Jyotiraditya Scindia said that it was a matter of days before Rahul Gandhi became Congress president
Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot at the Off The Cuff event | Source: ThePrint
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The defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia and the rebellion of Sachin Pilot has brought the Congress party’s internecine politics to the fore. A standard narrative around these rebellions is that the Congress party can no longer retain its popular, younger leaders and that the central leadership, i.e., the Gandhi trio — Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka — are to be blamed. In our view, this is rather simplistic and maybe a misplaced understanding of why the Congress party is imploding. In reality, the current crisis in the Congress party is structural.

Let us begin with some plain facts. All parties in India have a factional conflict. Even the cadre-based parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or family-run parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are not an exception. After all, parties are made up of factions. It is the role of the party leaders to manage the emerging competition among the factions. Sometimes, the factional management is handled by the state unit. In other cases, the central leadership has to intervene to sort out factional conflict. This is a long-standing feature of Indian party politics.


Also read: Sachin Pilot has done the unthinkable — united all TV channels from NDTV to Republic


Where lies the blame?

Scindia and Pilot headed their factions in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Both sought more power/representation for their wings or themselves. While Pilot had ambitions to become the Rajasthan chief minister, Scindia wanted a more significant role in Madhya Pradesh. Neither Scindia nor Pilot could attain their political goals.

In MP and Rajasthan, then, a less charitable but entirely plausible interpretation of the actions of both Scindia and Pilot is that while they led a minority faction yet they tried to hold the elected Congress governments hostage. The steps taken by Scindia and Pilot make it a simple case of minority faction blackmail made possible because of ruthless electoral arithmetic. There is an opposition party (BJP) in both states with enough numbers to form the government with the help of ‘defectors’. Scindia was successful right away because the Congress had far fewer seats to play within Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan, the Congress has a greater buffer and thus foiled Pilot’s attempt. In fact, the series of events in Rajasthan since May 2019 suggests that Gehlot carefully precipitated a crisis, calculated the fallout at each step, and Pilot got played.

A dominant interpretation lays the blame for the Congress Party’s crisis at the central leadership’s doorstep. In this interpretation, Scindia and Pilot could have been mollified, appeased, accommodated, or given Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan’s reins. There is an alternative interpretation. Neither Scindia nor Pilot had enough MLAs on their side for the Congress leadership to put their weight behind their factions. According to news reports, Pilot wished to be named as Rajasthan CM in the coming days/months. Would the Ashok Gehlot faction (which is clearly the larger of the two) have accepted the central leadership’s support to the smaller faction as a fait accompli? Would they not have defected?

Realpolitik would suggest that the Congress leadership had no other option. It had to go with the larger faction. Could it have intervened on Pilot’s behalf and moved some MLAs from the Gehlot faction? Possibly. But, would that defection have been large enough to reduce the Gehlot faction to less than 17 MLAs? Maybe, but possibly not.

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Also read: Why it’s unfair to blame Ashok Gehlot or Congress for Sachin Pilot’s unreasonable ambitions 


Why the central leadership is in a spot

Critics of the Congress party blame the central leadership’s inability to control minority factions, especially when they can destabilise state governments and rob the party of chances to establish itself as a contender for national power. It is beyond doubt that Congress’s central leadership is having difficulty in controlling minority factions because the party is no longer in power at the Centre. While it is possible, but in the world of power politics, less plausible, that a party can be held together by the loyalty of state politicians to the central leadership. Loyalty goes only so far, Scindia and Pilot’s story are a good testament to this.

When Congress was in power in Delhi, it could easily accommodate minority factions’ interests in multiple ways. For example, it could give the minority faction some resources or share of power in the central government. Moreover, the minority faction was aware that while their party is ruling in New Delhi they have limited options. There were no real alternatives with whom the minority faction would have aligned without incurring a cost (read Income Tax raids etc). And thus, their threats to exit if the demands were not met, were less credible. A minority faction of the BJP in Gujarat today cannot threaten the ruling government’s stability because its threat is not credible. If it left the party where would it go? Into the wilderness?


