The Congress moves half a step
The key outcome of the Congress’s first in-person working committee meeting in 18 months on Saturday was a decision to proceed with internal party elections. Except that these internal elections will take place over the next 11 months, and the new Congress president will be elected only by the end of September 2022. If Rahul Gandhi had not resigned as party president right after the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, and remained president, the end of 2022 is when his five-year term according to the party constitution would have been ending in any case. So, the Congress is almost proceeding as if nothing has changed in the interim — even though, in this period, after it lost a second successive Lok Sabha election, it failed to win back power in Haryana and Assam; got decimated in West Bengal; lost its most important troubleshooter and political manager in Ahmed Patel; has been managing internal crises in Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and a part-rebellion in Delhi; lacks a clear leader or road map for the 2024 election; and is facing a challenge from others in the Opposition in multiple states.
To offset the sense of drift in the party as a result of these setbacks, to neutralise the perception that decision-making in the Congress is now taking place across three centres of power, and to send a message to internal critics, the party’s interim president, Sonia Gandhi, said that she was a “full-time” and “hands-on”president . She also emphasised the principles of “unity, self-control, discipline, and keeping the party’s interests paramount” as essential for the party’s revival, and claimed that she had always been open to frank inputs but there was no need to speak to her through the media. All of this was a clear signal to G-23 dissenters and others who have voiced discomfort with the current set-up.
The fact, however, is that no one in the Congress has any objection to Sonia Gandhi’s leadership — she remains universally respected in the party for her success in bringing the party back to power in 2004 and 2009, holding the Congress together, and building bridges with other forces. But she has made it quite clear that she is just filling in, and so the party is right to ask, who next? With Rahul Gandhi not taking over formally or expediting elections, but retaining all levers of power (increasingly with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra), the Congress may well continue in this state of limbo for another year — even as the ruling party steps up its preparations for 2024.