Stage set for August 10: Clarity likely on Congress leadership muddle

The current battle is seen as setting the stage for August 10 when Sonia Gandhi completes one year of interim presidentship, and questions are being raised about a leadership vacuum.
Interim Congress President Sonia Gandhi is out of hospital and on Rahul Gandhi’s direction, the party’s media spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala told squabbling colleagues to stop it immediately. But there’s no direct word from the top leadership about putting an end to the war of words in the Congress that continues to rage over why the party is where it is and who should be held accountable.

The current battle is seen as setting the stage for August 10 when Sonia completes one year of interim presidentship, and questions are being raised about a leadership vacuum. For the first time, responsible quarters are suggesting that as Sonia cannot function as interim president indefinitely and Rahul seems to want power but not the responsibility, one way out is collective leadership.

“In the Congress, we have collective leadership in practice. Now it might be time to institutionalise it,” said a top source in the party.

Those with proximity to Rahul are hoping he will change his mind and assume presidentship of the party — this means their position in the Congress apparatus will be secure.

“The generational clash is exaggerated. It is mostly people who have individual problems with one another,” said the source. The issue erupted last week at a meeting of Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) called by Sonia. A routine review meeting saw her in the vortex of a heated debate that touched on policy issues as well as personalities. And it shows no sign of ending.

At this meeting, several MPs, including Rajiv Satav and K C Venugopal, thought to be loyal to Rahul held the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years responsible for the decline in the Congress’ fortunes. By implication, this meant criticism of former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s government and its policies. Several leaders came out in public to say that while they respected Singh, they had a view that needed to be taken into account.

Sushmita Dev, chief of the women’s wing of the Congress, the Mahila Congress, said the Congress was a democracy and leaders had a right to say what they wanted to on an internal forum. The other side reacted instantly.

Congress leader and lawmaker Manish Tewari said: “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was out of office for 10 years (from 2004 to 2014). Not once did it blame Atal Bihari Vajpayee or his government for its predicament then. In the Congress, unfortunately, some ill-informed Congressmen would rather take swipes at the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government than fight the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)/BJP. When unity is required, they divide.”

Milind Deora, a junior minister in the UPA, said: “When demitting office in 2014, Singh said: ‘History will be kinder to me’. Could he ever have imagined that some from his own party would dismiss his years of service to the nation and seek to destroy his legacy — that too, in his presence?”

Chief ministers of the party, who hold the real power, are keeping absolutely quiet. Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh), Captain Amarinder Singh (Punjab), and Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) have stayed out of the whole controversy.

The debate inside the party is not just on its current predicament, it is also on who the primary enemy of the party is. Several leaders have advised Rahul that equivalence with Narendra Modi is a mistake as Modi’s popularity is at its peak. Instead the Congress should find blindspots within the BJP and the NDA government —  there are plenty — and focus on those. These leaders include R P N Singh, Jairam Ramesh and others. However, there is no evidence that Rahul is taking this advice.

August 10 will bring some clarity on the leadership muddle in the party. The party constitution vests the Congress Working Committee with the authority to appoint someone who can run the organisation when faced with a crisis — a decision that has to be ratified by the All India Congress Committee (AICC). However, an AICC session might not be possible in the midst of a pandemic. Therefore, collective leadership might be the only answer. But no one knows what shape this will take: an advisory committee, an executive group or some other body.

Till then, Congressmen want to be seen and heard.

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