It took Rahul Gandhi 42 days of confusion after the Lok Sabha results to formally resign from the post of the Congress president. Another 38 days later, the Congress is now about to appoint a new president, and Mukul Wasnik is said to be the front-runner.
Rahul Gandhi, having stepped aside, is unhappy with how the party is going about finding the new president. He doesn’t want the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to just hold a meeting and crown the chosen one. He wants due process, or at least the pretence of it. An aide of his has said as much in writing to all the CWC members.
Set up to fail
A Rahul Gandhi acolyte recently told me what the problem was. What you are seeing, he said, is a continuation of the long-running battle between the old guard and the new guard of the party. Rahul Gandhi wanted Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia to be chief ministers of their states, he alleged, but was vetoed by the old guard. Rahul Gandhi’s point is: why should he be president if he can’t have his way?
Starting with 1969, this leader told me, the Congress party has recovered from its periodic decline only through a split. The only way the Congress party can revive today, he said, is if there is a split. Either the old guard or the new guard could leave. One will succeed and one will fail.
Now, he said, the old guard wanted Rahul Gandhi to nominate a new president. Rahul Gandhi refused because he clearly saw this as a further attempt to tarnish him. Once the new president is considered to have ‘failed’, the old guard will again blame Rahul Gandhi. That the new president will ‘fail’ is almost certain, since there is no chance of the Congress winning any forthcoming state elections before the 2021 Kerala assembly election.
No Marg Darshak Mandal
The old guard led by Ahmed Patel draws its power from Sonia Gandhi, although nobody takes her name. Poor Ahmed Patel gets all the flak. The old guard feels that Rahul Gandhi and his followers are the ones to blame, since their ideas of radical transformation in the party have borne no fruit.
Every political party has had troubles with generational transition. How do they resolve the problem? Let’s look at India’s most successful political party today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi had his way when he was formally declared as the party’s PM candidate in 2013, walking all over L.K. Advani’s dreams and ambitions. The old guard was relegated to a ‘Marg Darshak Mandal’. Younger leaders of the Vajpayee era were accommodated but made powerless, cardboard figures.
Why was Narendra Modi able to discard his party’s old guard so easily? Why couldn’t they gang up and keep him in check? It’s because Modi drew his power from the masses, particularly the BJP-RSS cadres and the Hindutva supporters. He did not draw his power from the party’s leadership.
Rahul Gandhi could also ride roughshod over the party’s old guard if he was a popular mass leader. But he is so weak that not even his supporters are able to say they’d like to see him as the prime minister. One of the main reasons for Narendra Modi’s re-election is that voters did not want to see Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister.
38 days without a party president
Who should be the new Congress president? That is the wrong question to ask. In the absence of a party president in the last 38 days, the Congress has done what it would do if it had a party president. The Indian National Congress was run, is run and will continue to be run by its permanent bureaucracy, headed by Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel. It will continue to waste time in trying to come to a consensus between Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. For instance, a lot of time was wasted in Sonia and Priyanka urging Rahul to not resign. The Congress is, was and will continue to be a car run by many drivers and will continue crashing. Poor Mukul Wasnik.
In the last 38 days, did the Congress party really miss having a president? Had Mukul Wasnik or Sachin Pilot or Priyanka Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi been Congress president these last 38 days, what would have been done differently? The Congress would still have lost Karnataka, it would still have been stumped by Modi’s disintegration of Jammu & Kashmir, it would still have been clueless about how to win forthcoming state assembly elections. Amusingly, the Congress despite not having a president put out releases saying the “Congress President” had appointed Balasaheb Thorat as its new Maharashtra chief, and Srinivas B.V. as the interim president of the Indian Youth Congress.
The wrong question
‘Who should be the Congress president?’ is the wrong question to ask. It is irrelevant for the moment.
The right question to ask is: Who will be the public face of the Congress party? Who will be its de facto PM candidate? Who will be the star campaigner addressing most of its rallies?
What the Congress party really needs is not a new president, but a new public face who can capture the imagination of the masses and present herself or himself as a better alternative to Narendra Modi.
Answering that question will be far tougher than appointing a puppet. Rahul Gandhi is stepping aside from the task of running the party, and not sitting in the front row of the Lok Sabha.
But he’s not going away anywhere. He wants to re-invent himself, a project doomed to fail. Priyanka Gandhi is refusing to step up because she won’t overshadow her brother. She will make episodic noises about UP just as her brother used to. The Congress will thus remain a car with many drivers, crashing again and again until it is fully dismantled.
Views are personal.