The story of the Congress’s rise and fall has been told many times before, but this time the party is at its lowest point in national politics. The big question is whether the party’s powers, ideas, and energies can be recovered, revived, and reorganised.
In the 2014 parliamentary election, the Indian National Congress suffered a historic setback. It has held a strong position in Indian politics for more than three-quarters of a century. However, this has altered dramatically, with the Congress winning only 44 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. It now has no stronghold anywhere in the Hindi heartland, having been wiped out in Andhra Pradesh, weakened in Karnataka, trounced in Maharashtra, marginalised in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and drawn a near-blank in most major states. In some states where Assembly elections are expected later this year, the party faces more electoral losses.
The story of the Congress’s rise and fall has been told many times before, but this time the party is at its lowest point in national politics. Its annihilation across the country in this election is the most serious crisis in the party’s lengthy history, even worse than the late 1970s when Indira Gandhi suspended democracy. The big question is whether the party’s powers, ideas, and energies can be recovered, revived, and reorganised.
On numerous fronts, the Congress faces a fundamental dilemma: organisational weakness, ideological stagnation, and dwindling societal support. It was once a democratic party with a powerful organisation that ran a successful political machine, giving patronage in exchange for electoral support. In most states, party organisation deteriorated dramatically from the 1970s forward. This was largely due to Indira Gandhi’s methodical efforts to transform the party into a centralised and family-centered political organisation, notwithstanding her distaste for the party’s institutional structure and framework. The reorganisation and renewal of Congress received no attention after that. The Congress not only won two national elections and ruled for two full terms between 2004 and 2014, but it also won 21 Assembly elections. However, there is no evidence that the party was able to revitalise the organisation throughout its time in office. Instead, it has produced rootless leaders and prevented strong regional leadership from growing and consolidating during the last ten years.
The Congress is well-known for having a severely depleted grassroots organisation. In 2013, Rahul Gandhi acknowledged the Congress’s dire state, saying, “I am not afraid to say that the Congress has become moribund.” There isn’t a single leader with a modern mindset… Congress has never been able to transform into a modern political party.” Despite the fact that Rahul Gandhi prioritised party reorganisation, his efforts have yielded no noticeable improvement in the party’s organisational strength. He has attempted to create internal democracy in the party’s frontal organisations, but his efforts have yielded disappointing electoral results.
Space for its Leaders
In Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, the Congress party is in terminal decline. The Aam Aadmi Party is posing a severe challenge in Punjab. It has nearly vanished in Delhi. The leadership crisis exacerbates organisational and structural issues. The party’s grassroots are searching for more than a large organisational revamp and a bold idea; they’re looking for compelling leadership and direction that can help the Congress resurrect its fortunes. After the election catastrophe, Rahul Gandhi was anticipated to take on a greater role in the party’s operations. However, as Karnataka leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s appointment as the parliamentary party leader in the Lok Sabha demonstrates, he continues to be hesitant to step on the gas. Since he was the party’s undeclared prime ministerial candidate in the election, he should have taken the job.
Whatever the case may be, the party’s main vulnerability stems from its inability to promote capable and popular leaders from within. There hasn’t been any new leadership with its own base of support. Regional leaders with strong local roots could drastically boost the state’s chances, which could then expand to national politics. Over the last few decades, the dynastic leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family has prevented new political talent from beyond the trusted circle from ascending to positions of power, immobilising the party’s organisational foundation. This has fueled a crippling pattern of sycophancy and favouritism for loyalists, isolating the leadership from the grassroots and rendering them unavailable to both leaders and workers. Despite this, the party’s faith in the Gandhis remains unshaken. Despite the fact that the leadership’s loss in this election is clear, its authority and supremacy have not been significantly challenged within the party.
The Discrepancy Quotient
In the aftermath of the huge setback, both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi offered to quit as the party’s president and vice president, respectively, but the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members not only rejected their offer but also refused to debate it. Many have criticised the family’s leadership since the defeat, but by all reports, Congressmen and Congresswomen have united behind them. Despite their many flaws and costly compromises in the face of allegations of corruption and communalism, the Nehru-Gandhis are still regarded as natural leaders of the party when it comes to shaping its fortunes. As a result, the majority of party officials and workers oppose the Gandhis stepping down, believing that without them, confusion and dissolution would engulf the party.
