The Congress has four choices now
How the Congress party deals with the current crisis will prove who was right: Those who argued that the Congress must perish or those who believe that the party still remains the best available option to challenge the hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
It must first ask itself whether the demands made by the signatories of the letter to Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, are legitimate. The letter from 23 senior leaders of the Congress seemed a genuine attempt to draw attention to the fast-eroding support base of the party, especially among younger voters. It highlighted the leadership challenge, and made recommendations for organisational rejuvenation. And given that several of these signatories come from diverse social segments, with considerable political experience, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that many within the party (even those who rallied behind the Gandhi family) share the sentiments in the letter. No one, either during the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting or in television debates, has criticised the content of the letter. The criticisms were limited to the timing and the motives of the signatories.
After the showdown at the CWC meeting on August 24, there are four possible scenarios. And it seems the Congress party has opted for the least preferred outcome.
First, Rahul Gandhi takes over as the president in the next All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting and promises to take up the demands made by the signatories. This would be the most optimal outcome. However, the optimal outcome is rarely the eventual outcome in politics as the game not only involves strategic decisions, but a range of other variables. In such a situation, shallow loyalties may be rewarded and even mild criticism would be unacceptable.
Second, there is a split in the party. With most formal positions held by pro-Gandhi family camp, it is almost impossible for dissenters to force the Gandhis to step aside. But the pro-Gandhi camp cannot also go for indiscriminate purging, as some signatories are heavyweights and may well walk out of the party. However, it is unlikely that there will be any major vertical split in the Congress in the near future. There is little possibility of a 1969 or a 1977 sort of national split as a large section of the Congress base still associates the party with the Gandhi family. Furthermore, during the two national splits earlier, it was a Gandhi leading the rebellion against the party.
Today, there is not a single leader within the party who can mobilise voters across states or has the resources to sustain such a formation in a lean period. There are a few who can do so in their respective states though.
Why does India’s grand old party no longer have enough leaders with a substantial mass base and how did the Gandhi family become synonymous with the party? Though this history is well known, it is worth reiterating. The increasing interference of the Congress high command in state politics during the Indira Gandhi (and Rajiv Gandhi) years neutralised the emergence of independent centres of power within the party. State leaders were appointed (or dismissed) by the high command in a whimsical manner. The unwillingness to nurture strong state leaders allowed the Gandhi family to stay pre-eminent in the party.
Third, the Gandhis decide that no one from the family will be party president, and ask for a non-Gandhi to lead the party. This is not an easy option. Will the new president be given the space to act as an independent centre of authority? Will the new leader be free from pulls and pressures if the Gandhis continue to play favourites? Will the new leadership have the full support of the party cadres across the country? And, what about the fear among many that the Congress will fragment if a non-Gandhi leads the party?
And fourth, a policy of active marginalisation of dissenters is pursued. The composition of new party committees for the two Houses last week, in particular the selection of Gaurav Gogoi of the Gandhi camp as the deputy leader in the Lok Sabha over other senior figures who dissented, suggests this is the most likely course of action. This is not a fruitful option as all sides are likely to lose, but this appears to be the direction the party is taking. The Congress has opted to drift along without tackling the crisis head-on. Perhaps we may witness more examples of people expressing dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the party with greater frequency. But it is unlikely that there will be a coup d’etat or ruthless purging. As serious restructuring and re-imagination of the political agenda seem unlikely, political attrition will become a norm. Some leaders may join the BJP, others may go to regional outfits as in the case of Tripura.
What does the Congress need to do to overcome this state of inertia? The party leadership must realise that whatever the party’s projections of its electoral strength, in reality, the party is getting marginalised. It can no longer continue in the belief that it is an umbrella party with a national presence. The party needs to make a realistic assessment of what revival means for it. In any state, where the party has slid to the third or fourth position, be it Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, it has never recovered. With depleting resources to contest against the BJP machine nationally, the absence of a popular acceptable face to take on Narendra Modi, organisational atrophy, ideological confusion, and formidable challengers in many states, it must act wisely and urgently.
Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal