As the results of assembly elections in five states flashed on the television and mobile phone screens on March 10, a dark realisation engulfed the minds of most Congress leaders—that in terms of the number of states they rule, their 137-year old party is at par with the new wimpy kid on the block. Yes, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party rule two states each. And next year, both the Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will be going to another dreaded round of polls.
Indeed, the party is sharing power in two more states—Maharashtra and Jharkhand—and is an ally of the ruling side in Tamil Nadu. That, however, is no comfort, knowing well how the BJP had upset its precarious applecarts in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh only a year ago thanks to the sheer ineptitude of its own leadership. Even for the Gandhis, the family that has been lording over the party for most of India’s post-independent years—save a brief seven-year spell in the 1990s—it is a never-before moment. For once, little chieftains who used to blame each other at every defeat till a year ago have become emboldened enough to question the first family, its ability to command and control, and take the party anywhere other than downward.
There was an unmistakable sense of deja vu when Congress president Sonia Gandhi said at the meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body on March 13 that she and her family were ready to step down from their perch. A familiar script played out soon when the members of the Congress Working Committee unanimously rejected the offer. It was almost as if the sequence of events was in a time loop. However, this time around, there was a qualitative change in the stance of the Gandhis. There was no air of confidence that came from knowing that they were above the blame game and their offer to resign would be seen as gracefulness. Also, there was no strong comeback as seen just a few months ago when Sonia sent a stern message to her detractors that she was a “hands-on” president and she would prefer not to be talked to through the media.
The Gandhis find themselves in a never-before situation where their stock is at an all-time low and party leaders are openly questioning their ability to lead and amass votes, some even going to the extent of saying that they should make way. The unenviable position that the family is in is comparable only to their party, which has hit the lowest point. The party that once dominated the political landscape of India now finds its footprint drastically reduced as it hurtles from one electoral defeat to another.
The inability of the Congress to retain Punjab, to make any electoral difference with its experimental initiatives in Uttar Pradesh, and to wrest back Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur from the Bharatiya Janata Party has brought the party to a juncture where it stares at the possible embarrassment of going to the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 with no states in its kitty. The downward spiral that the party has been in since 2014 can be gauged from the fact that it was in power in nine states when Narendra Modi first became prime minister. It was pointed out by a leader in the CWC meeting that the party lost 39 out of the 49 elections it contested since 2014. It is left with a small clutch of MPs in the Lok Sabha (56) and its numbers in the Rajya Sabha (34) have been on the decline.
And, the Congress has been leaking leaders. According to a report of the Association for Democratic Reforms, 222 electoral candidates left the party to join other parties between 2014 and 2021. During the same period, 177 MPs and MLAs quit the party.
At the centre of the discussion on the Congress’s future are the Gandhis. There has been disquiet in the party about the efficacy of the leadership provided by Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka—their perceived failure as vote catchers, electoral strategists and party managers. While the ‘Group of 23’ leaders have been the most vocal about the leadership vacuum in the party—with some of them like Kapil Sibal and Sandeep Dikshit openly asking for the Gandhis to step aside—even Gandhi loyalists feel that they need to make urgent changes to shake off the sense of hopelessness.
When the G-23 group of leaders talk about the problems with the style of functioning of the Gandhis, it is seen as an indirect criticism of the manner in which Rahul and Priyanka have been taking decisions. Even in the latest round of elections, the siblings had led the party from the front. Priyanka had played a crucial role in the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as party chief in Punjab, despite resistance from chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and many of the MPs from the state. Sidhu’s unpredictable nature and the constant run-ins he had with his own government are blamed for the party’s loss in the election. Charanjit Singh Channi, Rahul’s pick to replace Amarinder, was projected as a game-changer on account of his dalit identity, but he failed miserably. The changes in Punjab were the clearest manifestation of Sonia stepping back and letting Rahul and Priyanka occupy centre stage. It is felt that the siblings have run roughshod over other leaders in an attempt to assert their authority. There has also been criticism that the advisers of Rahul and Priyanka are not in tune with the Congress culture. They are seen as either apolitical or ideologically left-leaning.
Loyalists, though, describe the G-23 as a ragtag grouping of disgruntled leaders who have enjoyed the fruits of power and are right now seeking a place at the high table, unable to come to terms with their powerless present. And as the G-23—now a much-weakened group, as several leaders have moved away—reaches out to others in the party in a bid to increase pressure on the leadership, it is described as lacking the gumption to go the whole hog.
“It is lazy analysis to pin the blame on the Gandhis,” said family loyalist Akhilesh Pratap Singh. “Did the detractors of the Gandhis do anything to match the courage shown by Priyanka Gandhi in UP? Has Rahul Gandhi not fought the Narendra Modi government more fiercely than his party colleagues and other opposition leaders?”
A large section of the Congress disagrees with the extreme view that the Gandhis should step aside. They feel that the family is needed as a glue to keep the party together and because they best represent the party in the eyes of the people and the ordinary party worker. “The people who say that no member of the Gandhi family should lead the Congress party are unable to understand that without them the party will only become weaker,” said senior Congress leader Anil Shastri. “If the Congress is weak, our democracy cannot survive.”
