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There is a leadership crisis in the Congress as it continues on its downward slide. New strategies need to be urgently drawn up which look beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family and focus on core issues if the party is to revive.
By Kalyani Shankar


Years ago I asked a senior Congress leader the secret of why the party is clinging to the Gandhi dynasty. Pat came his reply: members of the Gandhi family were simply seen as being one notch above the others. Through highs and lows, the party has been sticking to the dynasty for decades, perhaps due to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. But does this thinking still hold now that the party is sliding?

No one expected Sonia Gandhi (who entered politics in 1997 as a novice) to complete 18 years as Congress president—a record indeed even for the Gandhi family! To perpetuate the dynasty she has been pushing her son Rahul Gandhi while keeping her daughter Priyanka in reserve. After the Rahul-Sonia duo failed in 2014, there was a “Priyanka lao desh bachao” call but many Congressmen were not enthused because she also carries the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra who is involved in allegations of corruption.

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EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA

Today the Congress faces a leadership crisis and an existential dilemma mainly due to a weak and ineffective leadership. The magic touch of the dynasty seems to be waning. There is no doubt after its humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and subsequent assembly elections that the Congress needs a strategy to recover and for this it needs strong and credible leadership.

The present crisis has been heightened by the fact that the Gandhis don’t allow other leaders to grow. They see them as a challenge to the mother-son duo though the latter seem no longer capable of getting votes for a party which has always relied on its top leadership to deliver on this count.

True, this is not the first time that the party has been virtually written off. In the past the Congress has bounced back after being pushed to the brink. Remember, it came back after the Emergency in 1980, recovered from the Bofors scandal in 1991 and trumped the BJP/NDA in 2004 to rule the country for two successive terms. But will the party revive again or is it the end of the road for the Congress?

Prime Minister Modi has been talking of a ‘Congress Mukth Bharat’ and the party, it would seem, is heading towards possible self-extinction. It has not gained since its 2014 defeat when it was reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. In the subsequent assembly elections it had a poor showing—except in Bihar where it increased its tally riding on a JD (U)-Congress coalition in 2015. The party is expected to lose Assam and Kerala in the ongoing assembly polls and it doesn’t have much of a presence in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. In West Bengal too its popularity is on the decline.

The Congress has becomes weak due to threats from both inside and outside. It is facing minor revolts and dissidence in state units while it is fighting the BJP onslaught. The Congress-ruled state governments like Himachal Pradesh and Manipur look shaky with the BJP waiting to destabilize them.

The Congress has basically lost touch with the common man in whose name it came to power in 2004. The party has lost its base in many states including Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha, Delhi, Maharashtra West Bengal, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 was a misadventure for the Congress leadership as the party lost both Telangana and Andhra.

Why is the Congress in the dumps? It began ever since Sonia Gandhi decided to take a backseat and anoint her son as the supreme leader. Simultaneously, there was the rise of Modi who was projected as a strong leader and Rahul Gandhi proved to be no match for him. And Sonia has, in the past two years, not been pro-active enough.

True, she gives a patient ear to those who approach her for favors or with complaints, but she directs them to Rahul Gandhi. The Congress vice-president has no time for these party leaders and workers and therefore they shuttle between 10 Janpath and Rahul rather dispirited. This is exactly what happened to dissidents from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Himachal Pradesh in the past one year resulting in the loss of Arunachal Pradesh six months ago and a crisis in Uttarakhand.

The party can hardly afford to continue this confusion and also a dual leadership at the top. The Congress Working Committee, the top policy making body, has become ineffective as it’s packed with “yes men”. The Parliamentary Board, which was above the CWC, has been done away with. Therefore decisions are ad hoc and taken by a handful of people. Senior leaders do not want to take any initiative.

