The leadership crisis in the Congress party has been brewing for a while. Two back-to-back defeats in parliamentary elections and the failure of the leadership in initiating an honest introspection have demoralised its rank and file.
The Congress party is now in a free fall. Uncharacteristic of its ethos, a group of senior and middle-level leaders have come forward and issued a notice of sorts to the top leadership— shape up or ship out. Rahul Gandhi seems to be in their crosshairs. He is the one who is supposed to be leading them both in victory and defeat.
Consistency is considered the virtue of mules. But it is the inconsistency of Rahul that seems to be killing the party. His periodic bursts of energy and sudden inexplicable absence during crucial times when he is supposed to be guiding the party have left many befuddled.
What prompted cry for ‘full-time leader’
Therefore one can understand when party leaders are seeking a “full time leader” in their letter to Sonia Gandhi. Rahul also seem to be having a knack of alienating people who are considered close to him. The betrayals or open disagreements in the last few years have come from the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Milind Deora, who were all his “preferred friends”. Scindia has quit, Sachin has returned after a brief rebellion and Milind is taking potshots at the leadership.
Rahul has perhaps unwittingly managed to turn his supporters within the party into opponents with his stand on various contentious issues. Though on a slide, Congress party is still laden with talent. There are many senior and middle-level leaders in the party who are smart, but Rahul needs to step up and co-opt them. Instead he is seen as a loner who often shoots straight at Prime Minister Narendra Modi without thinking through its repercussions.
During the run-up to the 2019 general elections, Rahul repeatedly used the phrase, chowkidaar chor hai (the security guard himself is the thief) in an effort to pin down Modi over the Rafale deal. This was seen by some within his party as Rahul wrecking revenge on the BJP which had pulled down his father Rajiv by accusing him as a beneficiary in the Bofors deal. Support from the party’s rank and file was found wanting. Similarly no one backed him when he accused Modi of mishandling the Chinese incursions along the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh.
Dynastic party vs right-wing politics
The character of the Congress, from being a party of freedom fighters to that of dynasts, began with India Gandhi anointing her elder son Rajiv, a commercial pilot, as successor soon after the death of her younger son Sanjay in an air crash. Sanjay was more the political “heir”.
By the time a “non-political” Rajiv stepped in as the supreme leader, holding the reins of both the party and the government, the rot had already set in. In what was then famous as “Congress culture,” many party leaders thrived in the license- permit raj where middlemen and brokers lined their pockets misusing public money, leaving an aspiring population craving for development.
The “Congress high command” and its “supreme leaders” during the Indira-Rajiv period ruled with impunity. The party had several tall leaders in the states and they were finished systematically. As the “regional satraps” began to lose power, regional parties started to thrive.
The rise of the right-wing coinciding with the aggressive brand of Hindutva promoted through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by the BJP-RSS-VHP combined with the growth of “backward” politics aided by the Mandal Commission report resulted in the Congress losing its traditional support bases in the north. Simultaneously the party began to lose ground in the southern states due to its short sighted approach.
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 proved to be a major setback for the party. For a brief period after his death both the government and the party were headed by leaders who did not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family. But the party could not build itself without the support of the dynasts.
PV Narasimha Rao, who tried to rally the party behind him in the Tirupathi session in 1992 failed as Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar rebelled. Arjun Singh was seen as proxy to Sonia Gandhi who was in mourning. She signalled her entry into politics in the Calcutta session of the party in 1997. But she got dislodged briefly as Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma rebelled, opposing her foreign origins.
Eventually, she became Leader of the Opposition in 1999 but had to give up prime ministership in 2004 as the foreigner issued dogged her. She however remained the Chairman of UPA-1 and UPA-2 that ruled between 2004 and 2014. This also marked the Nehru-Gandhi family dominance over the party and the government.
The rise of Narendra Modi and a new decisive leadership in the BJP have since decimated the Congress. Rahul, who should have interned either under Manmohan Singh in the government or in the party during UPA-1 & 2 regimes failed to do so. Some observers described this as“arrogance” and others described it as sense of “complacency” due to a “sense of entitlement”.
To be or not to be with Gandhis – is Congress’s dilemma
Whatever Rahul’s thinking maybe, his erratic leadership style continued even after he took over formally as the president of the party in December 2017. Some “early shoots” did spring up in the form of some moderate success in Assembly elections. But comprehensive defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections made him resign from the presidentship of the party.
Since then the party has been rudderless. Sonia was brought in as interim president but that did not work as she has been keeping unwell. Rahul and his sister Priyanka were seen doing on and off backseat driving. Though the performance of the BJP government on the GST roll out, demonetisation, handling of the border issue with China, the pandemic etc. did present an opportunity before the Opposition, they were squandered.
Congress party leaders facing an onslaught from the government and sensing a shrinking political space due to the aggressive and dominant Hindutva narrative have now turned to their leadership for succour. But there is a question mark on how far they will go with their rebellion as at the end of the day they do realise that the Nehru-Gandhi family is the glue that is holding the party together.
The dilemma therefore before the Congress is that— they cannot do without the Gandhis and they are unable to do anything with the Gandhis at the helm either.
There are only two options before the party— either Rahul Gandhi picks up the gauntlet and decides to be a decisive leader, reinvent a narrative and lead the party or simply relinquishes the position and makes way for an alternative arrangement.
But it’s a Hobson’s Choice because return of Rahul is good news for the BJP. This is because he is immediately compared with Modi and Rahul comes across vulnerable in one-to-one comparison. On the other hand if Congress claims that it has changed its policies but retains Rahul as its leader electorate is unlikely to buy it. This is what various academic studies have shown. An electorate does associate a change in party’s stand with a drastic change in the leadership. A collective leadership etc. being proposed looks improbable as that would only result in another break up of the party.
In any case it is upon Sonia and Rahul a final decision rests.