Thursday, August 18, 2022

Is the grand old party over?

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Highs and lows in politics are common. But the repeated decimation of this party in various elections makes one wonder if it is on the cusp of extinction and reinvention

By Bhavdeep Kang

 When the Indian National Congress lost its deposit at the venue of its birth—Gowalia Tank in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill assembly segment, where 72 eminent citizens had founded the party on December 28, 1885—no one took notice in the face of the party’s comprehensive drubbing in the Maharashtra assembly elections. It was a byte of trivia forgotten except, perhaps, by that wise old Congress historian on Raisina Hill.

The disconnect with its own history emphasizes the party’s current dilemma: having long since frittered away the advantages of its colonial heritage—leadership, identification with Independence, a pan-Indian organization, control over state resources and a fragmented opposition—the Congress now stands at the cusp of extinction and reinvention.

The Congress response to the outcome of the Maharashtra assembly elections reveals the party’s growing insouciance vis-a-vis its voters and grassroots workers. Former state chief minister Prithviraj Chavan was censured after the defeat, not
for having lost Maharashtra, but for having dared to publicly acknowledge that he had not been able to take action against corrupt colleagues. The fact that he had convincingly won his own seat and had parleyed his clean image into a respectable 43 seats in the Vidhan Sabha—against the 16 predicted by doomsayers—mattered not one whit to the outraged party satraps.

Nor did anyone mention Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the context of the electoral defeat. His conduct during
campaigning, when he reportedly took off from Pune without bothering to meet the local Congress nominees who had been summoned from their constituencies specifically for an audience with him, was met with a resigned shrug from the partymen, rather than outrage. Partymen have come to accept the heir apparent’s bratty behavior and flash disappearances as a matter of course.


Across the board, regardless of seniority and hierarchy, the diagnosis of what ails the Congress party is the same: Rahul Gandhi. Hardcore family loyalists tend to qualify it a bit by saying the coterie around Rahul is the problem. The fact that the heir apparent’s magnificent seven—Mohan Gopal, Madhu-sudan Mistry, Mohan Prakash, Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, Kanishk Singh, Sachin Rao and Kopulla Raju—continue to enjoy his confidence after having scripted electoral disaster after disaster, is a continuing source of angst for partymen.

In the wake of the 2014 general elections, Rahul’s peculiar mix of “NGO-wallahs” and “statisticians and analysts” came in for flak from Congress youngsters like Milind Deora and RPN Singh, who blamed them for the party’s lack of communication and failure to connect with the voter. Congressmen talked around Rahul, speaking of Narendra Modi’s inspired leadership (in unspoken contrast to Rahul’s) and the party’s credibility gap vis-a-vis minority voters. A visible gulf appeared between Team Sonia, also known as the old guard and Team Rahul, or the young Turks.

Deserted look AICC Office after Election Result  in the capital on Sunday.


A desolate Congress headquarters in New Delhi on October 19, the day the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly results were declared



So desperate are Congressmen for the reassuring cloak of dynasty, that Varun Gandhi’s name is being floated as a possible inductee!

Senior leader Digvijay Singh took the bull by the horns when he said the Congress VP needed to be more visible and vocal, but was shouted down by the young Turks. Fourteen of them dashed off a letter to AICC general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi demanding that senior party leaders—Dwivedi included—quit for criticizing their fearless leader. Former Kerala minister TH Mustafa went a league further and dared to apostrophize Rahul as a “joker” who should quit forthwith and make way for his far more dynamic sister. He was, naturally, suspended from the party.

It is grossly unfair to lay the blame for the party’s decimation solely at Rahul’s door. The process of decline started much earlier, when internal party democracy gradually gave way to durbar politics. Factionalism became incr-easingly difficult to manage with the consolidation of the dynasty, leading to the exit of influential leaders: VP Singh in 1989, GK Moopanar in 1996, Mamata Banerjee in 1998 and Sharad Pawar in 1999.

Lack of internal democracy meant that a politician could not hope to get ahead in the party organization through elections. If he did not enjoy the patronage of power brokers, who recruited and promoted their own clients in the manner of senators in ancient Rome, he had no option but to leave.


