inevitably brought Rahul under the sharp gaze of political pundits and ever since it remains so or even gets accentuated through social media. Rahul left the decision to find his successor or another party president to the CWC, saying that through the electoral battle of 2019 he often found himself to be alone (courtesy the indifference of most other party leaders, particularly seniors among them).
Sonia fills the void
Sonia Gandhi took some time to come in once again and fill the void thus created though this is on a temporary basis. Yet, eventually, or in about a year or so, the question of a permanent or proper party president to take the party forward resurfaced. The issue could not be resolved at the Udaipur Shivir also and will at best take a few more months to be sorted out or get more clarity.
A likely outcome of this kind of limbo is that Rahul may well have to continue his push for the party somewhat alone though at Udaipur Sonia’s call for Bharat Jodo Yatra (Foot-march to unite India) is broad-based. No particular leader has been designated to lead the show and the entire party has been called upon to join the street march from Kanyakumari in the South to Kashmir on the northern end, beginning October 2. The day marks Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary; and it also brings echoes of Gandhiji’s 1942 Bharat Chhodo or Quit India call to drive out the British.
Yet, Sonia appeared to be acutely aware of the state her party is caught in when she spoke though briefly at the end of the Shivir. In a rather lighter vein she noted that seniors of the party (indicating towards none-too-happy party peers due to the absence of clarity about the top leader of the party ever since Rahul resigned from his post) would join her through the stretches she would cover alongside other party-persons during the long march from one end of the country to another.
Though Sonia called Congress her larger family the party remains more like an old and large Indian joint family marked with its usual estrangements among cousins, uncles and aunts over their place in the clan and may be over share in its assets with a sense of entitlement. This can well make them to look to the head of family with some hope or even right. Similar squabbles in Congress among party satraps has thrust the role of family matriarch upon Sonia and she tried to play it well at the Udaipur meet as has also been the case with her since before.
GOP’s squabbling children
Given the differences festering among the warring children of the grand old party, chances are that Sonia may have to become regular party boss from being the interim president of the party just to keep a balance between the differing folks of the party. This is a role that cannot be expected to be fulfilled by Rahul at least at this stage.
So the most obvious message that the Udaipur Shivir has brought is that Sonia’s health is getting better than what was the case before when she had to be in hospital both in Delhi as also abroad. This, indeed, holds hope for the Congress that finds itself in a precarious zone for myriad reasons which are too daunting to be left in anybody’s hands other than Sonia. She has helmed the party since 1998 with only a couple of years’ interlude or so when Rahul became party chief.
Sonia’s stewardship of the Congress invariably reminds of her sacrifice as she said no to the post of Prime Minister after United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by her won the general elections held in 2004. Ever since the choice of Dr Manmohan Singh to become Prime Minister which was made by her is coveted. And it is more so in these times of economic hardship that majority of Indians have come to face because of various reasons and the mishandling (as per the Congress) of one crisis after another by the current government.
Thus, Sonia again getting firmly ensconced in the driving seat of the party can be a harbinger of hope; and this has visibly been the case at Udaipur for most Congresspersons.
Half a dozen groups that sat through at Udaipur for long hours tinkering with ideas under different heads or subjects assigned to them have given their reports to Sonia. These are related to both running the party and the country. The result was a mix of both savoury and not so savoury recommendations. Thus, all of them could not find a place in the Udaipur declaration made by the Congress party. The most startling recommendation relates to filling half the party posts with people under the age of 50. This has been accepted and is likely to change the complexion of the party to at best suit the succession of Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi (in case Rahul does not relent and takes the reins of the party) as Congress president.
This is bound to cause consternation among G-23 leaders, the ginger group, demanding structural reforms in the party to build collective leadership through election for all party posts, including that of the party president.
Moreover, the induction of youth on a large scale up to a top party body like CWC can rob the Congress of the kind of sagacity that the party is reputed to have shown whether at critical or not so critical moments in the past.
The declaration adopted at Udaipur also proposes setting up of a training institute for party workers to strengthen the ideological foundations of the party cadres. This shows the need for grounding of party workers before they take responsibility of making important decisions. So the youth has first to be trained rather than being given crucial party posts via a fixed quota and at the cost of required merit and skills for decision making.
Rahul versus the old lot
It is no secret that the older lot of leaders in the Congress has reservations about Rahul’s ability to mount and sustain a real challenge to the BJP under current circumstances. Yet, the fact is that Rahul invariably draws sizeable to huge crowds in his public shows. This has also been the case with his visits to Telangana and Gujarat before the Udaipur Shivir and in the tribal parts of Banswara district in Rajasthan on the very next day of the last weekend’s event at Udaipur.
Thus, the short point is that Rahul’s continuing prominence has upset the status quo in the party and it has thrown up a vexed question about the party’s leadership. The expectations with the Udaipur session of the party to sort this out remain far from being met.
Yet, the party has tasked Rahul to mount an ideological battle against the BJP and RSS under Sonia’s watch. She has so far been holding together the motley crowd of Congresspersons with remarkable success. The answer to the question of whether this will be able to make a difference or not for Congress hinges on the kind of support that the Bharat Jodo Yatra proposed by Sonia Gandhi gets from the people.