The party’s capacity to maintain its supporters has eroded with each consecutive term out of office. The famed Congress system had all but evaporated by the late 1980s. In the ten years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, the attempt to rebuild a social coalition through inclusive development has failed to produce a sustainable political base, despite the fact that it once embraced a broad spectrum of social groups across the country under its expansive umbrella. After more than a decade of poor and unequal economic progress, it has lost its broad support across the country, as significant caste and community groups have opted for regional and smaller parties. T
he difficulty with the Congress is that it is disliked by both the rich and the poor, upper and lower castes, and minorities. Today, there is a distinct divide between the rising urban middle classes and the Congress’ welfare agenda, which has failed to appeal to younger Indians. Its rhetoric was far too focused on supporting social programmes for the poor for the middle classes, who were increasingly preoccupied with economic growth, and out of touch with their desires. Ironically, the party has lost support among Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims to regional parties as it has lost ground with the middle classes. Unless the party rebuilds its base among these groups and the urban poor by advocating for their livelihood rights, it is certain to fall further — especially if it loses the upcoming Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, as appears to be the case.
Revival- A Question Mark
The Congress’s resurrection is contingent on its ability to address its credibility crisis, encourage state leaders, and serve as a strong Opposition in Parliament and elsewhere. Despite similarities in economic policies formed by neoliberalism, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have fundamentally different perspectives on the country in a variety of ways, particularly in terms of political and social policies. Since the BJP came to power under Narendra Modi’s leadership and his sharp-edged political vision of an India defined and ruled by the ethos and norms of majoritarianism, the threat of Hindu nationalism to the Congress has never been higher. Any attempt to reinvent itself as pale saffron in a frantic attempt to imitate the winner will only serve to legitimise the dangerous right-wing political discourse while failing to reap some of the electoral benefits from this competitive wooing of the Hindu vote. Notably, doing so in the past has backfired miserably, leading to deeper political marginalisation in north India, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Much hinges on how long Modi’s influence on the BJP’s prospects will remain. The Congress-led Opposition sees an opportunity to take on the BJP because of his government’s perceived shortcomings in dealing with rising prices and increased sectarian polarisation in the country. It can utilise anti-government protests to bring the Congress together and unite the opposition behind it.
It would be hasty to dismiss the Congress based on its past performance. However, it would be a mistake to minimise the gravity of the political challenges that India faces at this time in its democratic history. The Congress will have to rebuild itself as a credible alternative to the BJP in the long run, establishing itself as a true left-of-centre party. Its sustained relevance in the face of dramatically altered political dynamics depends on a reaffirmation of social democratic values such as welfare and pluralism. Finally, rather than being led by a well-known political dynasty, the actual key to revival is the kind of platform it embraces. It needs to stay relevant and possibly consider a return to power at the national level.
The 2017 Assembly elections highlighted Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi’s political incapacity. Instead of swallowing their pride and fighting as a junior partner of a popular regional party, the Congress was wiped out in West Bengal, where they formed an alliance with the Left. (A senior West Bengal Congressman afterwards remarked that elections are not won on Twitter.) For the second time in Assam, the Congress has been defeated. The most surprising outcome came in Kerala, where, despite the fact that Rahul Gandhi is a state legislator, power did not alternate between the Communists and the Congress for the first time in half a century.
Another example of the Gandhi family’s political incapacity is the departure of Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jyotiraditya Scindia (less so Jitin Prasada). After being denied a chance to become Assam’s Chief Minister, the ambitious Sarma switched allegiances to a party he had fought his entire life and was eventually given the job he craved. Scindia switched to the BJP after the Congress denied her a Rajya Sabha seat (which instead went to the old family supporter Digvijaya Singh). I have no sympathy for either politician and find their sudden conversion to Hindutva disconcerting, but the truth is that the Congress lost Assam to the BJP in part because they couldn’t keep Sarma, and the BJP lost MP in part because they couldn’t keep Scindia.
Fading Charisma of The Gandhi Clan
Ramachandra Guha renowned political commentator and journalist wrote a commentary in the Financial Times titled ‘Congress Party Must Get Over the Gandhis,’ at a time when it was clear that Rahul Gandhi was a haphazard politician. He wrote at the time that the ‘country’s most powerful political party is in continuous decline,’ and that this was ‘linked to the waning charisma of the country’s first family.’ He says “the prospects for the Congress are gloomy” with two years until the next general election. Due to the Congress’s dominant culture of deference and sycophancy, talented and ambitious Indians are currently discouraged from joining or even voting for it.’
