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Can The Congress Heal Itself?

After its rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election and then Rahul Gandhi’s resignation, the Congress has slipped into a deep coma. It will take nothing short of shock therapy for the party to emerge from this stupor

Kaushik Deka

On July 3, in a four-page letter posted on Twitter, Rahul Gandhi declared that he had resigned as Congress president. Ten days later, a statement issued by All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal announced that the ‘honourable Congress president’ had approved the proposal for the appointment of the president and working presidents of the Maharashtra Congress Committee. Unlike in the past, where such appointment letters categorically said Congress president Rahul Gandhi, this note did not mention the name of the ‘honourable Congress president’.

Who, then, is the Congress president?

Who approved these appointments? When asked, Congress communication in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala told India today: “Rahul Gandhi continues to be the president of the party as the party has not accepted his resignation. These appointments were approved by Rahul Gandhi.” So, confusion reigns and it appears Rahul is still unofficially in charge.

It’s this kind of rudderlessness that has brought the party to its current pass in Indian electoral politics—it has just 52 representatives in the 543-member Lok Sabha and is in power in only six out of 29 states—Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Puducherry—accounting for 838 members of the total 4,120 MLAs across the country. It does not have a single MLA in five state assemblies—Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Delhi. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it drew a blank in 13 states. The declining-pan-India reach of the party is evident from the fact that 31 of its 52 seats came from just three states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

Now, with the confusion over Rahul Gandhi’s resignation, most party leaders, especially the workers on the ground, are staring at an uncertain future and feeling demoralised and directionless. Three states—Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand—will go to the polls later this year. Despite a drubbing in all three states in the general election, the Congress units remain mired in infighting with no immediate plan of putting up a fight in the assembly polls. Maharashtra got a new president last week in Balasaheb Thorat, but, without the backing of a strong central leadership, it will be a daunting task for him to put the faction-ridden state Congress in order. If that weren’t enough, a series of defections and desertions—first in Karnataka and then in Goa—now threatens to spread to other states, particularly MP, where the Kamal Nath-led Congress government survives on a wafer-thin majority. In both Karnataka and Goa, the party had seen the crisis approaching, but failed to avert it. It is this inexplicable unwillingness to act in time that has crippled the party at the national level and in almost every state.

RESIGNATION OR REBELLION?

In 2014, after the party was reduced to 44 members in the Lok Sabha, Rahul, then the Congress vice-president, had, following consultations with over 400 party leaders and workers from across the country, prepared a blueprint for a radical restructuring of the party and submitted it to his mother and then Congress president Sonia Gandhi. However, both she and the party veterans were wary of Rahul’s radical plans and put his blueprint in cold storage. An upset Rahul went for a nearly two-month-long Vipassana retreat, returned calmer and agreed to work around the traditional Congress set-up, making adjustments in bits and pieces. When he became president in December 2017, he reached out to the veterans and constituted a Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decisionmaking body of the party, which had an average age of 67. The priorities, too, had changed—defeating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party seemed more urgent than embarking on an overhaul of the party, which was a long-term project. Rahul yielded to the demands of the veterans—Amarinder Singh was made Punjab Congress president and eventually the chief minister; Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath were also made chief ministers.

But when it came to expecting returns from these stalwarts, Rahul felt let down. In what turned out to be almost a presidential-style election between Rahul and Modi, the Gandhi scion used multiple weapons against the prime minister— allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal, the promise of NYAY or a minimum income guarantee to the poor, and earlier even indulged in theatrics by hugging the prime minister in Parliament to showcase his message of love and compassion versus the BJP’s ‘divisive politics’. He practised soft Hindutva, hopping from one temple to the other. But, as his close aides often complain, no senior leader across the country made any attempt to take his message to the voters.

“He travelled across the country, shouting at the top of his voice, fighting Modi and the RSS,” says a close aide of Rahul. “The so-called veterans, with claims of massive networks and following within the party, did not even motivate party workers to disseminate Rahul’s message. Considering the anger against the Modi government on economic issues such as demonetisation and unemployment, NYAY could have been a game-changer. But the voters were unaware of it even in states we were ruling, such as MP and Rajasthan.” This sentiment finds echo among grassroots workers. “Why should it be only the Gandhi family’s job to carry the entire burden?” asks Jagdish Bhati, 54, a Congress worker from Jodhpur.

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