It is likely that the party’s allies in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, two of the five states going to the polls in April-May, might insist on allocating fewer seats than they did in 2016, reports Archis Mohan.
IMAGE: Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul are facing dissent within the party. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
For long, the Congress was the umbrella party of India. But fewer and fewer of its erstwhile support groups wish to stand underneath that umbrella anymore.
The latest crisis the party is facing stems from its disheartening performance in the Bihar assembly elections, and dismal showing in the assembly bypolls for 59 seats in 11 states.
Ironically, the utility of the Congress for its Bihar allies was that the once all-embracing party was to help the alliance net upper caste votes.
The Congress leadership isn’t unnerved that it failed to win upper castes, but that even the Muslims, the last group under that umbrella, deserted it in several seats for Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen.
Dissent has again reared its head within the party, as have efforts at damage control. Both these have come from party veterans.
Senior leaders Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram have called for tough decisions to reinvigorate party organisational structures. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has led the way in ending the party’s pusillanimity on taking an unambiguous stand against the move to ban the so called ‘love jihad’.
Neither of these moves bodes well for former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and especially for his band of advisers, who now control the levers of the party without taking direct accountability of their actions.
At least since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Gandhi, and his advisors, have found reasons to blame the veterans for the party’s current lot, but were also quick to take credit for the rare electoral successes of the party, like the one in Jharkhand in December 2019.
The veterans are set to be unsparing on Gandhi and his team after the disaster of Bihar since leaders close to Gandhi managed the Bihar campaign, even overriding the local party unit. Voices will get strident that Gandhi either takes up the reins of the party early next year or bow out in favour of collective leadership of the seniors.
To the horror of Gandhi and his advisors, their incompetence is difficult to hide. Of the 70 seats that they wangled from the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Gandhi’s team picked as party candidates over two dozen with little experience of political work in their constituencies.
Sibal and others are yet to directly accuse Gandhi and his coterie. Senior Jharkhand Congress leader Furqan Ansari has, however, belled the cat. He has said Gandhi’s advisors, and those working in his office, are “mainly MBA graduates” incapable of giving the Congress leader “the right advice or suggest key talking points for his campaign”.
The Congress is swirling with stories of Gandhi’s non-chalance to the task at hand. If RJD’s Shivanand Tiwari questioned Gandhi vacationing in Shimla, when Bihar campaigning was still on, others have said he was on a desert safari in Jaisalmer on the day of the counting.
Some others complain about his equally blasé sibling. Party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is yet to shift to Lucknow. The Congress candidates forfeited deposits in four of the seven assembly bypolls in Uttar Pradesh. But there is not a single mass leader within the party who can challenge the siblings.
The Congress decline has emboldened leaders like Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal to wonder if it is time to think of an alternative to the Congress at the national level. Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao has proposed a federal front.
“In several states, and as the results of the bypolls showed in Odisha and Telangana, the Congress has shifted from the general ward to the ICU,” a party leader said.
Party’s Bihar election campaign head Akhilesh Pratap Singh says it is time for organisational overhaul in states for better election results. He, and others in the party, fear that regional parties would no longer accord the Congress the same respect they did earlier.
Communist Party of India-Marxist–Leninist’s Dipankar Bhattacharya has said it was a mistake giving the Congress more than 50 seats in Bihar. It is likely that allies of the Congress in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, two of the five states going to the polls in April-May, might insist on allocating fewer seats to the Congress than they did in 2016.
The Congress walked independent India’s electoral landscape unchallenged for 25 years. Those that challenged it — the Communists, Socialists, and Jana Sangh — were influential only in pockets.
But all these parties had something in common — these were not only deeply ideological but also non-dynastic. The Congress veterans hope to make a strong push for the party to rediscover its ideological moorings and rebuild its organisational strength.
As recent elections have shown, people have voted against the Bharatiya Janata Party when presented with a credible alternative, including in Jharkhand and Delhi, and nearly so in Haryana.
Meanwhile, those in Rahul Gandhi’s team are convinced that age is on their side, and that of their leader, and their time will come, if not sooner than later. There are at least two leaders in the BJP who believe the same.