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The challenges Congress faces in its future without a Gandhi at the helm

The leaders crowding the anti-BJP space lack the conviction or the political heft to fight the saffron surge. The communists, the socialists, the syndicate which fought Indira Gandhi, have passed into history or are in disarray.

opinion Updated: Jul 07, 2019 08:33 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
New Delhi
PV Narasimha Rao,Jayaprakash Narayan,Chandrashekhar
The Centre-state pattern in the political landscape is hard to miss. The numerically formidable BJP-ruled Delhi is balanced by strongly mandated non-BJP regimes in Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Chattisgarh.(HT Photo)

For decades, the Congress hadn’t planned for life without the Gandhi-Nehru family. It did live without them after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to take up the mantle.

That was the period when, under PV Narasimha Rao, the party weakened, withered and splintered, despite governmental power at the Centre. Things turned from bad to worse when Sitaram Kesari became president. The odds the party now faces are greater.

Its main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has today the popular appeal and presence matching the Congress of the Indira Gandhi era. In the Opposition ranks, including the Congress, there’s no Jayaprakash Narayan, Chandrashekhar, Atal Bihar Vajpayee, Charan Singh, Raj Narain, Jagjivan Ram, Madhu Limaye, George Fernandes, EMS Nambooridpad, Jyoti Basu or LK Advani to weave a counter-narrative, let alone turning the tide.

The leaders crowding the anti-BJP space lack the conviction or the political heft to fight the saffron surge. The communists, the socialists, the syndicate which fought Indira Gandhi, have passed into history or are in disarray.

It was their decline and the weakening of the Congress that gave rise to regional forces and faces who guarded their turfs without a national vision. Some among them, such as the Samajwadi Party, and, to some extent, the Bahujan Samaj Party, were swept aside by the BJP in the recent Lok Sabha polls.

Can the Congress, shorn of the dynasty tag, reinvent itself and be relevant in a contemporary India that’s centrally unitary and provincially federal? The contrast is inherent in the BJP’s massive parliamentary mandate and the variety of parties voted to state legislatures in the south and in the east.

The Centre-state pattern in the political landscape is hard to miss. The numerically formidable BJP-ruled Delhi is balanced by strongly mandated non-BJP regimes in Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Chattisgarh. Had it not been for the deep saffron inroads in the parliamentary polls, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-ruled West Bengal could also have been included in the list.

An acceptance of this situation is at the root of Narendra Modi’s National Ambition, Regional Aspiration (NARA) outreach. At least in words, he recognises the many hues of the mandate while promising to work with his (regional) allies for even those who voted against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The Opposition is in tatters and the BJP raring to further expand its reach. Will the impending polls in Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra reinforce or alter this unitary-federal distribution of power? Early snapshots from these states, nevertheless, show that the Congress has its task cut out for itself under a non-Gandhi.

A dispirited, moribund principal Opposition could end up strengthening the unitary against the federal. It’s here that Rahul Gandhi’s hurry to quit without a successor in place might irreparably hurt the party. Regardless of the dispensation under which it works, the Congress’s immediate goals include dousing factionalism and keeping power in the five states where it has governments. A good performance, if at all, in any of the poll-bound states could be the cherry on the cake. There, too, it has grave fault lines within, be it Haryana, Delhi or Maharashtra.

Successors to the incumbents must be identified and put through probations, as it were, in Rajasthan, MP and Punjab. Given the standards set by the BJP, electoral politics isn’t just about winning elections. It’s as much about renewed mandates.

While the BJP made a habit of it in some states, the Congress hasn’t won back-to-back elections for a long time anywhere in India.

If it manages an encore in any of the states it rules, it will lift the workers morale, and make them respect the new leadership. For that to happen, the Gandhis, including Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, will have to play the enablers on call. For Rahul Gandhi has only relinquished the presidency. He hasn’t renounced active politics.

First Published: Jul 07, 2019 07:03 IST

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