How the Congress Lost the War of Ideas (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
What do you say about the entitled leadership of the country’s oldest political party except that they seem to have a tendency to perennially shoot themselves in the foot? In May, when he finally decided to quit as party president, Rahul Gandhi seemed overwhelmed by defeat, disillusionment and bewilderment. The ground has been shifting on the socio-political front, calibrating public sentiment closer to the Right, plunging the party into a grave crisis after its decimation at the hustings. The news from the states was no better on Gandhi’s watch. Its boat had sailed in Goa, with MLAs abandoning the ship for the BJP. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress sank without a trace in the state polls and, in Telangana, the party suffered a political meltdown. The desertions from the rocky JD(S)-Congress coalition and the ensuing drama in Karnataka ended this week finally with the HD Kumaraswamy government losing the trust vote, even as Gandhi vacationed on foreign shores. The Congress was headless.
Gandhi’s quitting ended the worst-kept secret in the Congress: there was a severe leadership crisis in India’s grand old party even as the 2019 electoral landslide for the BJP threw it into complete disarray. With the meltdown of the Nehru-Gandhi family super glue that kept the Congress together for decades as a multi-interest platform, no single leader was capable of stepping into the vacuum created by Gandhi’s exit. Urgently patch-worked, over and over since the 1990s, to stall imminent crumbling, the Congress now faces the threat of being made redundant. The party had, after all, splintered in PV Narasimha Rao’s time, led by regional leaders such as Sharad Pawar, ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh, as well as GK Moopanar in the south. In January 1998, Mamata Banerjee formed the All-India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Many of them had risen to powerful positions on account of their perceived proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The recent developments have also exposed the second worst secret: Rahul Gandhi was a moody and reluctant party president at best, needing constant hand-holding by his mother Sonia Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi herself appears to have been afflicted with a compelling vision of her son as a future prime minister, following in the footsteps of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather. Also, she has remained the driving force behind his survival this long as president, fuelled by the desperation of a party leadership that is aware that without the family, the Congress would fall apart.
Increasingly, Rahul Gandhi is being seen as out-of-depth, with even people who are charitable acknowledging that he is inconsistent. Gandhi has himself admitted in private to a stubborn streak that would not allow him to change his decision once his mind was made up, as on the recent occasion. He is a reluctant politician and his frequent trips abroad, besides the way he winked in Parliament even as he professed love for the Prime Minister, had further diminished him.
Rahul Gandhi is being seen as out-of-depth, with even people who are charitable acknowledging that he is inconsistent. Gandhi has himself admitted in private to a stubborn streak
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Rahul Gandhi, at 49, has been singularly clueless about the radical changes on the ground that have impacted the Congress’ political fortunes. In a nation dominated by youth below 35, a new generation is not enamoured of the idea of dynastic leadership. To them, Rahul Gandhi smacks of someone who has benefitted from his pedigree with nothing to boast of as his personal achievement. Two of the party’s worst-ever performances have been on his watch, in 2014 and 2019. The party has lost power in state after state. After his resignation, things have taken a turn for the worse even in the few key states where it has been in power, including Karnataka, Punjab and Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, where it won by a slim majority, a daily threat hangs over Kamal Nath’s government.
That disconnect between the family leadership model, purveyed by the Nehru-Gandhis and their loyalists, and the New India has only served to highlight how much voters today despise, and refuse to subscribe to, such entitlement. That leaves the Congress in a dilemma that it will find extremely difficult to extricate itself from: the leader seen as the only one who can keep the party together has been unable to perform that role with any degree of efficiency, but the leadership refuses to think beyond the family when it comes to the political rejuvenation of the party. Paralysed by this dilemma, there is now a very real risk of the party sinking deeper into the morass of uncertainty.
