Two months after Rahul Gandhi’s resignation from the post of Congress president, many see the party drifting in the doldrums, with no successor in sight. The leadership vacuum at the top has had a damaging effect within the party, fuelling incessant media speculation and a daily dose of obituaries for the Congress, fuelled by recent setbacks in Karnataka and Goa.
In turn, the Congress worker, who has already had to contend with the disappointment of the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, risks further demoralisation. And the ordinary citizen and voter — nearly 20 per cent of the electorate — looks to the Congress to advance her political affiliations and convictions and feels let down.
Can’t write Congress off
In spite of all this, there is no reason to write off the Congress party. For one, there simply exists no other national alternative to the domination of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a comparable pan-Indian presence. Any other political force in the country is largely confined to one (or at most two) states. Indian democracy also needs the inclusive vision embodied in the core ideology that animates the Congress party. But the party needs to offer a way forward to secure its own future, without any further delay.
For another, the current predicament is not completely a new challenge for the Congress. After all, the party has found itself in the throes of similar woes in the past — in terms of its electoral fortunes in 1977 and 1989, and the wilderness between 1996 and 2004, or in the daunting circumstances precipitated by the leadership question following the tragic assassinations of two of its leaders and former prime ministers. And yet, in the aftermath of each of these scenarios, the grand old party displayed an immense capacity to weather change, to pivot itself to the evolving political context of the time, and to bounce back to victory each time.
But in the face of the current crisis, what exactly should the party do to weather the turbulence?
Steps Congress can take
One way forward could be for the Congress Working Committee — the party’s key decision-making body — to name an interim president and then ideally dissolve itself. After the election is done, the main leadership positions in the party, including in the CWC itself, should be opened up to fresh elections. Allowing members from the AICC and PCC delegates to elect their president from the group of people elected to these key positions, would help legitimise the incoming set of leaders and give them a credible mandate to lead the party.
It could also have other beneficial effects — for instance, it could increase the national interest in the party. We saw the global interest in the British Conservative Party during their recent leadership race. Replicating a similar scenario for the Congress will similarly galvanise more voters towards the Congress party once again.
Find the president
The most urgent leadership position that needs to be filled is naturally that of the Congress president. Given the current state of the party and the national picture, whoever assumes the mantle of the president will undoubtedly need to achieve the twin goals of energising the party worker and inspiring the voters. If the new president is purely an organisational person, while he or she may be able to galvanise the workers and strengthen the foundations of the party, the person may likely be unable to bring in the support of more voters. If the president is a charismatic figure but has poor organisational skills, while he or she may be personally appealing to the national electorate, the person will be unlikely to find a fully supportive party machinery to help translate that charisma and natural appeal into electoral results.
In these circumstances, one would definitely like to believe that a younger leader, who has not been jaded by playing these roles for too long, would be in a better position to do both — energise a party that certainly needs it, and appeal to more voters than the Congress managed to in the last election.
The probable choice
One such candidate that many in the Congress have voiced their support for as a successor to Rahul Gandhi is his sister and the party’s general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. I certainly hope she will throw her hat in the ring when the call for elections for the post of party president is officially declared.
For one, it must be said that she has a natural charisma, which has often prompted many to make comparisons with her grandmother and former party president, the late Indira Gandhi, which could certainly enliven and rally party workers and voters alike. At the same time, she also comes with able organisational experience, having been an influential figure at the core of the party for a while now and on the ground in Uttar Pradesh during the last elections.
At the same time, Rahul Gandhi’s statement that no member from the Gandhi family should replace him, seems to rule this option out. For now, it is really for the Gandhi family to decide where it collectively stands on this issue. Either way, an elected process would be a healthy way to go about it and legitimise the mandate being offered to the incoming president.
A vacuum to fill
These are personal suggestions but they reflect widespread sentiment among party workers and leaders I have heard from. Their desire is for a leadership willing and able to conceive and implement a robust and comprehensive revival strategy. By fixing the current leadership vacuum and institutionalising a process through which Congress workers can have a concrete say in the leaders that represent them at the upper echelons of the party, elections will give the party the strong footing it needs in the hearts of the workers and the general public.
There has been many a dark night in the history of the Congress. But I remain confident that a party that once rallied an entire country together in the pursuit of liberty and freedom, offered direction and leadership to the men and women of our nation as it went through the cathartic changes of the post-Independence era, and rooted the soul of this land in the principles of equality, inclusiveness and social justice, can once again end this night and usher in a new dawn for the Congress – and the nation.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.