Udai Pratap Singh (2)

Udai Pratap Singh (right) with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (center) on the occasion of his joining the BJP. His move to the BJP upon being denied the Hoshangabad ticket cost the Congress dear in the 2013 assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections


Centralization of power led to a withering away of the party organization at the field level. If durbar politics meant that upward mobility stemmed from being a courtier rather than a grassroots leader, there was little point in wooing the loyalty of party workers or even having a vigorous party unit at the block level. It also meant that leaders of emerging social groups could not be accommodated and thus, they preferred to form their own parties. If the aspirations of dalit leaders could not be met in the Brahmin-dominated Uttar Pradesh Cong-ress, they looked to the Bahujan Samaj Party. Likewise, the OBCs looked to the Yadavs in the Hindi heartland.

It is the malaise of patronage that Rahul— by all accounts, a bright guy in closed-door interactions but hopelessly incomprehensible in public—wants to address through free, fair and transparent organizational elections. That he means business is evident from the app-ointment of Mullappally Ramachandran to head the party’s Central Election Authority. Will elections “reinvigorate and rejuvenate” the party? Congressman Pawan Khera, aide to former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, says that “holding primaries to select party candidates for the Lok Sabha certainly enthused and engaged party workers”.

The current party structure is feudal—a clutch of satraps dominate the state, with well-defined areas of influence. Occasionally, they may cooperate with each other for mutual benefit, such as distribution of party tickets during elections. The block and district level Congress committees and even area MPs have little or no say in the process. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where assembly elections were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha, even stalwarts like former Union ministers V Kishore Chandra Deo and Jaipal Reddy could not get nominees of their choice—a major reason for their defeat.

The story of Udai Pratap Singh of Hoshan-gabad is a classic example. As the sitting Congress MP, he found himself bypassed in the selection of candidates for the 2013 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, courtesy Suresh Pachauri, a 10, Janpath durbari with no mass base. Piqued, he quit and joined the BJP, taking the entire district-level Congress with him. The Grand Old Party lost every assembly seat in Hoshangabad (Pachauri’s included) and eight months later, lost the Lok Sabha seat as well!


V P Singh (2)


Mamta (3)


NCP Party President Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar, Supriya Sule and delegates at "Nirdhar Parishad" of Rashtrawadi Mahila Congress organised in Mumbai on March 10, 2013. (Photo: Sandeep Mahankal/IANS)

Senior Congressmen left the Congress at different points of time, eroding its democratic nature—VP Singh (top) in 1989, Mamata Banerjee (second) in 1998 and Sharad Pawar (third) in 1999



Given the current Congress culture of sycophancy and patronage, is internal democracy even possible? AICC general secretary BK Hariprasad believes it is and points to the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), arguably its most robust unit, with a tradition of internal democracy. The KPCC has over 30 active organizations, runs its own TV channel and relies on selection rather than nomination of candidates (MP from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor being a notable exception). The largest Congress contingent in parliament other than Karnataka is from Kerala.

On the other hand, the Kerala unit is the most vocal of Pradesh Congress Committees. It roundly criticized Rahul Gandhi after the Lok Sabha debacle, on one occasion for having needlessly criticized Narendra Modi! The hostility towards Rahul is seen partly as a reaction to his having appointed VM Sudheeran as KPCC chief earlier this year, over the objections of the state unit. Thus, internal democracy stops where dynasty begins.

Author and political analyst Rasheed Kidwai says that logically, internal democracy would imply an election for the post of Congress president as well. So far, elections to the Congress Working Committee have been something of a farce, as the voters—AICC members—“belong” to some satrap or the other, who in turn, owes his position to the party president. Thus, the nominee of the party president always wins.