Rahul Gandhi has been singularly clueless about the radical changes on the ground that have impacted the Congress’ political fortunes. In a nation dominated by youth below 35, a new generation is not enamoured of the idea of dynastic leadership
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Rahul Gandhi’s tweets on his resignation, made after his announcement at the Congress Working Committee meeting, served to emphasise his political immaturity. It partly pinned the blame for the Congress’ devastating show in the 2019 General Election on his own colleagues, claiming that they had not given him total support in the ideological battle against the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi. In his battle against the BJP, he maintained, he had often stood alone but was proud to battle on nonetheless. The Congress had consequently lost badly and, as party chief, he took the blame and had resigned. But now, he maintained, so should others. Sources in the Congress say that he virtually extracted resignations from Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora as they refused to follow suit.
This was defeatist to the core—a victim card being played overtly and a victimisation syndrome being showcased that was pinned on a thinly veiled reference to his campaign on the Rafale fighter deal and his imagined charge of the Prime Minister’s involvement in it. Fuelled by the slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ the campaign received the cold shoulder from leaders within his own party. It was a campaign that directly pitted Gandhi against Modi in the popularity stakes and sought to take the latter down by a direct assault on his personal integrity, which still notched up the highest ratings.
Aside from Gandhi himself and his data analytics team, most party leaders were of the view that there were very few takers for the campaign on the ground. They were aware that Gandhi was being misled by some among his chosen team into believing that the Congress stood more than a fighting chance at forming the next Government at the Centre, ousting Modi. And that Rahul Gandhi would be either prime minister or, at the very least, kingmaker. During the campaign, Gandhi is known to have got upset with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and senior party leader Kamal Nath because the latter did not join the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ chorus. It is such stubbornness which refuses to acknowledge the reality on the ground–instead of getting curious as to why this veteran of so many electoral battles, and one with a lot at stake in this one, was lukewarm to the Rafale campaign—that highlighted Gandhi’s inexperience.
Till date, not a single Congress leader has come on record— most prefer to say it privately—on the possibility that Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive campaign against Modi, targeting him for imagined breach of propriety, had boomeranged on the party. Talk to any Congress leader of consequence and he/she will tell you that it did not go down well with the voters. Gandhi himself reacted with anger at the Election Commission and even at his own colleagues, choosing not to acknowledge that voters rejected his campaign and that he had come up short in a presidential contest where he pitted himself against the more popular and trusted Modi.
Many compared Rahul Gandhi’s resignation to a captain deserting his ship in stormy waters. In the weeks of confusion that followed his refusal to reconsider his decision, Gandhi’s acolytes floated the ‘demolish the headquarters’ theory, by which they maintained that the party organisation had been the big liability on the Congress’ path to electoral success. Echoing Gandhi’s own sense of hurt and desertion, they hold that it was the party ‘organisation’ (euphemism for a host of other party leaders) that was a burden on him and that blocked Gandhi’s attempt to leverage his popularity. Espousing this view, Sachin Rao, strategic adviser to Gandhi in the Youth Congress and the NSUI, and an integral part of his handpicked team, was heard telling people that “the party will rise, once again, like a Phoenix from the ashes”.
UNDER SONIA GANDHI, the party outsourced all of its intellectual content to the Left. Rahul Gandhi’s acolytes—who have argued that the party organisation has become unwieldy—are now keen that the party carry out a drastic restructuring through a purge. This, amid repeated questions about the exact ideology the Congress espouses and its inability to spell it out. It is their case that though the organisation would suffer from the widespread slash and burn in the short run, it would finally emerge much stronger, empowered by a new crop of leaders with ideological clarity and clear objectives. An organisation cast in Rahul Gandhi’s image that would be in sync with his instincts and worldview. This is a course of action that Gandhi reportedly backs, one that would give him a free hand to keep his favourites in the revamped organisation.
The Congress’ 2019 defeat was influenced by the twin factors of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and the Hinduisation of the polity. The Congress was unable to respond to either issue and what followed was a sharp decline
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The irony couldn’t be sharper: here was an argument that the president of the biggest opposition party would have done much better at the hustings as a free agent rather than by leading his flock into battle. This, despite the fact that it was clear–especially after the Balakot air strikes–that Narendra Modi looked invincible.