‘With a younger, more focused Congress leader whose surname is not Gandhi,’ Guha suggested that the party should replace the aged and feeble Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to promote a revival. This person might then lead the Congress into the general election, demonstrating that “competence is prized over genes or allegiance.” ‘Realists and cynics would argue that the measure I offer is too radical for Ms. [Sonia] Gandhi to consider,’ I added. It may, however, be the only option to save India’s oldest political party from extinction….’
Guha further states that she was essentially whistling in the dark when Sonia Gandhi nominated her son to lead the 2014 campaign, which turned out to be disastrous. Sonia Gandhi’s son led his party to another devastating defeat five years later, this time as Congress President and with his General Secretary sister by his side. To his credit, Rahul Gandhi chose to resign, but the effect of that honourable decision was immediately nullified by his mother assuming the role of ‘acting’ President, a position she still holds 22 months later, passively watching as her party loses a series of elections and leaders to other parties.
Sonia Gandhi appears to be dead set on family dominance of the Congress, and she must be held more responsible than her son in this regard. Her top sycophants share some of the blame as well. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to defend his family over the party’s long-term interests when the ‘G-23’ letter momentarily sparked an internal dispute. On the second anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s death, former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid tweeted a photo of Rajiv and Rahul with the caption: ‘Our once and future King,’ a gesture in poor taste (a Republic does not have hereditary monarchs, as any Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court should know), but entirely representative of the Congress chamchagiri culture. This culture lives on in the circle that protects and ‘advises’ Rahul Gandhi, which is made up of cheerleaders with no political base, credibility, or knowledge.
Need To Adopt Indira’s Philosophy
The Congress party has consistently failed to absorb the right lessons from Indira Gandhi’s political legacy, which continues to weigh heavily on the shoulders of the party today.
It’s critical to take a new look at Indira’s legacy and how it affects her party’s future at this point. In the face of the surging Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its charismatic demagogue, Narendra Modi, the INC is at a political bottom since its founding and is fighting for its political survival.
Aside from showering accolades on its towering leader, the Congress must now take a minute to digest and learn from two of her most important traits, which have ensured her success and longevity in the political world.
First, Indira’s profound and unique grasp of the nation’s social fabric, as well as her one-of-a-kind connection with the Indian people, remained the key to her hegemony in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi has continuously paid attention to the shifting demands of the general public throughout her political career. With her simple yet electrifying phrase “Garibi Hatao” in 1971, she captured the hearts and minds of the majority of the poor (Remove Poverty). In contrast, she modified her political nomenclature in the 1980 elections to reflect the changing times. In the face of the Janata administration’s inadequate governance, she dropped her grandiose claims of poverty eradication from the 1971 elections in favour of a more straightforward promise of bringing people “a government that works.” And her wizardry performed wonders in both elections. Over time, the Congress Party has become increasingly estranged from the general public. However, given the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the Modi regime, rebuilding the lost bond with the people will not be a herculean feat for the Congress if they strike the appropriate chord.
Second, Indira Gandhi’s unwavering political resilience, vitality, boldness, and fine political timing are a long cry from Congress’s current crestfallen, embarrassed, underconfident, and bewildered leadership. Indira Gandhi’s remarkable political return after a crushing defeat in 1977 and a subsequent party split is a testament to her political tenacity. Her historic visit to Belchi, a riot-torn and flood-affected remote village, and her deft masterstroke of derailing the Janata party’s malicious attempts to denigrate her in every way possible, and emerging victorious from the crisis, is an inspiring model of political resurrection that Congress must embrace immediately to ensure its speedy political recovery. The Rahul Gandhi-led Congress must abandon all inhibitions and take a page from Indira Gandhi’s tenacious, imaginative, and dynamic leadership to fight back in the political world and halt the BJP juggernaut.
Utter Mismanagement and Collapse of the Grand Old Party
The Congress party is on the verge of collapse. It only takes a little prodding to collapse like a deck of cards. Another party might simply steal its latent vote share, which does not turn into seats. In Tripura and Odisha, the BJP did exactly that. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party did just that. In Telangana, the BJP is attempting to accomplish just that. That is exactly what the BJP has done in West Bengal against the Left.
