Decoding the crisis in the Congress | Opinion
This isn’t about Rajasthan. The crisis in the Congress is symptomatic of a larger crisis within the party. It is a crisis that has been in the making for long. But when a party is in power, it is possible to paper over cracks and keep goingUpdated: Jul 18, 2020 20:39 IST
This isn’t about Rajasthan — just as what happened in March wasn’t about Madhya Pradesh.
The crisis in the Rajasthan unit of the Congress — it is still unclear how things will play out — is actually symptomatic of the larger crisis in the party.
It is a crisis that has been in the making a long time — but when a party is in power, it is possible to paper over the cracks and keep going, and the Congress was in power for 55 of the 67 years between 1947 and 2014.
When a party is in power, in the Centre, and also in some states (and the Congress was in power in a lot of states in its glory years), leadership is often just about maintaining the status quo. Managing people is easy because there are opportunities aplenty to accommodate their ambitions.
But the Congress hasn’t been in power since 2014, and it has been a fading force in Indian politics since the mid-1990s — despite a surprise lease-of-life in 2004 and a brief blaze of (former) glory in 2009.
Even as it has found itself incapable of presenting a compelling counter-narrative to that of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party has been fractured from within by once-papered over cracks.
Like many problems in organisations, the Congress’ issues start at the very top. Sonia Gandhi retreated after the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle (the party won 44 seats), but it took over three years for her anointed heir Rahul Gandhi to take charge as Congress president. He introduced his own ideas, created a team which had a mix of older and younger leaders, and ran energetic poll campaigns. But with the Lok Sabha defeat in 2019 (52 seats), he resigned, and appeared to blame everyone but himself. He suggested that neither he nor anyone from the Nehru-Gandhi family would take charge — but Sonia Gandhi returned as interim chief shortly after.
There has been no effort by the party to appoint a new president — despite there being several worthy candidates. The party could have opted for age and experience, or youth and energy.
It is believed that Sonia Gandhi and some of her loyalists want Rahul Gandhi to return. And it is believed that he is reluctant. And there things stand — in limbo. No one in the party is sure of what it should do now to revive itself as the BJP marches on, even managing to effect a smooth transition of leadership from one all-powerful party chief to the next who is now clearly coming into his own.
To revive, though, the party has to look within — and that is something the Congress has shown an unwillingness to do. After its loss in 2014, it set up a committee chaired by former defence minister AK Antony, but did nothing with the report that it submitted. After its loss in 2019, the party didn’t even bother to go through the motions of setting up a committee. And so, it has been business-as-usual. There has neither been any significant national-level restructuring of the Congress organisation nor a recalibration of its ideological framework. In the absence of the two, many of the party’s younger leaders are beginning to ask: What next?
This is a generational leadership problem that is common in the world of business — companies that stop growing or which become unprofitable find it difficult to meet the aspirations of many of their younger leaders. Rahul Gandhi’s ascent to the presidency of the party seemed to signal a generational change in the Congress. But with his resignation, the senior leaders — the Old Guard in popular parlance — have returned, consolidating their control over the levers of power. Many of these senior leaders are competent, but the future of a party that needs to reinvent itself cannot be outsourced to those who are in their 70s.
The old-young divide itself is a bit of a misnomer. Many of the younger faces are in their 40s and early 50s, and have already spent two decades or more in politics. Yet, they are still being told to “wait for their turn”.
Still worse, based on what happened in Madhya Pradesh in March and is happening Rajasthan now, the top leadership of the party, the Gandhis, seem loath to intervene when a young leader, even one from the inner circle, expresses disquiet at what is happening. No one wants to mediate till it is too late, and the party lacks both platforms for grievance redressal and mechanisms for conflict resolution.
Their ambitions, frowned upon, their popular appeal, discounted, and their possible, future, role in reviving the party, not taken into account, many of these young leaders simply choose to leave.
Again, the BJP has done better on this front, although what can be said of the Congress in power can also be said of it — that there are enough opportunities to go around.
The reason why the Congress’ internal issues matter to the country at large is because they are preventing the party from doing its job — as the primary Opposition party.
A legitimate case can be made against the government’s management of Covid-19, the economy, or even the China issue. But besides perfunctory statements, the Congress is unable to mount this case. And till it can do that, voters will not repose faith in the party — be it in 2024 or 2029.
Over 110 million voters backed the Congress in 2019. The party owes it to its voters, to its own rich legacy, and most importantly, to Indian democracy, to get its act together. A first step may be to hold elections to its working committee, the highest decision-making body.