Rahul Gandhi has been unable to clean the Augean stable that's the Congress

Rahul Gandhi’s four page statement on Twitter explaining why he has resigned as Congress party president shows that he is unable to intervene decisively in party affairs. Most of the party general secretaries and state unit presidents, nominated by him, have continued to stay on as if nothing had happened. It is difficult to predict whether the resignations of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora will prod the Old Guard into quitting.

Before the general elections, Rahul Gandhi had successfully reinvented his persona. He was being seen as a pugilist who could take on the incumbent prime minister aggressively and with confidence. However, he seems intent on swapping that image for one of a frustrated politician, throwing up his hands.

There are reports that during the election campaign he was driven by the belief that his party would win sufficient number of parliamentary seats to make him the prime minister of a Congress-led coalition. Perhaps the shattering of that make-believe scenario has made him recoil into renunciation.

Inexplicably, he continued to hold meetings with Congress leaders from the election going states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand and has even appointed a new party president in Chhattisgarh. Having resigned, continuing to hold durbar can only reinforce the image of the Congress as a feudal operation.

The agenda before Rahul Gandhi was clear. He needed to fashion strategies to strengthen the party structure where the Congress won elections or lost recently and to revitalise party organisation in states where it had become non-existent by repeatedly failing to win elections.

He also needed to reform the process of candidate selection of state and parliamentary elections. In the 2014 general election, he made sporadic attempts to get candidates chosen by constituency level organisations. However, that process was given us as suddenly as it was started without assessing its efficacy.

The party’s lack of resources, which Rahul Gandhi bemoans in his resignation statement, has impacted it both in terms of running election campaigns as well as candidate selection. Because the party does not have committed cadres, it has become dependent on hired hands for campaigning, organising rallies and meetings or even putting up posters. In other parties such workers or “daily wagers” only supplement the committed cadres. In the Congress, however, the absence of such cadre in a large number of states makes the problem more acute.  

This has also pushed the party to follow the practice of some regional parties which opt for fat-cat candidates who can not only fund their own election but also contribute to the party’s coffers. Increasingly, therefore, the party has been represented by individuals whose self-interest trumps any notion of public service. The party today is manned at various levels by either businessmen trying to protect their interests, contractors trying to increase their access to government projects or those in the business of liaison and brokering. Such people have no qualms in shifting their political allegiances to maximise their gains.

This is the Augean stable that Rahul Gandhi has to clean. But is a four page statement on Twitter the best broom he could use for this?

As Congress president and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, Rahul Gandhi always had the authority to reorganise the party, change its leadership and change its practices at all levels. Since he took over as party president in 2017, Rahul had ample time to understand what ails the Congress.

It may be argued that the impending general elections made it impossible for him to attempt a radical overhaul of the party during the one and half years he was the president of the party. It would have disrupted the party far too much before the general election. But there were no such constraints after the elections were over. However, he does not seem to have used the opportunity provided by the resounding electoral defeat.

The 2019 defeat is the second consecutive Lok Sabha defeat of the Congress. If the results of 2014 could be ascribed to ten years of anti-incumbency, a repeat of the debacle points to a deeper malaise. Between 2014 and 2019, the party’s vote share has remained virtually stagnant –19.5% and 19.6%, respectively. And now the party stares at a possible decline.

This then was the right time for the Congress president to initiate radical changes. He could have told the top leadership of the party that they were all collectively responsible for the defeat and had to make way for a team of next generation leaders. He could have also suggested that a new team be put in place after the state assembly elections of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. But instead of using the election defeat as an opportunity for drastic surgery, the surgeon has chosen to run away from the operation theatre on impulse.

Both Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi have shown that neither of them possesses a political temperament. Rahul Gandhi chose to attack some Congress leaders for focussing on their filial interests in the elections rather than on the party’s, but did not remove them from the positions they hold. De-legitimising and damaging these leaders publicly and then not acting against them, has harmed both Rahul Gandhi and the party. Similarly, Priyanka Gandhi should have been more circumspect in expressing her frustration when she reportedly exclaimed in the CWC meeting, “The murderers of this party are sitting in this room!”

It is strange that “guilty” continue to occupy CWC positions even now. The people Rahul Gandhi wants to purge have been entrusted with the crucial task of choosing the next party president. It is unlikely that the CWC will choose someone who does not have the blessing of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Such a person will be expected to perform a holding operation till the next crisis, when Congressmen will once again clamour for a member of the family to take charge. This unnecessary drama can only further sap the limited energies of the party and its anaemic leadership.

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