THE CONGRESS lost both 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections with only 44 and 52 seats, respectively. Congress president Rahul Gandhi resigned on July 3, 2019, stating, “As president of the Congress party, I am responsible for the loss of the 2019 elections. Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party. It is for this reason that I have resigned as Congress president. Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party.” Only an honourable man with the courage of conviction would quit considering that no one held him accountable or much less asked him to step down.
On August 10, 2019, the Congress working committee, after wide-ranging consultations with state leaders, appointed Sonia Gandhi as provisional president under Article 18(h) of its constitution. Says the article, “In the event of any emergency by reason of any cause such as the death or resignation of the president elected as above, the senior most general secretary will discharge the routine functions of the president until the working committee appoints a provisional president pending the election of a regular president by the AICC (All India Congress Committee).”
The reappointment of Sonia Gandhi, much to her disinclination, was a wise choice and was widely welcomed. From 1998 to 2017, she led the party with sagacity and compassion and was responsible for two Congress-led governments at the Centre. Since then, the Congress has managed to be a part of coalition governments in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. It got 31 seats in Haryana—35 being the halfway mark—but unfortunately drew a blank twice over in Delhi where it had governed from 1998 to 2013. The Bihar assembly elections are now round the corner.
However, the trials and tribulations that confront the Congress today have roots that stretch back over five decades. The process commenced in 1967 with the loss of Tamil Nadu, deepened with the defeat in West Bengal in 1977 and worsened further with the loss of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha in the 1990s. These are the states the Congress has never won back. There are certain other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Punjab where the party was out of power for 10-15 years, but has been able to reclaim. The reason why the losses went unaddressed was due to the four stunning victories that the party pulled off in 1971, 1980, 1984 and, to a lesser extent, in the 1991 general elections.
Coupled with this electoral deficit are profound ideological challenges it needs to address with dispatch. After the collapse of communism in 1991, it re-oriented the nation’s economic trajectory and made it congruent with the Washington Consensus. Unfortunately, the Congress has never been able to align its own economic philosophy with that economic shift. A millennial today wants to know whether the party recognises the pursuit of individual wealth through legitimate means as a valid aspirational goal. The challenge to reconcile the animal spirits unleashed by liberalisation with social equity has never been adequately communicated.
The Congress needs to revisit its position on secularism, which is a classical construct imported into the Indian socio-political environment by the founders of the Constitution who were acutely cognizant that there must be a clean separation between the Church and the State, especially in a profoundly religious country such as India. Over a period, their ideological offspring reinterpreted it to mean ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav (equal respect for all faiths)’.
What the last couple of decades has taught us is that when secularism is interpreted as patronage of all faiths, you skid down a slippery slope where religious preferences of the ‘powers that be’ then start dictating the policies and priorities of the state. This is the spectre of majoritarianism. Can this genie be put back in the bottle?
The Congress must define its vision of nationalism. In the past six years, its delineation of nationalism has been the antithesis of what the BJP stands for—a narrow, chauvinistic and patriarchal view of nationalism. It is unfortunate that the party that was in the vanguard of the freedom struggle has not been able to articulate its vision of nationalism cogently.
Finally, it must exorcise politico-economic neo-feudalism from the political firmament, including its own backyard. In 1971, the Congress leadership took a stout position against the vestiges of feudalism that paid rich political and economic dividends. Over a period, those feudal interests have been able to re-ingratiate themselves into positions of influence within the party structure.
Of late there has been persistent comments that the Congress must have a non-Nehru-Gandhi president. The fact is that the Congress rank and file across the country still identify themselves with the Gandhi family. Between 1991 and 1998, no Nehru-Gandhi was part of the Congress. For the past 21 years, no Gandhi has been a part of any government at the Centre or in the states.
Under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress did form the government twice at the Centre. Following Rahul Gandhi’s resignation in 2019, the Congress now has three options. It can either confirm Sonia Gandhi as the full-time president or Rahul Gandhi can withdraw his resignation and return as president for he was elected for five years till 2022. If both these are non-sequiturs, then the Congress must hold an election to the post of president and to the working committee. Article 18(h) of the Congress constitution puts the ball squarely in the AICC’s court.
The CWC’s mandate ended after appointing a provisional president. The ideal solution would be a Nehru-Gandhi presidency, elections to the CWC, the reinstatement of the Congress parliamentary board and deep organisational reforms. The uncertainty at the top must end.
Recently, some relatively younger people who always got things on a platter have left the party. For them, power and positions are the only aphrodisiac. They never went through the organisational grind of the National Students’ Union of India and the Youth Congress. They never spread mats for a public meeting or pasted posters or did wall writing or, for that matter, got knifed in a student union election. They never asked themselves the basic question: Why am I in the Congress?
Scindia, Pilot, Priyanka Chaturvedi, Ajoy Kumar, Pradyut Kishore and many others belong to this genre. They received in disproportion to what they deserved at the cost of other young people. However, the party must also look within. If it keeps rewarding people who repeatedly lose their security deposits, decimate the party in states they once headed and cross vote against the party in Rajya Sabha elections, it demoralises those who believe in ideology and diligence and patiently wait for their chance. Where then is the accountability that impelled Rahul Gandhi’s resignation? It cannot be ‘you show me the man I will show you the rule’.
The problem of India today is not the government. Its credibility lies in tatters. It is the absence of a viable opposition.
The author is a lawyer, MP and former Union minister. Views are personal.