DEMORALIZED SECOND RUNG

Another worrying factor is the demoralization among the workers and second rung leaders. A number of them have left the party before and since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Most of those who quit the party have been Pradesh Congress Committee presidents or vice-presidents or general secretaries or ministers at one time or the other. These include GK Vasan, C Gnanasekharan, Giridhar Gamang, D Srinivas, Abdul Ghani Vakil and Chaudhary Birender Singh, Himanta Biswa Sarma. They quit because they see no future for them.

Various Congress splinter groups have set up their own outfits like the YSR Congress. There is revolt in several of the Congress-ruled states including Manipur, Assam, Uttara­khand, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Karnataka. In short, indecision at the top, lack of leadership in the state level as well at the national level, revolt by the disgruntled Congressmen in various states, delay in Rahul formally taking over the party, his inability to inspire confidence among the party workers, dual leadership of Rahul and Sonia and the growth of the BJP are the main reasons for the demoralization.

Therefore, time has come for the Congress to introspect. Even now it is not too late as the Congress has presence even in villages. The only thing required is a roadmap, hard work and enthusiastic foot soldiers. There was a time when the party was ruling in almost all the states after Independence. Today it is controlling only 11 percent of the population, which could go down to six per cent if it loses Assam and Kerala.

This, in turn, would also echo in the Rajya Sabha where the Congress is in a majority and blocked several crucial reform bills in the last two years. In the coming years, it will be a different story. Even if the BJP were not able to get a majority in the Upper House, it would certainly improve its position. It will also try to cut a deal with the regional parties, which need the Centre’s patronage on many issues.

Even in the presidential and vice-presidential elections due next year, the Congress cannot have its say because it has only 900 of the 4,120 MLAs in the country, this might be reduced further in the next two years.

In the past two years Rahul Gandhi has not shown any improvement in his vote catching capacities except perhaps in Bihar. His performance in parliament has also been dismal. Unless he improves, his leadership will continue to be in question. He did show some initiative after his surprise sabbatical last year but that is not enough. He needs to become a 24/7 politician, interacting with the people, his party workers, leaders, allies and the media.

There should be wider consultations at conclaves where all views are welcomed and heard. There must be a sense of urgency in this. The UPA is shrinking fast. While Sonia is on the verge of retirement, the son is not able to inspire the same level of confidence. In the process the party has failed to reform or tackle issues relating to its functioning. Unless the Congress woos other smaller parties and forms a viable combination, the 2019 polls may well turn out to be a repeat of 2014.

NEEDED: NEW STRATEGIES

The style of functioning must also change. The party workers now feel alienated and neglected when they are unable to get an audience with the Gandhis. Unless they are enthused the party cannot revive. The workers are not used to the email culture while Rahul Gandhi wants to be informed of everything through the e-mails. This mismatch has to be tackled. The ordinary worker wants to meet the leader in person or someone who they think could get their work done. Rahul’s coterie does not inspire confidence.

The leadership should delegate authority. It should also develop a second line of leadership at the local as well as national levels. It is not as if the party lacks talent. It has more talented people than the BJP because of its strong roots.

The Congress chief ministers should be given a free hand. The practice of nominating the chief ministers from Delhi should stop. The Congress had such stalwarts like GB Pant, BC Roy and C Rajagopalachari at one point of time who co existed with Nehru. A strong national leadership and a strong state leadership can certainly be to the advantage of the party.

In many parties when generational changes take place, there is always some apprehension. The same is happening in the Congress. The older generation, which is apprehensive of its future under Rahul, is blocking his elevation. Rahul wants to get rid of those above sixty and build his own younger team. While those who are sure of their place in the party are cheering Rahul’s leadership, his visibility and his oratory, there are others who have doubts.­

Right now both the mother and son are being told by their advisers that they should sit tight and wait for the BJP to falter. Will this plan succeed? It is a million dollar question because the voters are no longer enchanted by the Gandhi family magic. Finally, the Congress has to look beyond the dynasty as there are several young and talented leaders who could revive the party. Unless that happens the leadership crisis will continue.

(This article features in India Legal – May 15 issue)

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