The Congress at crossroads: For India’s grand old party, it’s now or never
The party must also move to decentralise decision-making in the party. Even today it has many promising faces across states who can lead the party in their own rightanalysis Updated: Oct 23, 2016 18:14 IST
Last week, all 16 MLAs of the Congress from Odisha rushed to the national capital to press for a change in the party’s state leadership. The meeting of the MLAs with vice-president Rahul Gandhi, which came amid speculation that the former had threatened to quit, underscored the festering organisational challenge the Congress party faces.
It also highlighted the growing impatience and frustration within the Congress cadre, especially in states such as Odisha, where the party is often found helplessly watching opportunities slip away.
The Odisha episode is not a one-off development. On the contrary, it has become a pattern.
Beginning with Assam, where one of its most formidable leaders, Himanta Biswa Sarma, walked out to script a historic win for the BJP in the state earlier this year, the party has seen a series of revolts across states. Earlier this year, it lost its government in Arunachal, when rebels MLAs walked out to install a BJP government. The same episode just stopped short of repeating itself in Uttarakhand and Meghalaya months later. In June, six of its 10 MLAs in Tripura quit to join Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and in Chhattisgarh, former chief minister Ajit Jogi quit to float his own party. Jogi was widely seen as someone who could bring the Congress back to power in the tribal state, which goes to the polls in 2018.
More recently, factionalism has intensified in poll-bound Punjab, where the ruling Badals stand discredited among the electorate and the Congress has a real chance of returning to power. But that prospect is being challenged by debutant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The seat of power in Chandigarh had always rotated between two parties until the Shiromani Akali Dal bucked the trend in 2012, returning to power for a second straight term. It was more about Congress losing than the Akalis winning a contest that the former fought amid intra-party squabbles. Five years on, cohesion within its ranks eludes the party in Punjab.
Bad news has also come in from the other, and more critical, poll-bound state — Uttar Pradesh, where its former state president Rita Bahugana Joshi decided to walk into the BJP’s fold. Joshi’s exit may not have much bearing on the electoral arithmetic in UP, but it did give a handle to Congress baiters to reiterate how the party might be getting further marginalized in the country’s most populous state. Joshi, who had been sulking for more than a year and had been talks with both Samajwadi Party and the BJP, could have been handled better, but not when the party chooses an outsider like former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate in UP.
What is at stake
About a dozen states go to polls between now and 2019 when India holds its next Lok Sabha elections. These include BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa and Chhattisgarh, where the opportunity for the Congress to ride on anti-incumbency awaits to be tapped.
For Congress, the challenge lies in balancing the interests of party veterans and legacy leaders with the push for a new brand of politics and a new order that Rahul Gandhi would like to see his party embrace.
Sample this. In Haryana, its new leader Ashok Tanwar, a close aide of Rahul, has been at odds with the established order represented by former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda; in Odisha, the MLAs want Prasad Harichandan, a JNU-educated youth leader, to be replaced by a veteran because he is seen as lacking experience and ability to mobilise people and resources. In states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where younger leaders have revived the party’s prospects, they have seen little help come their way from veterans.
At the core of all these lies the inability of the party’s central leadership to provide clarity on an organisation roadmap and its strategy for the future. When Rahul Gandhi became vice-president in 2013, it was seen as a matter of time that he would take over the reins of the party. Three and half years on, the suspense continues, creating an environment of uncertainty that keeps most party leaders worrying more about their future than the party’s.
If the Congress is serious about its future, it must also move to decentralise decision-making in the party. Even today it has many promising faces across states who can lead the party in their own right, but find themselves digging a lonely furrow. This needs to change.
It is time the grand old party read the writing on the wall.
The author is executive editor at Hindustan Times and tweets as @rajeshmahapatra
The views expressed are personal