The Congress makes a safe choice | HT Editorial
For two-and-a-half months, ever since the Lok Sabha results and Rahul Gandhi’s decision to quit as the party president, the Congress has remained utterly directionless. It could not choose a party president. It has been paralysed in Parliament in the face of a government which used the first session of the Lok Sabha to push through a range of legislations. It was been divided on issues as critical as the change in the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir. There has been a steady stream of exits from the party, with even senior functionaries switching over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Factional feuds have broken out in multiple states. A coalition government in Karnataka has fallen. And in Delhi, the rift between the ‘old guard’ and younger leaders has played out in various ways.
It was in this backdrop of a serious existential crisis that Congress has chosen to return to Sonia Gandhi as the party’s president for now. The decision itself happened after a day of intense deliberation - where Rahul Gandhi was urged to reconsider his decision but he refused; Priyanka Gandhi did not agree to take up the job; and no consensus candidate could be found. And the party went back to one of its longest serving presidents, Mrs Gandhi, to take charge. It is a telling testimony of the state of the Congress today that it could neither find an acceptable leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family fold, nor could it sustain the generational transition which kicked off with Mr Gandhi’s elevation in 2017.
The choice will bring stability to the party. Mrs Gandhi is universally respected. The daily desertions of leaders may stop - and the decision may well prevent a larger exodus that could have followed if a more controversial non-family leader had been picked. Mrs Gandhi will also be able to stitch together broader opposition unity, given her stature and excellent links with leaders in other regional forces. But her challenges are enormous. Now 72, Mrs Gandhi may not be able to get back to the ground and revive the party organisation bottom-up, where the cadre is demoralised. The ideological challenge - where the Congress has not been able to come up with a coherent response to BJP’s form of nationalism - is severe. The party faces a real electoral challenge and prospects in the next set of state polls look bleak. There is a younger, aspirational, restive younger generation of voters who do not find the idea of a family-run party attractive. BJP also now has a counter to Mrs Gandhi’s own strong welfarist politics with its own set of housing, water, electricity, gas cylinder, and health policies. The Congress may be able to regain some order with Mrs Gandhi at the helm, but the task of revival and rejuvenation will be the real test.