On Friday afternoon, as soon as it was clear that the Congress was heading towards a humiliating defeat, a local Congress leader led a small crowd to the party’s Delhi headquarters to shout slogans that said: "Bring Priyanka to save the Congress." That demonstration was soon dispersed. But it was just one sign of how a sizeable number of people within the Congress feel.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi with party vice-president Rahul Gandhi during a press conference at AICC headquarter in New Delhi after their defeat in general elections 2014. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
In public, the Congress may try to ring-fence its vice-president and face of the party’s campaign in this year’s election, Rahul Gandhi, and shield him from attack but in private they — both young and old alike — have no qualms in expressing their lack of confidence in his leadership. Some want Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who is expected to devolve more powers to her son, Rahul, to continue to be hands-on at the helm of the party.
Others, like the man who led Friday’s short-lived demo, want her daughter Priyanka, pointing to the fillip that she provided briefly to the Congress’s campaign when she was canvassing for votes in her mother’s and brother’s constituencies in Uttar Pradesh.
It’s simple. The Congress can have any one to lead it as long as it is someone from the family — mother, son or daughter; take your pick. On the day of its defeat, Amarinder Singh, the former Punjab chief minister who won the Amritsar seat by defeating BJP leader Arun Jaitley, told the media how he felt that Sonia Gandhi should continue to lead the party for some more time.
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The same evening, after the Congress’s president and vice-president publicly took the blame for defeat at a curiously abrupt media session, a senior Congress leader admitted to one of my colleagues that the "Congress cannot think beyond the Gandhi family; the family is Congress and the Congress is family". Congressmen say that the Gandhis are the cohesive factor that holds the Congress together, pointing to the years between 1992 and 1998, when the Congress, then headed by people not from the Nehru-Gandhi family, faced disintegration.
The unfortunate truth is that the Congress is nothing without the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi may have attempted to democratise the party at the ground level and, more recently, its candidate selection process, but at the top, the party leadership is anything but democratised. And much of the Congress’s troubles stems from that.
Look no further than this past election to see how. Begin with Rahul Gandhi being empowered to lead the campaign but refusing to be his party’s prime ministerial candidate in an election where the other side had clearly projected one right from the start.
The Rahul-led Congress campaign was not only out of sync with reality (it failed to judge what people really wanted) it was also anachronistic and irrelevant to today’s upwardly mobile urban and rural electorate.
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Men sit under a banner carrying a portrait of Congress president Sonia Gandhi outside the party office in New Delhi. (Reuters Photo)
You can blame the Congress leadership itself for that disconnect. Rahul Gandhi’s record in politics, as an MP, as a senior party office bearer, or as a campaigner has been marked more by absence rather than presence. Many within the Congress feel that he and his tightly knit group of advisers are unconnected not only with ordinary people but also with others in their own party.
As the Congress turns to post-defeat introspection, chief among its priorities will have to be a reality check — that could get it closer to the pulse of the people and what they really want from a government. That’s the easy part. The more difficult (and, least likely) one will be a review of whether the Congress should continue to be led by the members of one family. After all, is it all that outlandish an idea? The Congress, which is said to be a centrist party, need only look at a rightist party, the BJP, or a leftist party, the CPI(M), to see that leaders can rise to the top via democracy and not dynasty.
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