Congress at crossroads: Can letter-politics save the party?

The Congress party has been shirking the two most important challenges before it: election of a full-time president and resolving factional disputes in the states.

The letter from 23 Congressmen to Sonia Gandhi, leaked to the media on the eve of a crucial Congress Working Committee meeting, suggests that the rot is deeper than imagined. Although packaged as an agenda for organisational reform, the letter indicates that the signatories -- and perhaps others -- have lost faith in the Gandhi family’s leadership. They suggest setting up a “collective leadership” where the family will have a seat along with others.

However the talk of “collective leadership” also reveals a lack of consensus in accepting a leader from among themselves. Would they not have otherwise proposed his or her as party president? Whether one likes it or not, the Congress has become a party where only the Gandhis continue to have a pan-India appeal, acceptance and brand recognition. It cannot be transformed suddenly without self-destructing.

Instead of writing public letters, senior Congress leaders on the wrong side of seventy should be grooming new leaders. They hold no appeal to youthful voters who, according to them, have been alienated by Rahul Gandhi.

Recently, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi was quoted as having said that she agreed with her brother that someone from outside the Gandhi family should be the party president. This made sense more than a year ago when the interview was given, immediately after Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president. It has no relevance today.

The time for a non-Gandhi to lead the Party has come and gone. At the time of Rahul’s resignation, a party shell-shocked by electoral defeat, chose the safety of the Gandhi family, and made Sonia Gandhi its interim-president. A year down, the circumstances have changed. The party has created no  process for electing a non-Gandhi as its president. Nor have those who oppose Rahul Gandhi been able to prop-up an alternative to him.

In recent months there were several straws in the wind indicating that Rahul Gandhi was readying to take charge as party president. His public interventions, interviews, press interactions and aggressive public posture all pointed to it. Sonia Gandhi was also decidedly absent from the scene during the Rajasthan crisis, with Rahul Gandhi taking decisions normally taken by the party chief.

But the process has been delayed endlessly. Perhaps it was hoped that a chorus of party workers and leaders would demand his return as President. But no such orchestration has been possible in the face of discordant voices within, the conditions created by the pandemic and the prolonged political crisis in Rajasthan.

Any further delay in electing a full-time president may invite the intervention of the Election Commission for violating the norms set for political parties. The Congress therefore needs to set in motion a process for its organisational rejuvenation both at the Centre and in the states. To be Congress president, Rahul Gandhi must be elected through a democratic process even if it is only a straw candidate who opposes him.

The solution to the internal squabbles in the party’s state units is to hold genuine organisational elections.

 

Despite attempts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to project him as a callow leader, he has repeatedly proven them wrong. Political conditions will not always remain favourable to the BJP. When the winds of change come, the Congress should be ready to put up its sails. That requires a healthy organisation and a captain firmly in charge. Rahul Gandhi is the best bet to lead the party as he remains. No “collective leadership” of geriatrics can achieve what he can.

Organisational elections, which even the collective letter of Congressmen suggests, are urgently necessary. They alone can help resolve factionalism in the state units and to ready them for facing elections. Crises may erupt in states other than Rajasthan. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh’s government is in an ongoing battle with former state Congress president and party MP, Pratap Singh Bajwa. In Jharkhand, internal squabbles have meant that even ministerial berths in the coalition government have not been filled. The party also does not have a full-time president.

After dissidence brought down the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has had to take defensive action. He has distributed loaves and fishes of office to 50 legislators and other potential dissidents. This was to contain the simmering intra-party rivalry between Baghel, and other aspirants for his job like T S Singh Deo, Tamradhwaj Sahu and Charandas Mahant.

In Maharashtra, the factional war in the Mumbai unit remains unresolved and  the party has not found a suitable candidate to head the prestigious Mumbai Congress Committee. Eighty-year-old Eknath Gaikwad continues to be acting president since the removal of Sanjay Nirupam. In Rajasthan, the crisis could have a second coming whenever Pilot has the numbers and the prospect of getting a good deal are brighter.

The solution to the internal squabbles in the party’s state units is to hold genuine organisational elections. Democratic processes would help elected leaders gain organisational legitimacy and their detractors to accept them. The party will also be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the state units.

The Congress party can no longer resolve factionalism by dispensing patronage because it is out of power at the Centre and in large swathes of the country. Organisational elections are the alternative route for providing upward mobility to ambitious and honest party workers. When the high command is weak it needs healthy state units to support it. Even if the BJP seems unassailable at the Centre, in the states at least the people should be able to see the Congress as a credible alternative.

Setting an organisational election process in motion ought to be the party’s mission over the next six months. Without an organisation, even if the party develops a political counter-narrative, without new energy and new leaders at the grassroots, there would be no one to carry it to the people.



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