Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee Meeting in New Delhi, March 13, 2022 (Photo: AP)
The bad news is not likely to end soon for Congress. But facing its biggest existential threat, the party leadership continues to be in a state of denial
THE CENTRAL THEME of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie is denial of reality by its main characters, mother Amanda Wingfield, daughter Laura and son Tom. Williams also puts the spotlight on what critics have often called the “impossibility of escape and the trap of memory” for this family, who lost their social status after bad luck assailed their fortunes. Sans the other attributes of these famous fictional characters, the first family of Congress, comprising Sonia Gandhi and her son and daughter, Rahul and Priyanka, seems detached from reality as its perfunctory responses to the recent, disastrous poll results suggest, and continues to live in the memory of a long gone past.
Unsurprisingly, calls for an overhaul of leadership has resurfaced in the Grand Old Party with the ‘Group of 23’ (G23) dissidents, many of them veteran Congress leaders who have served their prime under multiple premiers from the same family, insisting that the family take responsibility for the humiliating drubbing in the five state elections—in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. While a section of family loyalists is busy haranguing colleagues who have raised the banner of revolt to mend the party back to its winning ways, the decimation of Congress at the hustings, especially in UP where Priyanka Gandhi campaigned in 200-plus election shows, is too monstrous to be swept under the carpet. The meeting of the so-called G23 at the residence of former Cabinet minister and Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad has reiterated the need for a massive organisational makeover. A statement from the group said, “We believe that the only way forward is for the Congress to adopt the model of collective and inclusive leadership and decision-making at all levels… In order to oppose the BJP it is necessary to strengthen the Congress Party. We demand the Congress Party initiate dialogue with other like-minded forces to create a platform to pave the way for credible alternatives for 2024.” The letter was signed by 18 Congress veterans, including Azad, Manish Tewari, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, Shankersinh Vaghela, Sandeep Dixit, Vivek Tankha, Raj Babbar, et al.
Before the meeting began, the likes of Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge had charged them with attempting to break the party even after the Congress Working Committee (CWC) had discussed all issues related to the poll debacle. The ‘discussion’ that Kharge was referring to followed the dramatic—as though stage-managed—offer of the trio, Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul, to step down from leadership positions in Congress, a proposition that the loyalist-dominated CWC rejected outright.
This time, however, the intensity of defeat is so stunning that posturings that would have worked earlier didn’t look sufficient to either calm tempers or hold the flock together. In UP, the party’s tally went from bad to worse compared with 2017 when it fought in alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP). The number of seats fell from seven to two as Congress’ vote share declined to 2.33 per cent. In Uttarakhand, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had expected anti-incumbency trends due to local issues, Congress vastly trailed expectations. In Manipur, where it had won 28 seats five years ago, it won only five this time, posting a close to 19 per cent decline in vote share. In Goa, too, BJP bucked anti-incumbency as Congress slid further into a resounding electoral humiliation. Its vote share fell almost 5 per cent as it lost six seats compared with the last time to win a mere 11 seats. In Punjab, its tally fell from 77 to 18.
The contention of senior Congress leaders such as Kapil Sibal and others is that Congress has been shrinking so rapidly since 2014 that there has to be a change of leadership. Sibal, for his part, said in an interview to The Indian Express that in eight years as many as 177 MPs and MLAs and 222 candidates had left Congress, insisting that no other party had suffered such an “exodus” in India at any point of time.
G23, therefore, wanted a non-Gandhi at the helm of affairs or a collective leadership mechanism in place, with the family having failed to steer the party in its most critical phase since 1885. At the CWC meeting, Azad had apparently criticised the leadership—without naming Rahul Gandhi who had been calling the shots in the party without any official position since he stepped down as president in August 2019, some months after the last Lok Sabha defeat—for not being accessible. But his feeble protests sank amid the cries of endorsement of the Gandhis’ leadership by the majority in the CWC loaded with yes-men. The ‘rebels’ had met earlier on March 10, the day the results came out.
ABANDONMENT IS A recurring theme in Tennessee Williams’ plays—for him it means more than mere neglect, rather a rejection of reality. The reaction of the current Congress leadership to crises at hand suggests as much: in a seemingly cosmetic gesture on March 16, ahead of the rebel meeting, the party leadership picked featherweights Rajani Patil, Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken, Jitendra Singh and Avinash Pandey to assess the situation in the five states where the polls were held. A day earlier, on March 15, Sonia Gandhi had asked state unit presidents in all the five states to resign. Party insiders call such steps inadequate and too late.
Academic Sumantra Bose, who has closely studied the rise and fall of the first family of Congress, argues that the trio will continue to cling to power. He notes, “The sad remnant of the Grand Old Party is being held captive by the family, which is presiding over its final demise. The family will not relinquish control, as the latest tiresome, staged episode of pseudo-emotional drama and blackmail in the CWC meeting demonstrates.” Bose, a professor at the London School of Economics, adds, “The Congress can still survive, and perhaps even partially rebuild, but only if it can escape the family’s shackles. That can happen only if its experienced and sensible leaders formally split the party and lay claim to the Congress mantle, leaving an irrelevant rump around the dynasty.” But he is of the view that “they seem to lack both the courage and the cohesion to take this step”.
Congress is in such a state that even the family needs protection compared with a decade or so ago when the fiat of the so-called high command was treated as gold dust by all Congress leaders, senior and junior alike. All that stems from the lack of resources at their disposal to accommodate a vast majority of party functionaries from across socio-economic groups at various posts—all of which have become too scarce with the party being reduced to two states, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In the latter, the party is beset with internecine wrangling now expected to get worse.
