I say this not as a political activist, but as an experienced journalist – the Congress party is losing the plot very fast and with every passing day, it is digging its own grave. As a member of a rival party, I can rejoice at its demise, but as a thinking individual, I can say that this demise will not auger well for Indian politics. The country needs a strong opposition to counter the malaise of the ruling party, the country needs a strong opposition for a healthy democracy, the country needs a strong opposition so as not to let democracy turn into a dictatorship. Unfortunately, the Congress demonstrates neither the intent nor the killer instinct to fight back.
Yesterday, everyone was waiting for the party to make the transition and anoint Rahul Gandhi to the top post in the party; there was expectation that he would be appointed Congress President, but it did not happen. Many people have serious reservations about Rahul’s leadership capabilities – that he does not have the mettle to lead the party at a juncture when the Congress is faced with the toughest challenge of its life and is shrinking from the mind-space of the people. But if that is indeed the case, then the Congress should in fact be far more decisive. The party should decide very soon if it wants Rahul to continue – or is it preparing for some other arrangement? The confusion about his anointment is proving to be more chaotic and damaging than his continuance.
The Congress is up against a party and a leader who is always in campaign mode. Narendra Modi began preparing for a second term right after he took over as Prime Minister in 2014. He is experimenting with many narratives. When he was attacked for his pro-rich policies and initiatives, he changed track; now he and his government talk only about the poor. He very cleverly turned demonetisation into a fight against the corrupt-rich and black money hoarders, though the biggest sufferer was the common man on the street, the small businessman, the salaried and the lower middle class. The Congress, being the principal opposition, could not exploit this fiasco to its advantage. It has been the Congress leadership’s biggest failure in recent times. It made a lot of noise but it could not connect with the people. Or one can say that Modi’s communication skills were far superior to Rahul’s.
Take another example. In Uttar Pradesh, after the stupendous victory of the BJP, Modi realised that the opposition was going to unite, so he has begun looking to other frontiers for seats. UP is the state that in 2014 gave the BJP and its allies 73 seats, a performance which is difficult to repeat. In 2014, a divided opposition was fighting separately and the BJP was the beneficiary. Now, after the assembly elections, all the parties have realised that divided they will help Modi, and united, they can put a check on Modi in UP. Modi and Amit Shah have figured this out and have started looking for new areas to compensate for future losses in the state. Amit Shah has been camping in Kerala, West Bengal, the North East and Odisha. Even Tamil Nadu is on their radar. There is immense speculation about Rajinikanth being roped in for their mission.
It is in this context that the confusion in the Congress is doing more damage. Rahul does not inspire confidence in the public at large. Sonia Gandhi’s health is not good. So sooner or later, a new arrangement has to be made, and if the Congress thinks that Rahul is the only alternative, then the anointment should be done sooner than later. Because the new president needs to organise his team and his strategy on a long-term basis and his writ should be allowed to run. Today, for all practical purposes, Rahul is the leader of the party, but there is confusion in the rank and file. Decisions are not taken and factionalism is raising its head everywhere.
The Congress came back strongly in Punjab, Goa and Manipur in the recent state elections, but except in Punjab, where it got a decisive mandate, it could not turn the situation in its favour. In Goa, the Congress most unexpectedly did well and won 17 seats, three less than the majority number. The BJP was way behind with 13 seats, but it moved faster and arranged alliances to form the government. The Congress kept crying foul, but this exposed its weakness and inability when faced with such a Machiavellian opponent. It was more of the Congress’s failure than the BJP’s success. The party in Goa is vertically divided between two camps and it could not decide who would be Chief Minister; the BJP took advantage and formed the government. Similarly, the Congress proved to be a loser in Manipur too where it was the single-largest party, but once again, the BJP upstaged it and went on to form the government.
The Congress has to face five assembly elections before the 2019 parliamentary battle. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, the BJP is in power, and in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has to defend its turf. But the Congress does not look prepared. In Gujarat, the Congress is dealing with the revolt of its old war-horse, Shankar Singh Vaghela, who is demanding that he be projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate like Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab. Vaghela wants a major say in ticket distribution and has already served the party an ultimatum and there are enough signals that he might break the party with more than two dozen MLAs backing him. That would be disaster for the Congress. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has to deal with Virbhadra Singh, who is Chief Minister but named in corruption cases. Yet, the Congress can’t bet on any other leader.
In Rajasthan, it is the older generation against the newer one. Sachin Pilot was given charge, but he has not been able to work due to fierce resistance from the Ashok Gehlot camp. Vasundhara Raje is hugely unpopular, but a divided house means the Congress will not be able to leverage that weakness. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has more leaders than workers. Every leader is behaving like a warlord. These leaders are more interested in defeating their rivals in the party than Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Chhattisgarh is ripe for change, but is the Congress ready? It has no leadership. Ajit Jogi has formed his own party.
Factionalism has been the bane of the Congress since Indira Gandhi who used to encourage leaders to fight among themselves, but Sonia and Rahul are not Indira Gandhi. And frankly speaking, there is no challenge to their leadership too. But because of the two power centres, regional leaders are exploiting the situation. The Congress needs one power point, and if it is Rahul Gandhi, then so be it. Sonia should declare upfront that she is no longer the top boss. Her presence gives strength to a set of leaders who have been controlling the party organisation since 1997 when she stepped into active politics. These leaders do not want Rahul to succeed as that will be the death of their political careers. And if Rahul is not given the command, or somebody else takes the charge, or the confusion persists, that will be fatal for the party. It has to move fast. Time is running out for them. Sonia has to act