Meanwhile, a section of the party’s senior leadership has been making a desperate effort to keep the Congress pulling together against the imminent danger of its falling apart. While veteran Karan Singh suggested four working presidents from different regions to avoid infighting and chastised the top leaders for wasting a month pleading with Gandhi to take back his resignation, others favoured a CWC decision favourable to the Nehru-Gandhi family on a leader with his or her feet firmly on the ground.
The quest for new leadership is fraught with contradiction. A strong section of the party, which believes in the indispensability of dynastic rule, would not like to take a risk and would prefer that someone like Mallikarjun Kharge kept the seat warm for Gandhi until he could be ‘persuaded’ to return to office, after a decent cooling-off period.
THERE IS ANOTHER school that feels somebody young should be given a chance. Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and the like were automatically ruled out since they suffered from a major handicap: they were entitled and intrinsic to Lutyens’ Delhi, making them risky replacements for Rahul Gandhi. There was, crucially, also the danger of their overshadowing the reluctant prince. Someone like Mukul Wasnik, who rose from the Youth Congress ranks, has been favoured by others as an alternative to Kharge or Sushil Shinde. He is considered safe and is the leadership’s man with no base of his own. So he can’t be much of a problem. On the other hand, this relatively young leader from the Dalit community could prove problematic in the larger caste calculations.
Collisions are expected among those putting forth these various calculations once the Monsoon Session of Parliament ends, exposing the farcical arrangement of leading the party through an amorphous office called president of the AICC as a completely unworkable proposition.
There is, however, a larger issue beyond the leadership crisis that should be a worry for the Congress. It is whether the party is at all likely to course-correct the manner in which it conducts its politics. If it persists in its politics so far, the party can only hope to fixate on the rearview mirror, savouring the glories of the past, while the ground shifts significantly towards a Hindu polity. The Congress leadership’s response to that transformation has been leaden-footed to say the least. Erratic ‘soft Hindutva’ on the one hand (‘janeudhari Brahmin’, temple visits by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, for instance) and heavy reliance on minority votes on the other, representing knee-jerk, old-school secular politics, whereby the leadership conceded to the demands of conservative or hardline Muslim clerics.
The problem that confronts Rahul Gandhi is that the majority community is no longer willing to accept the old-fashioned secularism. The demands of the Muslim community, unlike in the decades immediately after Independence, have now acquired an ‘in your face’ dimension that upsets the majority community. And a significant section of the Hindus sees a parallel between Islam’s global intransigence and its local manifestations.
What is also complicating matters for the Congress is the fact that Hindus have pruned the space for parties to engage in appeasement gestures. In fact, the Congress’ 2019 defeat was influenced by the twin factors of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and the Hinduisation of the polity. The Congress was unable to respond to either issue and what followed was a sharp decline.
That the party has not learnt any lesson was evident last week in the Lok Sabha when its leader in the House, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, had to struggle to get his party MPs not to rush to yoke themselves to AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s wagon on forcing a division on the anti-terror National Investigation Agency Bill. The current crisis in the Congress mirrors the developments in the Democratic Party in the US, where the Left-Liberal ideology of the ‘Squad’ represented by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar is pushing the party to take positions against homeland security and in favour of cancellation of all student debt. Just as this could make President Donald Trump’s second run easy, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is helping the BJP gain more heft with its support for the so-called ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’, with its call for thinning down the Army’s presence in Kashmir and with its opposition to anti-terror legislation.
The Congress has Himalayan battles ahead of it, if it wants to survive and remain relevant in a rapidly changing polity. By all indications, the party is in no position to challenge the BJP in the coming round of state elections. Rahul Gandhi will once again be in focus, for both voters and pundits. To little or no avail.