PLAYING A LOSING HAND
Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi has become the face of the party’s second straight election drubbing, a rout which has cast a long shadow over the country’s most prominent political dynasty and plunged the Grand Old Party into an existential crisis.
It is not surprising then that the fifth-generation dynast has offered his resignation, however, his party’s refusal to accept has only led to confusion, with some even calling the whole affair a charade that will lead to no change in leadership.
While dynasties exist in all political parties, it is only in the Congress that the concept of family and party is so intertwined. Over the course of the last two decades, the Congress which has ruled the country for 55 out of 71 since independence has turned into a feudal entity that seems to reward lineage over merit.
This formula has worked in the past as the Congress was never out of power for two consecutive terms till 2019. There was no threat to the Congress or the Gandhis from any other party or leader who could establish themselves as an alternate option.
However, the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bhartiya Janata Party president Amit Shah changed that. In the 2014 general election, Modi had emerged as the most popular leader in the country, and his popularity has stayed intact even now.
On the other hand, Rahul has spent most of his political career being lampooned by the opposition. It was only two years ago that people started taking notice of the 48-year-old leader who no longer seemed to be a reluctant politician and was finally embracing his role as Congress chief.
In 2014, Rahul led the party to its worst-ever performance and its recent rout has seen the party draw a blank in 16 states, two Union Territories with as many as eight Chief Ministers and the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha losing their seats.
Congress had fielded 421 candidates across the country but only 52 of them got elected.
However, it was Rahul’s stunning defeat in the family bastion of Amethi that painted the grimmest picture of his leadership. Rahul’s decision to resign as party chief came soon after the result.
Once the party’s biggest strength, the Gandhis are now Congress’ biggest weakness and Rahul seems to understands that.
Some political commentators believe that the party’s fortunes will decline further without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm, while there are others who believe the Congress can only be revived if it stops being a family enterprise.
There is talk that the party has got into the process of refining its model of having multiple working presidents to run the party.
After much confabulation and distillation of thought over the new hierarchy, the party leadership is reportedly veering around to the consensus view that there should be two working presidents, with one of them preferably being from southern India.
The BJP has successfully battled its image of being an upper caste party and come up trumps in these elections by fielding a large number of candidates who were not from the upper caste. The Congress is still seen to be an upper caste party, more so in the Hindi belt.
There is also a proposal that the working presidents should be from among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Congress outreach on caste is said to be part of a conscious effort to find a counter to the BJP's all-India reach.
Some names have reportedly been proposed in this connection, said party sources. They include Sushilkumar Shinde and Mallikarjun Kharge, both Scheduled Caste leaders. In the mix is Jyotiraditya Scindia as well so that the younger element is also assuaged.
There have been reports that senior leader A.K. Antony was approached by the party, but has turned down an offer to be the party president.
According to party sources, Antony, a former Defence Minister and a trusted man for the Gandhi family, cited health issues as a reason for not taking up the job.
Besides, party General Secretary K.C. Venugopal has also declined to accept the post of Working President offered to him, the sources said.
The search of a president is still on and the new set-up could be in place before the Budget session of Parliament.
The party has been forced to think of this alternative model to the one existing now because, despite the pressure being made to bear on him, Rahul Gandhi has insisted that he will not stay Congress president following the party's rout in the Lok Sabha polls.
The party had earlier considered a proposal for three working presidents, one each from the north, south and eastern India, and perhaps a fourth from western India.
The crisis in the leadership has directly pitted the old guard against the Young Turks and party sources said that this clash is continuing and there appears to be little sign that it will get resolved in a hurry.
The old guard, which is accused of being status quoist and entitlement seeking, believes that the Congress party is their turf.
The Young Turks are convinced that the Congress party of old has to metamorphose into something more agile, action-oriented and in tune with the times to take on an all-conquering BJP by presenting a rival discourse.
With infighting plaguing the party in many states, some fear, Rahul’s departure may make things worse.
The Congress has made little progress since the 2014 general elections and unless it learns from its mistakes and re-establishes itself as a party of the common man with a robust and democratic organisation, its downward spiral is sure to continue.