Jai ram ramesh (3)


Kapil Sibal (4)


P chidambaram (2)

While Jairam Ramesh (above) is busy with lecture tours, Kapil Sibal (second) and P Chidambaram (third)  have returned to their lucrative legal practices, leaving little time for party work



Besides, the Congress continues to regard dynasty as indispensable to its integrity and the first family to regard the Congress as—to quote a senior party leader—its “private limited company”. Suggest a Congress without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm and Congressmen feel naked. So desperate are they for the reassuring cloak of dynasty, that Varun Gandhi’s name is being floated as a possible inductee! His troubles in the BJP are public knowledge and his lineage impeccable; he is, after all, the grandson of Indira Gandhi. But senior Congressmen admit that supplanting the anaemic Rahul with his red-blooded cousin is wishful thinking. By and large, there is resigned acceptance that the party will have to learn to live with Rahul .

Priyanka Gandhi, the great white hope of the party, continues to run backroom operations from her brother’s Tughlaq Lane residence. Her confidantes say she is unlikely to assume an active role in politics for the next few years, citing three reasons. First, she would be “wasted”, given Narendra Modi’s overwhelming popularity. Second, she does not want to be seen as an alternative to Rahul. Third, the Haryana government’s proposed investigation into Robert Vadra’s land deals is worrisome, although party lawyers insist there’s no evidence of legal wrongdoing, however morally questionable it might have been.

The party is awaiting a reshuffle of the AICC and appointment of PCC chiefs, which will indicate whether party veterans have any place in Rahul’s scheme of things. Further troubles may be in store for the party if they are not accommodated and splits in state units, such as Chhattisgarh, occur.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile stars of the UPA have occupied themselves with apolitical work and are rarely seen at 24, Akbar Road, the party headquarters. Salman Khursheed, P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal have resumed highly successful law practices and are busy remodeling their homes and offices, while Jairam Ramesh is a popular figure on the lecture tour in the US. Why this profound indifference? Does it arise from a feeling that they no longer have a stake in the party, given Rahul’s evident disdain for them? Or is it a conviction that, burdened with a tired dynasty, an out-of-sync ideology and a feudal party structure, the Congress has reached the point of no return?

No such thing, says Sibal, who is now ensconced in a residence far more luxurious than any Cabinet minister’s. He feels the party’s fundamentals are as strong as ever, but it must pick and choose its ground. Prime Minister Modi will continue to romance the public for a year or so but will eventually trip up, offering the Congress an opportunity to launch public campaigns against the BJP government, he says.

That pretty much typifies the Congress attitude of waiting for the other guy to make a mistake. After all, goes the anodyne argument, they’ve been badly off before and have staged a comeback. This isn’t strictly true. The Congress suffered a steady erosion after peaking in 1984. Alth-ough it did manage three full terms in power thereafter, two of these were in coalition and the third was a minority government.

Gowalia Tank_Augast kranti maidan (2)

Gowalia Tank, now August Kranti Maidan, where the Congress was founded in 1885


In terms of ideology and overall strategy, former Union minister AK Antony had tentatively suggested that the party needed to rethink minorityism, that is, its aggressive pro-Muslim stance. The party made haste to clarify that the remark had been made in the context of Kerala alone. The Congress will continue to espouse big-tent liberalism and position itself as aggressively pro-poor and pro-minority, as opposed to the BJP (which it dubs pro-corporate and anti-minority).

Unable to find a new idiom in which to address young voters, the party proposes to continue with garibi hatao and minority bachao, speaking the language of patronage to voters who want empowerment. Nor is it able to define its economic position, caught between accusations of mindless welfarism and crony capitalism. Most of all, it fails to grasp that the masses are indifferent to “isms” and couldn’t care less about socialism versus the free market; all they want is good governance.

Most of all, the Congress has failed to truly understand Modi. Unlike previous non-Congress PMs, he is not interested in poweralone, he seeks to alter the nation’s political DNA as a whole. When he speaks of a “Congress-mukt” Bharat, he refers not only to the party but to a mindset. The political right has already begun permeating the public discourse and for the first time, it’s edging out the left-liberal intellectual elite traditionally aligned with the Congress. 

Gowalia Tank, where the grand old party was born, is now buried under the August Kranti Maidan, where Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement in 1942. A metaphor for the core essence of the Congress, buried under the trappings of dynasty.

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