Also read: Covid delayed Sachin Pilot’s revolt, he had planned exit in March, Congress insiders claim


For long-term gains

It is conceivable that the Congress Party’s leadership has now decided to take short-term losses for the party’s longer-term viability in states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Maybe, it now expects the state units to solve its internecine conflicts by themselves. If younger politicians like Scindia and Pilot want to be successful, they have to work with other factions in their party, with leaders they do not like, and build a career from the ground up rather than rushing to Delhi to defend them and their political ambitions. And herein lies the crux of the current crisis in the Congress party. The Gandhi trio should not expect young and ambitious politicians like Scindia and Pilot to fight the factional battles in their respective states when until now the central leadership has handed them positions of power on a platter– union ministries and state party chiefs.

To sum up, power distribution in any party purely based on loyalty to the high command will sooner or later implode. Especially, when the party is not in power. Today the Congress party’s chances of acquiring power in New Delhi in the immediate future appear bleak, and therefore minority factions can make credible threats to exit the organisation. State politicians of the Congress are doing what faction leaders do all over the world — look for chances to enhance their power, either within the party or while the option still exists by exiting and either joining another party or forming a new outfit. The Congress high command should be aware of its limitations in managing minority coalitions without power and resources. However, that is not an easy task and is a real test for any leader.

Pradeep Chhibber is a Professor of Political Science and Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at UC Berkeley, US. Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.

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5 Comments Share Your Views

5 COMMENTS

  1. owners of print ur content is being masked by N 95 masks advertisements ( narrow window for reading ) irritating to this extent that readers may throw the tub with baby out

  2. good frame of two dynamic leaders appear to be arrogant, confident, handsome articulate and effusive in hurry for power ..

  3. So much talk of a party’s gains and losses and long term interest, that the electorate’s interest is eclipsed as though it was just obviously the non-essential part of politics. Voters are going to also be ruthless in elections if their choices are betrayed so often and so flippantly by changing sides and not providing governance, stability and jobs

  4. A nice way of defending the Gandhi family from the blame which it ought to accept. Rahul Gandhi a failed leader with two successive Lok Sabha defeats for his party and one in 2020 even resulting in getting thrown out of family pocketborough Amethi, decides the fate of a leader like Pilot who took congress from meagre 21 seats in 1013 to 100+ in 2018. This can happen only in the congress. The writer Mr Chibber is perhaps afraid to call out the incompetence of the lazy man called Rahul. In plain words an incompetent Rahul decides the fate of a competent Pilot. This is happening since times of Nehru and will continue to happen til the Gandhi family keeps on reproducing new generations. Bad for India.

  5. This piece is much better than the one by Shivam Vij and miles better by the ones put out by other media houses which blame the Gandhis for everything and anything. But the issue is not the Congress party or indeed even the opposition – the issue is what will make for sustainable electoral politics. How can so many diverse groups be accommodated so that politicians are committed to providing good options to replace the ruling party rather than just hopping parties to keep staying in power so as to be able to retain and reward their own supporters. I suspect the BJP may also have to face this if they lose power – the next generation is not going to be as committed to their party.

    The other issue is that whatever anybody might say – secular space and socialist economics created by the Congress is a large space occupied by the parent Congress, breakaway factions of the Congress like NCP, TMC, YSRCP and also by Communists, SP-BSP-JD(U)-JD(S)-TRS-AAP. The BJP itself under Modi cannot do without socialist economics and few dynasts of its own! A true political alternative in the form of a party standing for limited govt interference in citizen’s lives and businesses, lesser taxes and more attention to economic upliftment without doling out reservations or cash handouts to the undeserving hasn’t arrived on the scene yet. Such a pity that educated people like Pilot, Scindia, Tharoor, Jha etc do not attempt to open up that space if they aren’t happy in the Congress. Who knows – if they are successful, they might be able to wean away a few BJP netas for themselves in the future. The BJP in the present form isn’t going to improve their own standing much nor provide voters with any real options.

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