The Congress Working Committee’s decision to elect a new president by June “at any cost” could well be the party’s last chance to find its very own Narendra Modi. This, only if the Congress does not go through with the election as a mere sham, particularly for the post of party president — using it as a ruse to merely reaffirm overwhelming support to, and prop up, a Gandhi.
I call it the last chance because the rate at which the Congress is sinking could mean all its potential leadership talent abandoning it before the party finally wakes up to the need for a genuine overhaul.
For all its claims of commitment to democracy, Congress has, for long, been the most undemocratic party, a fact stated repeatedly by many. Yes, even more undemocratic than the Bharatiya Janata Party — at least in the pre-Modi era — which managed to throw up two leaders confined to one state as its most powerful national duo.
When in 1998 then-party chief Sitaram Kesri locked horns with Sonia Gandhi, he was asked to step down by passing a Congress Working Committee (CWC) resolution. Since then, it has been entirely about a quiet submission to the reign of the Gandhis, from Sonia to Rahul and back to Sonia. Of course, with a generous dose of ‘Priyanka (Gandhi Vadra) for president’ being thrown in by loyalists.
Today, what the Congress needs is an honest election — with actual candidates and a chance given to anybody, who wants to and is qualified, to contest for the post of president. The party needs, and deserves, a shot at finding its own Modi or Amit Shah.
The persistent sham
The Gandhi family’s iron grip over the party needs no mentioning. But under its shadow, everything in the name of elections and selections has been reduced to a sham.
In Congress, everything happens as per the whim of the Gandhi family. With most in the party happy to play along. Nearly two dozen leaders writing a letter questioning the top leadership and demanding organisational reforms is just an aberration.
When Sonia ‘displaced’ Sitaram Kesri, Congress — a party with leaders who have serious divisions and preferences — did witness some protest. Since then, however, the party has been top-controlled, almost dictatorial and with dangerously fast-diminishing returns.
It was way back in 1997 (Kolkata session) and before that in 1992 (Tirupati session) when the CWC saw some real contest. After the 1997 session, there hasn’t been any election to the CWC.
In 2004, when Congress came to power under the UPA umbrella, Sonia Gandhi declined the prime minister’s post, but not without appointing a leader — Manmohan Singh — of her choice. No election process to be bothered with.
With the UPA’s declining fortunes in its second term, the Gandhi family’s weakening grip over contemporary politics became clear. And yet, the party became a game of ‘passing the parcel between Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’. The latter was made vice-president of the party in 2013, and succeeded his mother as president in 2017 — all done as a smooth, largely unquestioned tradition, like in kingdoms of ancient times.
Then Congress office-bearer Shehzad Poonawalla became an aberration when he questioned Rahul’s elevation in 2017 — but his act was seen more as comic relief than a serious reminder of what ails the party.
The Gandhis’ reluctance to let go of control, along with their failure to evolve in the Modi-Shah era, has meant the party has fallen into a dark abyss, with the recovery road looking bumpy and distant.
The need for a real election
To say the Gandhi leadership has failed miserably in recent years to keep the Congress afloat will be euphemistic. Sources in the party say the situation has become acute after the passing away of chief strategist and Congress veteran Ahmed Patel. A sinking leadership and no lifeboat has meant there is no point-person to deal with the allies, other parties, or even to solve intra-party disputes. Those in team Rahul may feel they are heavyweights in the party, but in reality, are political lightweights outside the Congress cocoon.
Faced with a do-or-die crisis, the Congress desperately needs to find its own version of a successful, and electorally astute leader. Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi cannot fill that void. The impending organisational elections can just be that platform to identify who can ably lead the party out of this mess.
Narendra Modi was just a state chief minister. He may have been a popular three-time CM, but he is not the only one in the BJP or elsewhere to have served multiple terms successfully. Despite a fairly tall national leadership post-Atal Bihari Vajpayee — starting with L.K. Advani and going on to include the likes of Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari (who have served as party presidents) — Modi managed to push his case and break into the national scene. At the BJP’s national executive meet in Goa in the summer of 2013, the party was deeply divided over the issue of who its PM face in the 2014 Lok Sabha election should be. But Modi managed to garner more support compared to his rivals, and was declared the head of the poll campaign.
That the BJP is no longer as democratic as it once used to be is true, but this doesn’t cut ice as an argument by the Congress, simply because the former is winning under the current leadership. Modi and Shah are continuing at the helm by virtue of mass support they hold, which has been proved election after election. The Congress, meanwhile, has to revisit the lack of internal democracy, not because dynastic politics is evil, but because the dynasty has lost its mandate among those who matter the most — the voter.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as popular, charismatic and well-liked as he was, lost the BJP a crucial election in 2004, which gave the Congress its foothold back in national politics. At that point, it was Sonia Gandhi who managed to bring the Congress back to the spotlight. Would Advani have managed to give to the BJP what Modi did, in terms of both national and state-by-state capture of power? It is difficult to answer this but what cannot be denied is the fact that Modi gave the BJP a new lease of life.
The Congress needs its own Narendra Modi, and that does not mean it needs a replica of the PM or someone who toes a divisive and provocative line. But the party does need a true national leader, an election winner and a politician with weight. Let the CWC and Central Election Committee elections provide an opening for that, instead of being reduced to a stage play directed by the Gandhis in which everyone else in the Congress is reduced to a mere prop.
Views are personal.