Time to change Congress party leadership

March 18, 2017 06:31 PM
Rahul Gandhi-Sonia Gandhi

WRITER: S. Nihal Singh

Grim showing of the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Assembly elections has been magnified by the laconic comment of Mr Rahul Gandhi, the torchbearer of the party’s campaign, as a minor dip in its fortunes. Immediately, both the Congress vice-president and other Congress leaders resorted to using medical terminology of surgery, the former on the organisation and the latter on various parts of the party anatomy.

 The key question of who will perform the excisions and on what part of the anatomy remained unsaid. But the torrent was not coming as Congress leaders almost in unison blamed the usual culprits: Mr Gandhi’s  ‘coterie’ working in a bubble and making a mess of state election prospects. The fact that the BJP stole the Goa election, despite the numbers and Manipur went to the BJP while the Congress leadership tarried was too glaring to be swept under the carpet.

It would doubtless be a painful exercise for the Congress president to break the dynastic mould of the party to which she has given most of her adult life. But if the future of the party is more important to her, she must swallow the bitter pill and let a promising leader shepherd the party in the new environment. 

 The existential problem for the Congress is simple but difficult for party men to articulate. Irrespective of the emperor having no clothes, the party runs on the dynastic principle and although Mr Gandhi has proved he lacks political instincts, what is left of the Congress would splinter if a member of the family were not to head it, especially in today’s straightened circumstances.

 The obvious question to ask is: What now happens to the Congress? Will it learn to swim in the choppy waters or drown? There is still widespread sympathy for the party in view of its unique role in winning India’s Independence and in steering the country through most of its independent existence. There is also an ideological twist to the alternative offered because the BJP would want to take the country to a narrow form of nationalism. The BJP is already rewriting history and its official organ is giving space to finding the legendary Saraswati river, rather than focusing on urgent problems facing the country.

 In terms of her ailing health, Ms Sonia Gandhi is in no position to be a chief campaigner in elections, having helped give the party 10 year of coalition rule under Dr Manmohan Singh. One last contribution she could make for the Congress and the legacy of a once great party would be to let a dynamic young man take the party’s leadership and let her son Rahul lead his life away from politics. 

It would doubtless be a painful exercise for the Congress president to break the dynastic mould of the party to which she has given most of her adult life. But if the future of the party is more important to her, she must swallow the bitter pill and let a promising leader shepherd the party in the new environment. Already, as the Punjab consolation for the Congress has tellingly demonstrated, the AAP is seeking to steal Congress clothes in the ideological battle that will be fought in the months and years to come.

 The future will determine whether Sonia has the guts to desert her plans for Rahul for the greater cause of the party’s future. In view of the dispirited state of the traditional Congress leadership, there is little inclination on the part of party workers at the regional level to exert themselves. Traditionally, the Congress success has depended on strong leaders in the states owing loyalty to the central leadership, in later years Indira Gandhi, in gathering and retaining support.

Horse-trading is not new to politics and the Congress over the decades had developed it into a fine art, best exemplified by the PV Narasimha Rao regime at the Centre. The BJP has merely borrowed from the Indira book to convert its minority status into power in Goa and Manipur. Men (and women) are attracted to the loaves and fishes of office.

To begin with, the Congress must realise that it is living in a new political India in which a determined leader, diligently copying Indira Gandhi’s tactic, has made the welfare of the poor his main plank and is doing all he can through modern technology to replace the Independence party as the hegemonic party in the country.

 Merely tinkering with the organisation, as Mr Gandhi suggests, will lead nowhere if the leadership remains unchanged. The great difference between the Congress vice-president and Mr Modi is that the latter uses it selectively to propagate his cause, Rahul is so fascinated by its wonders that he seems to be sold to it and the set of computer whizz kids who operate the system unmindful of the compulsions of politics that drive men and parties.

 Yet Ms Sonia Gandhi must be contemplating the central dilemma: How can the party regain its old ethos if there is no family member to guide it? Rahul’s sister Priyanka’s name as a successor invariably pops up but she has children and a controversial husband to look after although she does possess what her brother lacks, political savviness and a common touch that appeals to people, whatever their standing.

 Of course, naming anyone outside the family would cause a riot among the Congress leaders, each of whom would want to be offered the position. Indeed, a new leadership would mean a wholesale sacking of old party men who have become lazy in their new sedentary avatar.

Perhaps the problem can be approached in another manner. What the BJP is preparing to do is change the idea of India. It chimes with the worldwide trend towards populism covered by narrow nationalism and a swing to the right. There is scope here for the Congress to redefine the ‘socialist pattern of society’ of the Nehru era to a more egalitarian humanism that can be endorsed by large sections of people. Giving a catchy name to it should be left to proficient slogan makers although Mr Modi’s men would be unavailable for the job.

In short, the time has come for Ms Sonia Gandhi to take bold decisions. If the party is more important than the family, as it must be, her priority should be for making way for a young leader with potential to lead the party.

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