The Congress is slowly but surely fading. It could take decades for the process to complete, and new factors could gradually replace it. This gradual approach might keep the BJP in power for a long period, much as the Congress did until 1989 under single-party rule. The only break in the Congress’s single-party dominance was the post-Emergency election in 1989. The Emergency infuriated the public, particularly nasbandi, the forcible sterilising of men.
Even though the opposition has been as weak and fractured as it was against Indira Gandhi, many Modi critics believed he would do so poorly that voters would drive him out as well. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, is far too intelligent for that. He also remembers what transpired in 1977, the election that gave Hindutva movements mainstream legitimacy and catapulted the Jana Sangh (predecessor of the BJP) to prominence. As a result, a replay of the 1977 situation is exceedingly unlikely.
A resurgence of the Congress party is also unlikely since Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to become a politician smarter than Modi and mesmerise the masses. It’s also improbable that he’ll hand over the reins of the Congress party to someone more capable. Even if he succeeds and the Congress elects another Sitaram Kesari, the party will begin to deteriorate, as it did under Sitaram Kesari. It might win a state or three in the next five years, but Narendra Modi will crush it again in 2024.
What’s The Matter With Congress?
The party appears to be in terminal collapse, unable to function with or without the Gandhis. The party is in chaos, with no alternative to the BJP’s election antics or its divisive political vocabulary, thanks to a weak central leadership that has strengthened provincial satraps. Is India’s Grand Old Party still a viable option?
Think about it. At least 31 of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha members are former Congress members. Approximately 120 elected Congress MLAs switched sides to the BJP between 2015 and 2020. In 2014, the Modi tsunami dropped the party to its lowest-ever tally of 44 seats, which it only marginally improved by eight seats in 2019. Madhya Pradesh has slipped from its grasp, along with Jyotiraditya Scindia, Rajasthan, and Sachin Pilot, who are lingering at the exit door of the three heartland states it won in 2018. In 2019, the party was unable to prevent 13 of its MLAs from resigning in Karnataka, bringing the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government to an end. Despite emerging as the single-largest party in both Goa and Manipur in the 2017 assembly elections, the party’s command structure’s sloth and indecisiveness allowed the BJP to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
With Nitish Kumar firmly entrenched in the BJP camp, the mahagathbandhan in Bihar, which comprehensively won the 2015 assembly election, is now in ruins. The Congress won only 12 of the 249 seats available in the 543-member Lok Sabha in the five states with the most seats: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. Only 130 of the 1,462 assembly seats in the five states are held by the Congress. In Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Tripura, Sikkim, and Nagaland, the party has no MLAs.
Nonetheless, the grand old party trudges on, as if in a trance. In Maharashtra, it took a Sharad Pawar to persuade it to support Uddhav Thackeray; in Rajasthan, it will take all of Ashok Gehlot’s political acumen to save the Congress administration. The party is stuck in an odd situation: it can’t look for leadership anywhere but the Gandhis and they can’t supply it either. Sonia Gandhi’s old guard and Team Rahul’s young Turks are fighting for control of the party’s central command. State units have become fiefdoms of regional satraps, or are in disorder where there are no strong leaders, with rampant infighting, thanks to little involvement from the central command. A handful of Congressmen, certain that they have no future in the party, have chosen to join the BJP’s winning horse. “It’s natural for politicians to seek power elsewhere if their leader can’t win it for them,” says Tom Vadakkan, an AICC insider and family loyalist who shifted to the BJP in 2019. The party does not appear to have a storey to confront the BJP’s dominating message, nor does it appear to have the organisational cohesion to take on the tandem of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Is the party, then, on its way out? Is the BJP on the verge of realising its vision of a Congress-mukt Bharat (India without the Congress), aided in part by the Congress? What is the true cause of the party’s demise? Is it feasible to resurrect it? To comprehend the current predicament, one must go back in time, specifically to the year 2003.
A Leadership Crisis Has Occurred.
A Congress general secretary known for his proximity to the Gandhi family went around asking attendees at a three-day Chintan Shivir (brainstorming session) in Shimla in July of that year to put down names of young Congressmen whom the party could train as future leaders. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora, and R.P.N Singh were among the few names scribbled on a sheet of paper on the final day of the session, July 9. All of them were handed tickets to run in the Lok Sabha election the following year, with the exception of Singh, who was already an MLA in Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, Rahul Gandhi, who was 33 years old at the time, made his electoral debut. That was the start of Rahul’s team.
