Averting the crisis in the Congress

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By Prof D.K. Giri

The Congress has trapped itself in a leadership crisis.  It began since Rahul Gandhi resigned as the Congress President after the defeat in the general elections in 2019.  RG compounded it by suggesting that no one from his family should be the President of the party.  Riding on the perception that only the family can serve as the glue to hold the party together, the so-called family loyalists went on an overdrive to persuade and reinstall Sonia Gandhi as the President.  This negated Rahul’s public stance on his family vis-à-vis the party leadership.

SG is not keeping good health and is now in the US for a check-up.  After eighteen years as the party president, SG demitted office in favour of her son, by gradually grooming him.  Two successive defeats under the de facto leadership of RG, the leader himself lost self-confidence.  It is another matter, and a sign of respect for democracy, if RG resigned in deference to the electoral verdict.  However, the party messed up the opportunity provided by RG to modernize the party by detaching it from the family which has a major source of criticism by the rival BJP.

A majority of Congress workers and leaders believe that the party will disintegrate without the family helming it.  In fact, this is the case with almost all political parties except BJP and the Communists.  While a family rule is an anathema, and against the basic principle of democracy, it has become a fact of the party’s political life in India.  The family based on so-called divine right to rule, democracy means every citizen’s right and opportunity to participate and occupy leadership positions.  But then, the family here is not equivalent to a dynasty in the technical sense of the term.  The family members are elected by the people to the legislatures, even though they inherit the leadership in the party.

The inheritance of leadership in the party is stifling the intra-party democracy.  That is a point of concern. If the family becomes the symbolic head, like, say, the Queen of England and the monarchy in the rest of European democracies, it is understandable.  But when they wield actual power, it becomes problematic.  Some observers quote the Sonia-Manmohan model as a workable one.  As the party is held in unity by the family members, the head of government could be someone more capable and deserving.  A senior Member of Parliament of the Congress party with 40 years of legislative experience pleaded with me that this is how it should be.  Only a member of the Indira Gandhi family can keep the party united.  I tended to agree with him until I analysed the Sonia-Manmohan experience from 2004 to 2014.  Looking back, Dr. Manmohan Singh was a titular Prime Minister, whereas all the power was concentrated in SG.  She was the president of the party, chairperson of UPA, chairperson, NAC.  Most decisions were taken at SG level, which did not leave a good impression of the remote-controlled government.

Therefore, if this model is not workable, the Congress party has to choose between the family and the government.  If they go for the family, which is the good for the party, winning the elections to form the government is a big question mark.  If they go for a non-Gandhi leader, the party might fall apart.  So the party is in a catch-22 situation; without the family, the party is unstable, and with the family, coming to power is uncertain.  That is perhaps why the G-23 wrote that famous letter to the party president on the absence of leadership.  They urged for, “effective, durable and visible” leadership, a consultation process within the party, and elections to different positions in the party.  The letter writers were all loyal Congress people, and are not manifestly against the family.  Yet, the spirit of the letter reflected the unabated agony the party is going through at the moment.

The issues raised in the letter have not been addressed so far, except the assurance that a new and a regular president will soon replace the interim SG.  The crisis is not over yet.    It may resolve itself if Congress returns to power by default as there is no other national alternative to BJP.  Looking at the governance performance of BJP, they might rule themselves out of power in the next elections.  Congress then becomes the accidental beneficiary of BJP misrule.  Congress is apparently aspiring for that political serendipity as in the past whenever they have been out of power for a short while, from two and a half (Janata government) to six years under Vajpayee, they have been voted back, for whatever reason.  The current two terms of BJP are the longest that the Congress will be out of power.  That is why, there is quite a bit of rumblings of impatience among the leadership.

The Congress will have to resolve the leadership crisis in a structural way, not through ad hoc arrangements based on family loyalty or emotions.  Without settling the leadership question, they cannot address the ideological, policy and presentational issues.  Reframing the Congress platform or building a new Congress is extremely urgent.  Remember, BJP came to power by attacking Congressism so articulated by Rajni Kothari and by providing an alternative policy platform.  BJP excoriated Congress on pseudo-secularism, weak nationalism, threatened security.  It promised a strong and secure country and a clean government.  BJP’s promise has fallen flat.  But Congress is unable to mount a counter-offensive as it is bedevilled by a leadership crisis.

The Covid pandemic should have provided a lot of room for reflection, introspection and forward thinking since activities on the ground are restricted.  An initiative was taken by G-23 but it was crushed without compunction and with venom and vengeance.  This was a short-sighted approach by the loyalists.

All is however not lost.  The Congress can go back to the basics, allow dissent, encourage or accommodate representations in the interest of the party, read the history of the party where top leaders were exchanging letters.  Recall Sardar Patel’s famous letter to Nehru of 7th November 1950, warning him of the belligerence of China and so on.  While they learn from the past, it is necessary to update the party in keeping with modern times.  It is time they call it a new Congress wedded to progressive politics and modern organizing principles.

Congress is good at drawing on talents from multiple sectors like Rajiv Gandhi did.  Experts, intellectuals and observers should be roped in from media, academia, think tanks to advise the party on policies and organization.  Given the situation of economy and security, both internal and external, people want a formidable opposition to put the government on track and eventually replace it.  Congress, with allies from the non-BJP spectrum should rise to this task.  On the contrary, if Congress continues to wobble under its internal contradictions, it has only itself to blame.  There was a period in the 1980s, where the Janata Party built by JP was popular with people but it collapsed under its own internal conflicts.  Likewise, people want a non-BJP government to manage the fast-declining economy and deteriorating security situation, but the parties, including Congress, are simply dithering.  This is a big letdown of the people.  One can only hope that the Opposition is seeing the writing on the wall.

Prof. (Dr) D.K. Giri, M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D (JNU), 

Ph.D (England), Dip. in PR, (LSPR, London)

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