The bad news will not end there. There are strong indications of a flood of woes for Congress that has ruled India for the most number of years. It will most likely lose its position as the main opposition party in Rajya Sabha once new members come in by July. Thanks to its massive slide in Assembly polls, it is impossible for the party to retain the numbers in the Upper House. In the absence of organisational polls, Rahul Gandhi has remained the de facto leader and he has been running it through phone calls whenever he has been in the country and leaving things to chance in a laid-back manner, in sharp contrast with the laser-like precision of BJP’s election campaigns led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and assisted by others.
Again, for Priyanka Gandhi, whose rise to general secretary of the party with special charge of UP has been phenomenal, the role has proved to be as bad, if not worse, compared with her brother’s. The duo, with the help of the mother, took a series of decisions that led to the further slump of the party, notwithstanding their refusal to be held accountable for poor planning and priorities.
Points out Bose: “Rahul Gandhi fails to click because he is devoid of any leadership abilities and political skills. But the decisive revelation of the UP and Punjab results is that his sister, while superficially more presentable in public, is equally useless. Priyanka Vadra’s meddling contributed in no small measure to the Congress debacle in Punjab. As for UP, her 200-odd rallies and roadshows, more than those of any other campaigner, including Yogi Adityanath and Akhilesh Yadav, resulted in Congress sinking to 2 per cent of the popular vote.” He adds, “By contrast, even the effectively non-contesting Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) polled six times Congress’ vote. Priyanka’s catastrophic failure shows that without grassroots presence and support, strategies devised in New Delhi—such as 40 per cent tickets to women candidates, an otherwise progressive step—are of no use. The result shows that her high-voltage campaign was nothing more than a series of empty photo-ops, and the crowds most probably mobilised by the money remaining in the dynasty’s coffers.”
Just as illusion versus reality is the favourite theme for Tennessee Williams whose characters struggle with both, the first family of Congress, too, goes to the extent of indirectly blaming the electorate for their setbacks, as evident from most elections since 2014. It is no wonder that the people Rahul Gandhi surrounds himself with—in a marked departure from the style of Sonia Gandhi in her prime when she allowed free rein to leaders with institutional memory and networking skills, such as the late Ahmed Patel and others—are often reality-weary pundits and academics with no understanding of the nuances of Indian politics. YouTube videos of conversations between Rahul and Cornell economist Kaushik Basu are some examples. The Gandhi scion had in the meantime distanced himself from seasoned leaders to infest a world full of novices. It will therefore come as no surprise if the party is hurtling towards an implosion in its emaciated form even as it loses its social base to other parties it had tied up with in earlier elections. To make matters worse, a raft of legal troubles also awaits the family.
Congress has always been an umbrella organisation that historically accommodated varied interest groups, faiths and communities besides ideologies. The party for long had allowed the convergence of such groups in order to thrive. Under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, it however veered at a fast clip towards the fringe Left, obsessed with identity politics of particular groups. Constant dalliance with such entities meant that Congress began to lose the war of perception in the face of a resurgent BJP that left nothing to chance and captured the imagination of a large majority of people who felt left out of the cultural discourse in universities and elsewhere. This coincided with Congress under Rahul veering more and more towards the fringe forces he found his liking for. This was an expensive mistake for any politician to make, especially when the ground beneath the party’s feet had already begun slipping. His failure to fashion a credible narrative stood out as he expended tremendous energy in backing the causes raised by peripheral outfits on campuses and elsewhere. His campaign themes found no takers as exemplified by his widely advertised ‘discussions’ with Kaushik Basu. All such exercises ended up advertising the inadequacies of the 51-year-old Congress leader, rather than elevating him to the status of a serious politician.
The cul-de-sac political existence of Congress was further compounded by the entitled scion leaving out experienced hands from decision-making. Congress insiders say the anointment of political newcomers in the north Indian scheme of things—for instance, that of AICC General Secretary KC Venugopal—boomeranged, much to the distress of other senior central and regional leaders. Amarinder Singh, former Punjab chief minister and former Congress heavyweight, once struggled to recollect Venugopal’s name. “It was not Singh’s fault, but when you appoint political lightweights to responsible positions, such incidents are par for the course in politics,” says a Congress leader close to the matter, who adds that the sister-brother duo was also insecure and suspicious of the presence of seniors in key positions in the party. “Even those who were close associates of their father, the late Rajiv Gandhi,” he adds.
Another leader recalls that Congress’ fall from grace had started a long time ago thanks to public appeasement of communities, leading to resentment among others who could easily be then mobilised against Congress. He credits the return of the Ram Mandir movement to the “Shah Bano case in which the Rajiv Gandhi government went for crass appeasement of the Muslim clergy against a woman in deep distress through an act of law to overturn a fair judicial verdict”. Arrogance and detachment from reality are the reasons some others cite for the decline and fall of Congress. In his heyday, Rajiv Gandhi used to poke fun at BJP leaders of the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, saying, “Hum do, hamare do”, borrowing from the population control slogan of the time.
Today, with BJP scaling new heights and Congress getting reduced to pitiable numbers in Parliament as well as in the states, the family that has considered it a birthright to rule India is at the portals of grave danger, personally as well as politically, as the weight of the past comes back at it with vehemence. Leaving the party is sure to expose the Gandhis to more trouble. Like Tennessee Williams’ brooding characters, they have to pretend that their illusion of indispensability is real.