Congress' split personality

The appointment of Sonia Gandhi as interim president of the Congress, well over two months after her son stepped down from the post, points to the stubborn inability of its governing council, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), to face an inconvenient truth. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has helpfully, if derisively, pointed out any number of times these past few years that the party's raison d'etre has been reduced to protecting the interests of the Gandhi family above all else. Over the weekend, the CWC reinforced Mr Modi's contention by ignoring the demands of the party's younger members and some shrewd older members for a radical departure in the administrative apparatus. After all, this dynastic policy forced on the only significant national party a president who, like his father, was reluctant to take on the mantle. As two consecutive Lok Sabha results have shown, he was also manifestly unfit to provide the leadership needed to position the party as a cogent national alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party juggernaut.

The serial victories against the BJP in state elections late last year only masked the party's innate weakness: It could exploit anti-incumbent sentiments at the local level but lacked a coherent counter-ideology to the BJP's majoritarian nationalism. Rahul Gandhi himself has had the nous to understand this, resigning immediately after the disastrous Lok Sabha results. More to the point, he said neither his mother nor his sister (who has never stood for an election) should hold the post, and signalled that the party veterans accept accountability for the election debacle. But the old guard, most of whom appear to be singularly unelectable themselves, appear unable to look beyond the Gandhi family. 

Though it is true that Ms Gandhi is expected to preside only until elections are held, the party's internal politics suggests that the umbilical cord with the Gandhi family is far from cut. Factions are already coalescing around Ms Gandhi and her daughter, Priyanka, and the initial shortlisted persons to fill the president's post were Gandhi loyalists Mallikarjun Kharge (77) and Mukul Wasnik (59), scarcely choices to inspire confidence. Many Congress stalwarts such as Amarinder Singh, Shashi Tharoor, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, and Manish Tewari have been pushing for a younger president. Ms Gandhi's president-ship, however seemingly temporary, is widely seen as a means of avoiding a split. This is the same technique the old guard deployed two decades ago when the party was adrift under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri. Then, any murmurs of discontent had been suppressed. Now, a younger set of leaders has emerged, and they are unlikely to tolerate dynastic entitlement without accountability.

The fissures between these confident and (relatively) Young Turks and the old guard are much more pronounced, and a split along these lines should not be ruled out. In the long run, this may be the best thing that happens to the Congress. With the Left having reduced itself to an irrelevance, the Congress remains the only party with the wherewithal to offer the robust national opposition that is critical to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Relying on a dynastic septuagenarian to force dynamic change in this 134-year-old party with its distinguished record is hardly the way to go about it.

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