Everyone, however, wants a course correction. In a bid to pre-empt questions about actions taken in the states where elections were just held, Sonia had the Congress communications department put out the information that she had sacked the party chiefs in all the five states. That no state president had offered to resign despite the disastrous election results was seen as a sign of the weakening authority of the central leadership. Sonia’s action has given rise to speculation on further changes in the organisation at the central level. She has started consulting leaders on the road ahead and more heads could roll. Critics, however, ask why she stopped at the state unit chiefs and why the AICC in-charges, which include Priyanka, have been spared.
In what feels like a throwback to 1998 when Sonia convened a Chintan Shivir in Pachmarhi, she has called for a brainstorming session immediately after the budget session of Parliament. The expectation is that it will help the party get clarity on its ideology—how does it deal with the dominant hindutva narrative and assuage the concerns of the Muslim community, fine-tune its messaging on economic issues, build a resolve to match the election machinery of the BJP, and firm up alliances.
The poll debacle and the ensuing churn come at a time when the process to elect a new Congress president is already on and scheduled to culminate by September 2022. Rahul was expected to make a comeback as president, and even now, a vast section of the party wants him to. His detractors, however, say that he has been functioning as a de facto chief, making appointments and taking important decisions, even after quitting as party president following the Lok Sabha poll defeat in 2019. It is felt that the conditions that he had laid down for his return as party chief, which included having a free hand in taking decisions and fixing accountability for the electoral debacle in 2019, are not relevant anymore. It is also felt that he has had a free run in decision-making despite not being party chief, and running the party by proxy should now end.
“Rahul had said that the party should choose a non-Gandhi in his place,” said a leader close to him. “Why did the party leaders not choose a non-Gandhi as the party chief then and instead ask Sonia Gandhi to step in? If the party has certain expectations from him and needs him, he cannot turn away.”
The road ahead presents the Congress with an opportunity to redeem itself, but there are challenges galore. The party has to ensure a good show in the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which are scheduled for later this year. In late 2023, just months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, polls will be held in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. All these states present direct contests between the Congress and the BJP.
Factionalism was a major factor in the Congress’s defeat in Punjab and Uttarakhand, and a major challenge for the leadership would be to control dissidence in the states that go to the polls next. While various camps owing allegiance to leaders like Shaktisinh Gohil, Bharatsinh Solanki, Arjun Modhwadia and Hardik Patel have complicated the preparation in Gujarat, in Himachal Pradesh, there is a tug of war going on between state party chief Kuldeep Singh Rathore and veteran Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu. In Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the party is in power, there has been an ongoing demand for a change at the helm.
In Rajasthan, the supporters of former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot are demanding that a generational change be effected at the helm immediately so that the new leader gets time to alter people’s perceptions. The state has a habit of voting out the incumbent. “In Punjab, Channi was made chief minister a little late in the day. The change should have happened much earlier. Similarly, in Rajasthan, there is a need for a generational change. And it should happen now when we have time to make the necessary changes,” said Ved Prakash Solanki, legislator and a known Pilot supporter.
However, in Chhattisgarh, where Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has built the image of a son of the soil and unleashed a slew of populist measures, a sizable chunk of MLAs has been resisting any shift from the status quo. Veteran leader T.S. Singh Deo has demanded a change of guard and wants to be made chief minister.
“The political situation in Chhattisgarh is very much in favour of the Congress. The BJP is not very active and they do not have a leader to take on Baghel. Also, we have worked to match the election machinery of the BJP,” said Bhilai MLA Devendra Yadav.
On the other hand, Hardik Patel, who is the party’s working president in Gujarat, indicated that he was not in favour of a chief ministerial face in the state. “We should focus on two or three faces. To focus on just one face is risky. These faces will reach out to different communities and social strata so that no one feels left out,” he said.
The AAP, which defeated the Congress in Punjab and is believed to have eaten into the anti-incumbency votes in Goa and Uttarakhand, is being factored in with greater seriousness in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The AAP has declared that it would intensify its campaign in both states. Besides vying for the same votes as the Congress, it could also prove to be a magnet for Congress leaders.
Beyond the intra-party issues, a big challenge before the Congress is to maintain its pole position in the opposition space. The party’s negotiating power in the opposition space has diminished as a result of its electoral drubbings, and its status as the principal opposition party is being challenged. Outside Parliament, leaders like Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and AAP’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal are expected to position themselves as challengers to Modi. Allies like the Nationalist Congress Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have shown increasing restiveness to the Congress failing to get its act together. The DMK, too, has not been averse to holding discussions with other proponents of opposition unity such as Mamata and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao.
It will be wrong, though, to write off the Congress. As its leaders have often pointed out, it still has a sizable presence and recall value across the country, has 753 MLAs (second only to the BJP’s 1,443) and enjoys a 20 per cent vote share nationally. “How can Mamata Banerjee say that the Congress is not relevant anymore and cannot be relied upon? It is still the only party after the BJP with a pan-India presence. Does the Trinamool have any substantial presence outside West Bengal?” asked senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
The party, however, desperately needs a leadership that can inspire, an organisation that can connect with the masses and a slogan that captures the imagination of the people.
Is the grand old party up to the task?