Pilot, Scindia, Prasada, Deora, and Singh were appointed ministers during the next ten years when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power. K.C. Venugopal, Jitendra Singh, and Ajay Maken, all young men (by Indian political standards), also joined the Union council of ministers. Rahul avoided government responsibilities but progressed through the ranks to become the party’s vice-president. Team Rahul was prepared to take the reins of the party from the veterans.
Soon after, he left Pilot to lead the Rajasthan Congress, which included such luminaries as Ashok Gehlot and C.P. Joshi. In February 2014, he appointed Ashok Tanwar, a 34-year-old former Youth Congress president, to lead the Haryana Congress, which was led by party veteran Bhupinder Singh Hooda. These improvements appeared to show that Rahul was serious about reforming the Congress, which had been long overdue.
Rahul, as it turned out, failed his first test. In 2014, the Modi juggernaut practically wiped out the Congress. Rahul, the party’s vice-president at the time, was exempt from any guilt. It did, however, put an end to whatever well-intentioned ambition he might have had to reorganise the party. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother and Congress president, as well as veterans, opposed Rahul’s plan for a Congress resurrection, believing that meddling with the party’s structure while it was out of power would only prolong its downfall.
Rahul- An Undesisive leader
Rahul subsequently devoted himself to “long-term politics,” focusing less on electoral battlegrounds and more on moral high ground. As a result, the remark “suit-boot ki sarkar” and other social media jabs have been made. Along the way, there were several electoral victories, including a partial triumph in Bihar in 2015, a victory in Punjab in 2017, a near-winning in Gujarat at the end of 2017, and the three heartland states in December 2018. However, all of them owed more to the efforts of others than to any meaningful contribution by Rahul.
Meanwhile, Rahul’s team began to fall apart. Appointees of Rahul, such as Haryana Congress president Tanwar, Tripura Congress president Pradyot Debbarma, and Jharkhand Congress president Ajoy Kumar, have all quit the party. They began to view the place for them in the party being increasingly constrained as they were humiliated by the old guard and left in the lurch by Rahul. Rahul’s close aide said, “He despises being the referee.” However, by refusing to choose sides and sacrificing the Scindias’ and Pilots’ goals on the altar of party loyalty, Rahul only managed to alienate the very men he had trained to be his lieutenants. Scindia resigned in March, the Pilot problem remains unresolved, and in Manipur, royal scion and third-generation Congressman Rajkumar Imo Singh, 41, is poised to defect with nine MLAs, in defiance of former CM and Congress veteran Okram Ibobi Singh.
The defeat in 2019, when Rahul lost the pocket borough Amethi, fundamentally altered the party’s internal dynamics. In the election, Rahul’s team did not fare well. The party’s veterans’ voice was bolstered by the near-victory in Haryana, which was led by old warhorse Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Rather than accept responsibility, Rahul chose to resign as party president, blaming top officials for campaigning for seats for their sons rather than assisting him in his struggle against Narendra Modi, and abandoning his own men. The return of Sonia Gandhi tipped the scales back in favour of the old guard, as seen by Gehlot’s successful punishment of young Pilot for harbouring chief ministerial ambitions.
With the dispersal of leadership at the top, resentments within the party continued to simmer. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, took her time making decisions, while Rahul Gandhi remained unconcerned. “She takes a long time to make choices because she prefers to reach a consensus,” says Tarun Gogoi, the former chief minister of Assam.
Isn’t it past time for the Congress to look past the Gandhis? Rahul left the selection of the next Congress president to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) when he resigned as the party’s president. Several relatively young voices, including Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, have called for a presidential election. The CWC, on the other hand, urged Sonia Gandhi to take leadership again.
And it’s at this point that things go back to square one. The Gandhis are still the party’s fallback choice. Party officials are unified in their opinion that only the Gandhis can preserve the Congress, notwithstanding their failure to keep the house united and their dwindling ability to garner voters. According to Rajya Sabha MP and AICC in-charge Rajeev Satav, “Unlike most other Congress leaders who have a regional identity, the Gandhis belong to and connect with all of India.” “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, they are the common thread that binds every Congress worker. This was not accomplished overnight. The Gandhis have a piece of India in them, from Kashmir, where the Nehru-Gandhis have their roots, through Allahabad in the heart of India, Chikkamagluru in Karnataka, and Wayanad in Kerala.”
