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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 43, New Delhi, October 9, 2021

State of affairs in the Congress Party: Are the Gandhis leading to its extinction? | P. S. Jayaramu

Friday 8 October 2021

by P. S. Jayaramu

(4th October, 2021)

The Congress Party continues to be in the news. And certainly not for good reasons. This time, it is attracting attention for the shocking and abrasive manner in which Capt. Amarinder Singh, a veteran leader of the Party was brought down recently from the post of Chief Minister of Punjab.

It is time to ask some frank questions like how and who took the decision about removing the Captain from the post of chief minister. Going by the reports in the media, the decision was not made by the interim President Sonia Gandhi. Was it Rahul Gandhi who took the decision? Assuming he did, as he is known to be in favour of easing out senior leaders from positions of power and bringing in youngsters to such positions— I doubt if he is genuinely for it as he did not do so in Madhya Pradesh or Rajastan when clamour for change of leadership was made —, how was he allowed to take the decision, as he does not hold any official position within the party hierarchy to decide on such matters. The unfortunate feature of the Congress is that ever since he resigned as President of the Party in 2019 owning responsibility for the dismal performance of the Party in the Lok Sabha elections, he has been allowed to call the shots. In essence, he exercises power without position and responsibility.

It is rumoured that the decision to appease Navjot Singh Sidhu by unseating Capt. Amarinder Singh as the Chief Minister was taken by Priyanka Vadra, who is a novice in politics, (though she holds the position of General Secretary in charge of Uttara Pradesh,) in view of Sidhu’s proximity to her. The explanation that Priyanka Vadra took the decision gains ground as Sonia Gandhi has maintained strategic silence on the issue. Veteran Congressman Natwar Singh was the first to raise the issue of ‘young and inexperienced persons’ taking decisions, obviously referring to the younger Gandhis playing a decisive role. The loyalists have no courage to ask questions. And when senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal raised the issue publicly, his house was attacked by hooligans which was not condemned by the Gandhi scions. Anand Sharma, Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tewari and Gulab Nabi Azad deplored it and pleaded for an urgent meeting of the CWC. P. Chidambaram tweeted: ‘I feel hurt and helpless when we cannot start meaningful conversations within party forums...’. It would have been better if he had remained silent, instead of tweeting his helplessness! A. K. Anthony and Mallikarjun Kharge, did not feel the need to speak up ! Submissive behaviour and blind loyalty by senior members of the inner circle from time to time has deepened the public perception that the Gandhi family treats the Party as its fiefdom.

The issue is not about the decision per se. The process of Amarinder Singh’s removal from office could have been graceful and with his consent, like the BJP does in States ruled by it. The Captain could have been persuaded to suggest the name of Charanjit Singh Channi, if the party felt installing a member of the SC community, which accounts for roughly 32 per cent of the State’s population as chief minister was going to help the Party in the upcoming assembly elections. By not adopting such a path, the Gandhi family has done a great disservice to the Party. One does not know if the gamble will pay at the hustlings. A deeply humiliated Amarinder Singh has announced his decision to quit the Party. He is in touch with the farmers unions and is reportedly working for a truce between them and the Union Government. His meeting with Amit Shah is also to be seen in this context. He is likely to float a regional party and may work in tandem with the BJP for any post-poll arrangement if it comes to that. He has vowed publicly to defeat Navjot Singh Sidhu by putting up a strong candidate against him in the elections. The Congress Party can ill-afford to face such a situation in the run-up to the assembly polls. The Party leadership has suffered a huge embarrassment with the unpredictable Sidhu resigning as Party President over the issue of some appointments. The impact of Punjab developments on the electoral situation in Uttarakhand, where too the Party faces intense factionalism needs to be watched. The Party’s strength in Goa, which too will go to polls, is depleting, seriously affecting its prospects.

At a larger level, Sonia Gandhi is credited to have kept the party united for 20 years as its President and as interim President for the last two years. There is speculation that the Party may split if the G-23 members and the other disaffected members are not heard and treated with respect. Under the circumstances, it is both the duty and responsibility of Sonia Gandhi to initiate measures for reviving the Party. She should stop attaching too much importance to her loyal sycophants and accommodate the views of those, young and old, especially from the G-23, who express their opinions in the interests of the Party.

A few decisions from Sonia Gandhi are very much in order and need to be taken urgently. First and foremost, she should hold free and fair elections to the office of President of the Party at the earliest. Like she earned the esteem of the nation by rejecting the office of Prime Minister in 2009 and made Dr Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister, she should facilitate the election of a non-Gandhian as the President of the Party.( see my article, “A non-Gandhian President for the Congress Party: Need of the Hour” Mainstream, dated 5th September 2020 ) Of course, there are those who argue that the Party cannot survive without the Gandhi parivar at the helm. Objectively speaking, the Party has only notionally survived. Under the Gandhis, the Party has faced defeat in the assembly elections held since 2019, not to forget its dismal performance in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Since the Party is very much on the downward spiral, it should not really matter who becomes the President! A non-Gandhian as President with a newly elected and motivated CWC may be able to revitalise the Party and prepare it for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Equally importantly, elections to the post of Presidents at the state and district levels too are to be held to strengthen the democratic base of the Party at the regional level.

In addition and at a more serious level, the Party has to ideologically reinvent itself. The Party is known to have continued with the post-1991 centrist position, at times tilting to the right of the centre. Rahul Gandhi is pushing the Party to a left of the centre position, with repeated assertions of his concern for the poor, the under-privileged and the lower middle class. By bringing in youngsters to the Party, like Kanhaiya Kumar, a former member of the Communist Party of India and a former President of the JNU Students Union into the Party and activist Jignesh Mevani, he is signalling his keenness for a radical image makeover for the party.

Political pragmatism requires the Party to balance its ideological position by being alive to the aspirational young voters who have a disdain for ideology, concerned as they are about good education, skills and jobs. The challenge lies in how the leadership brings about a realistic mix of the rightist and leftist positions to accommodate the other segments of the voters, to stay in the electoral race. After all, barring a few instances of the Indira Gandhi era when she consciously took a radical / left line, the Party has stuck to the centrist path from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. Also, reiterating its commitment to the values enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution, which is what the Idea of India is all about, is the only viable way forward for the grand old party to not just stay in the electoral race vis-a-vis the BJP behemoth, but also to retain its position in our parliamentary democracy.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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