Congress Needs a Major Overhaul. But Will Rahul Gandhi Go For Broke?

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The Congress Working Committee (CWC) is meeting on October 16. It is safe to presume that because of the mounting pressure from the G23 — the dissident Congress leaders who have been demanding an urgent meeting of the highest party forum — that the CWC has decided to meet.

The G23 has been clamouring for a full-time president, organisational elections as the grand old Indian party hurtles from one crisis to another. Rahul Gandhi had stepped down as the Congress president after the party faced a humiliating defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Though Sonia Gandhi took over as interim president, it is Rahul Gandhi who seems to be taking all the decisions in consultation with his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi. So from the outside, it seems like a strange arrangement because if you quit, you quit.

British Labour leader Ed Miliband took a backseat immediately after his party’s drubbing in the 2015 United Kingdom elections. Former British foreign secretary David Miliband took to charity and non-profit work as a full-time vocation after narrowly losing the Labour leadership battle to younger brother Ed. Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi had spent a night with David Miliband in a Dalit household in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, which was panned by the opposition as a photo-op.

There is a leadership vacuum in the Congress since Sonia Gandhi is only an interim president and it’s already over two years since Rahul Gandhi stepped down. But there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is Rahul who is taking all the decisions, some of which have gone horribly wrong.

Look no further than Punjab, where the well-entrenched sitting chief minister Amarinder Singh was unceremoniously overthrown just months before the assembly elections.

Navjot Singh Sidhu led a sustained campaign to oust Amarinder and the Gandhis obliged. It seemed the dusts would settle down with the installation of Sidhu as state president and Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit chief minister. But far from it. A sulking Sidhu sent in his resignation and the Congress high command is yet to decide his fate.

The party’s top brass is dragging its feet and is yet to settle the leadership tussle in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Promises made to former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot after his rebellion last year are yet to be fulfilled.

Chhattisgarh’s health and family welfare minister T S Singh Deo is waiting patiently for his turn to replace Bhupesh Baghel as Chhattisgarh chief minister. Meanwhile, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Sushmita Deb and Priyanka Chaturvedi — to name a few — have jumped ship for greener pastures. It’s a long list of deserters.

In early October, the ongoing farmers’ protests turned violent in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri where eight persons including four farmers were killed under tragic circumstances. The union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra was at the centre of the controversy. His son Ashish Mishra’s car allegedly ploughed into protesting farmers killing four of them. As the father-son duo brazened it out and the UP police took its own time to arrest Ashish, Priyanka Gandhi sensed an opportunity and to her credit stole the show.

She argued with the UP police and her pictures of cleaning a guest house with a broom, where she was detained, went viral.

Old-timers quickly compared her heroics to her grandmother Indira Gandhi’s riding on an elephant back in Bihar’s Belchi in 1977 to meet family members of slain Dalits.

Priyanka’s Lakhimpur Kheri show was followed up by a well-attended rally in Varanasi last Sunday.

Is Congress in a revival mode? Can Priyanka reset the party in UP, which is slated to go for polls early next year? As the Congress crisis was unfolding in Punjab, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah lamented in a tweet, “Ordinarily I wouldn’t give a toss about the fratricide in the Congress party – their party, their business. However, what the Congress does has a direct fallout for every political party outside the NDA orbit because almost 200 Lok Sabha seats see a direct BJP-Cong fight.”

Lakhimpur Kheri has provided the Gandhis a rare moment of political success, but it’s extremely unlikely the Gandhis can turn around the Congress fortunes in UP, like the down-and-out Indira Gandhi had after Belchi in 1977, having lost her own Rae Bareli seat. The Morarji Desai government collapsed in two years and Indira Gandhi bounced back to power in 1980 with a massive mandate to rule India yet again, till she was assassinated in 1984.

But it’s important to note that back then the Congress was still the dominant party all across India despite the big defeat it suffered in the 1977 general elections post Emergency.

Even though Indira Gandhi had suffered her worst defeat, the Congress had won 154 Lok Sabha seats. It had swept Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and had done very well in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam. On the contrary, the Congress could barely manage 44 and 52 seats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, respectively.

The slide of the Congress is yet to be arrested. It has been all but wiped out in Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. It’s gasping for breath in the north-east. The party failed to win Kerala this summer, which is known for rotating governments every five years, even after winning 16 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Congress has ceded space to Jagan Mohan Reddy and K Chandrasekhar Rao’s parties. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress is a marginal player and in Karnataka its leaders are locked in a protracted ego tussle.

It’s one thing to retire the old guard and infuse new talent like Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani. The young, new leaders will surely bring new ideas and new energy. But electoral politics is all about winning and it’s rarely sympathetic to losers. The party has banked on the charisma and popularity of the Gandhi family for far too long. This alone won’t bail out the beleaguered grand old party any more.

The Congress has sunk to an unbelievable low and it must set its house in order before all is lost. It’s time to drop the pretence that all will be well in due course. Sonia Gandhi — the longest serving Congress president — has done her bit. If Rahul Gandhi is reluctant and if the inner circle is hell bent on not looking beyond the Family, then coax and cajole Priyanka Gandhi to take charge as the full time president. If possible, she can be projected as the chief ministerial candidate in UP. Piecemeal and halfway measures will yield nothing.

Lakhimpur Kheri may not do for Priyanka Gandhi what Belchi had done for her late grandmother. But it can certainly be a starting point. The clock is ticking for the Congress. It’s now or never for the grand old party. Will it seize the moment and make it count?

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