Others point to the period when Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri led the party, which saw several stalwarts leave and harsh infighting. Only after Sonia took over in 1998 and led the party back to power eight years later did things begin to settle down.
There is no dualism in leadership, according to Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh. “She was named president of the CWC, not interim president. An AICC session is required to ratify the decision. Unfortunately, that session has been postponed due to Covid-19. The decision will be finalised once we convene the session,” he says.
Supporters of Rahul, on the other hand, are clamouring for him to return. They feel he is the only member of Congress who makes the BJP nervous. “Why do you believe the BJP has a dozen spokespersons and Union ministers on standby every day to react to and discredit every word he says and every social media post he makes? It’s because he shakes them up by telling them the truth. “The only way they can deal with him is to mock him,” Satav says. “Rahul does not command the respect that Sonia Gandhi does,” Mausam Noor, who moved from the Congress to the Trinamool Congress in January 2019 and later became a Rajya Sabha MP, points out. He isn’t reliable. Leaders don’t have faith in him.”
If the Congress is serious about surviving, it must look beyond Gandhi. A tiny number of members of Congress are in favour of electing a new president, even if it is not a Gandhi. “Some may be driven by ambition, while others may be speaking out of real concern, but there is nothing wrong with calling for presidential elections and resolving the issue once and for all,” adds a CWC member.
Developing organisational strength
The necessity for Congress to find a new president has become critical, as the party needs to reorganise quickly in order to regain lost ground. “The organisational network is in a state of disarray. According to a Congress general secretary, there is no coordinated effort by central and state officials to reverse this.
Over the years, the Congress’s organisational reorganisation has been limited to ad hoc selections by the central leadership; a full overhaul has eluded the party. The pattern in Congress-ruled states with established faces has been to find a power balance by entrusting the government’s reins to one leader and the command of the party unit to another. However, like in MP and Rajasthan, this has frequently backfired, resulting in leadership ambiguity at the top. It’s unclear if state unit president Ripun Bora or former chief minister Tarun Gogoi is the boss in Assam. Despite calls for Bora to be replaced, the party’s high command has yet to announce who would head the party in the upcoming assembly election.
Rahul attempted to resurrect the Congress Seva Dal and turn it into an ideological backbone for the party, similar to how the RSS serves the BJP. Since he stepped down, little has changed on that front. At the top, there is also a lack of organisational rigour. AICC sessions, for example, are no longer held on a yearly basis. The CWC, the party’s highest decision-making body, only meets in times of crisis or to discuss vital matters. The BJP’s executive council, on the other hand, meets on a regular basis. Furthermore, the RSS serves as a feedback system, sending grassroots input to the party.
The AICC general secretaries, who are assigned with one or more states, relay comments from the states to the central leadership in Congress. While the intention of choosing AICC in-charges from outside the states is to gain unbiased criticism, many in the party criticise this method for fostering factionalism and the high command’s losing hold on state party matters. A prevalent accusation is that AICC in-charges rarely visit their respective states, preferring instead to rely on their acolytes. Sarma demonstrates how the feedback mechanisms in the two sides are vastly different. “In Congress, an in-charge pays a visit, meets with the chief minister or party leader, and then leaves within a day or two. In the BJP, the in-charge meets with party workers and RSS leaders and has open discussions. As a result, the high command receives the full picture,” he explains.
Rahul nominated younger leaders as AICC in-charges or brought them in as deputies to seniors in such positions to streamline feedback collection. But it didn’t matter because most of his appointments complained about not being able to find jobs, and others lacked the motivation to make improvements.
Congress, on the other hand, needs to build up its organisational framework. The fact that the Congress is not a cadre-based party puts it at a significant disadvantage when compared to the BJP and RSS’s organisational strength. Both Digvijaya and Gogoi believe the Congress should become a cadre-based organisation with regular leadership training. “The Congress has always been a [mass] movement party. It was never founded on a cadre system, which made little difference while it was in power. However, we now require cadre-based leadership and a long-term training programme for all leaders,” Digvijaya believes. He continues, “The Congress constitution is not being followed, which is why the party’s organisational functioning at all levels needs to be evaluated.” Others claim that an organisational structure is gradually emerging at the grassroots level. According to Shaktisinh Gohil, the AICC’s Bihar in charge and a member of the Rajya Sabha, the Congress now has presidents and workers in 80% of the panchayats.
