The hours-long meeting of Congress leaders called by interim president Sonia Gandhi over the weekend showed once again the party is in no mood to fix the problem that brought it to its current state in the first place — the Gandhis. The Congress refuses to even discuss the issue that needs fixing before anything else — a leadership change away from the Gandhi family. The Congress is trying to solve the problem with the problem itself.
In the meeting with over a dozen party leaders, former president, but default Congress face, Rahul Gandhi said he was ready to rebuild the party. The fact that the party needs rebuilding is not rocket science; the question is who it needs rebuilding under. That Rahul Gandhi has failed to build, rebuild or re-rebuild the party is well-known, why then is the Congress wasting more time and capital in discussing his or the Gandhi family’s role, instead of addressing the delicate but most crucial question of a leadership overhaul?
The discussion over a leadership crisis, leave alone change, was not even initiated in the Saturday meeting that took place four months after 23 key leaders wrote to Sonia Gandhi, emphasising the importance of a full-time and active leadership.
The biggest crisis facing the Congress at this point is a weak, directionless, disinterested and largely disconnected top command. The solution to that is not holding more meetings or chintan shivirs.
But even six years after the 2014 election shock, the conversations still seem to be around which Gandhi should lead the Congress and, at its most audacious, about the gap between the high command and the rest of the party. But talks about a new leadership seem nowhere on the horizon, and as a result, neither does the party’s revival chances.
The leadership mess
The crisis in the Congress didn’t emerge overnight. It has been cooking over a slow flame since the UPA 2 years, and has only worsened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival on the national stage.
Not everybody is meant for electoral politics. Rahul Gandhi most certainly isn’t, and as is becoming increasingly evident, neither is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. They may have their own strengths. Rahul Gandhi, for instance, is well-meaning, with an idea of an inclusive social fabric (his janeu-dhari Brahmin tag notwithstanding) that is much-needed in an era dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s polarising politics.
But leading a party is a completely different ball game. Sonia Gandhi managed to pull the party out of a deep rut when she first took over as president in 1998. She succeeded in reviving the party electorally, and helped bring the Congress to power at the Centre for 10 years – largely due to her ability to forge alliances and adapt to the coalition era – and leave behind a legacy in the form of some key legislation and policy decisions.
Rahul Gandhi’s experience, however, has been vastly different. The Congress has been in free fall and Rahul’s involvement has only hastened the slide. The Congress leader has neither been able to capture the imagination of the voters in the Modi era, nor strengthen the party or its organisation. Rahul is erratic and often lackadaisical, surrounded and advised by those who barely understand the twists and turns of Indian politics.
A lot rested on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s ‘formal’ entry into politics, but unfortunately for the Congress, that turned out to be a damp squib as well.
Rahul Gandhi may say he is willing to rebuild the party. But did he not say that after the losses in the 2013 December assembly elections when he promised to introduce changes one cannot even “imagine”? If he is to take charge of the Congress again, whether as president or simply as ‘messiah’, how does his stepping down last year make sense? Little has really changed between then and now to make Rahul Gandhi more equipped to handle the party and rebuild it.
With Sonia Gandhi past her political prime and with her health not always on her side, the baton must pass on. The problem in the Congress is not the lack of leaders — its performance in states, whether Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and others, is adequate proof of that. The problem is the inability to look beyond the first family.
A party in denial
An even bigger problem, however, is that Congress leaders don’t even want to initiate and entertain a conversation about leadership change.
The 23 dissenting leaders who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in August demanded a “full-time and effective leadership”. They got a hearing a good four months later, but even then, the leadership question was politely skirted.
“The subject of elections for the post of party president was broached, but only briefly. Since the central election authority has already been charged with the task to hold elections, we didn’t find it wise to discuss the subject for too long,” an attendee at the meeting said, as reported by my colleague Fatima Khan.
If the most critical challenge facing the party — that of an effective top leadership — was merely “broached”, and “briefly” at that, then the Congress has gone so irretrievably far in denial mode that the idea of any sort of resurrection seems far-fetched.
Sources in the party say while some leaders are satisfied with the fact that the Gandhis, at least, started the process of engagement, others say nothing concrete came out of it.
During the meeting, Congress leaders said they want more chintan shivirs. But what would they even deliberate at these shivirs? What they need to do chintan about or contemplate is the way forward – first towards and then under a fresh, more able leadership. But that hardly seems to be on the Congress high command’s to-do list.
Can’t see beyond Gandhis
“The media made a big deal out of the letter. When everyone considers Rahul ji and Sonia ji their leaders, then why would there be any fight?” Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot told ThePrint. “The meeting was very congenial; everyone’s perspective was heard. Everyone felt that Rahul Gandhi should take the charge of the leadership,” he added.
Recently, in an interview to me, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said he wanted Rahul Gandhi to take charge as president again.
These are all senior, sensible party leaders who refuse to even look beyond the Gandhis, despite the last six-odd years having been an absolute debacle. Those in the party who do raise the issue of a weak leadership, like the 23 dissenters, are relegated to the minority and made to feel satisfied simply with the fact that the family deemed it fit to engage with them.
The Congress is just going around in circles. American philosopher John Dewey had once said, ‘A problem well put is half solved’. The Congress needs to openly and unapologetically acknowledge its problem first — the need for a complete leadership overhaul, before it can even think of emerging out of the quicksand it finds itself in.
Views are personal.