In search of a philosophy
The Congress’s greatest flaw has been its inability to construct a convincing, coherent narrative to counter BJP lies. The party only answers with criticism and never offers a helpful solution to any problem. Instead of a collaborative response reached after thought and careful consideration, Rahul’s ideas are advocated as the party’s beliefs. While Rahul was the first to warn of the coming coronavirus epidemic on February 12, the party neglected to indicate what could be done differently. It criticised the lockdown and the hardship of the migrants, but it essentially advocated for some bleeding-heart economics. When asked at a news conference by India Today what his approach of decentralised handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, Rahul only managed to sound evasive, stating it was something best left to professionals. However, in video exchanges with economists Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee, this dependence on specialists did not appear to have set the anticipated discourse. Critics believe that they portray Rahul as someone who lacks his own thoughts and must rely on others for information.
Similarly, Congress has provided no alternate viewpoint on the Ladakh border conflict with China. Instead, Rahul took advantage of the opportunity to mock the prime minister’s “strongman image” and “56-inch chest,” as well as make a hazy reference to “China’s strategy to reshape the earth.” Worse, the party was forced to defend themselves after the BJP managed to turn the tables on them and held them responsible for Chinese payments to Sonia Gandhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
The ideological obscurity persisted in the Congress’s stance on difficult matters such as the repeal of Article 370, the NRC (National Register of Citizens), and the CAA (Congress-Affairs Act) (Citizenship Amendment Act). While the party struggled to express its nuanced position, leaders like Bhupinder Singh Hooda backed the abrogation, unwilling to go against the BJP’s popular nationalism narrative. The Congress was further isolated as a result of their resistance to the NRC and the CAA.
On key subjects, the party has also been accused of speaking in code. It halted then-state unit president Pradyot Debbarma from opposing the CAA in Tripura to avoid alienating Hindu Bengali voters, and it took credit for starting the NRC process in Assam. According to Debbarma, the Congress criticises Veer Savarkar yet joins forces with the Shiv Sena to create a government. Digvijaya responds that the ruling coalition’s common minimum policy in Maharashtra does not compromise Congress’s essential ideology.
Things Not going Well With Insiders
Many party leaders privately agree that the secular and inclusive worldview of the Congress is quickly losing favour in an increasingly majoritarian India controlled by the BJP’s Hindutva policies. In recent elections, the party has attempted to compete with the BJP by adopting a “soft Hindutva” persona, with leaders making public rounds of temples during poll campaigns, and Rahul himself appearing as a “janeudhari Shiv bhakt” and abandoning the yearly iftar parties. The Congress, on the other hand, was a poor clone of the original, the BJP, as seen by its drubbings in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019.
As Tharoor argues, in such a situation, the party must remain committed to its essential values. “If properly projected, the ideology of an inclusive and progressive party, liberal and centrist in orientation, committed to social justice and individual liberties, patriotic in its resolve to safeguard national security and enhance human security, still has immense appeal,” he argues.
Manish Tewari agrees that the Congress must now clarify its stance on subjects such as secularism, nationalism, and economic development. To reconnect with the people, his colleague and Congress leader Salman Khurshid thinks the party needs to grasp the “craft of storytelling.” “If you can’t tell a nice storey, someone else will. If one’s storey is better, as I believe the Congress’s is, one will win the people’s hearts and minds,” he argues.
Rahul may be attempting this right now as he seeks to spread Congress’ beliefs and goals to every home. The current flurry of videos, in which he may be seen speaking with world experts or addressing topics of national significance, serve a twin purpose: to convey the Congress’s storey and to establish his personal image as a serious yet caring leader. “For the Congress, now is the time to be even more committed to its philosophy. Only then will the party be able to battle the BJP, which is hell-bent on destroying the country’s parliamentary democracy,” says Ahmed Patel, Congress treasurer and CWC member. As the following India Today conversation among prominent intellectuals and senior Congressmen demonstrates, the party must address its leadership, organisational, and ideological crises if it is to remain relevant and possibly consider a return to power at the federal level.
Those who want a new administration in 2024 must admit that the Congress is currently the Opposition’s weakest link. The TMC, DMK, CPI(M), and RJD all have a level of energy and political ambition that the Congress, under its current leadership, lacks. Even if he is popular among some members of the Anglophone Twitterati, Rahul has a track record of electoral failure, and he has little respect among the leaders of the regional parties whose support is critical to any Federal or United Front’s success.
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