On the 24th of August, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) held a marathon virtual meeting, which resulted in a seven-hour long volley of personal barbs, bitter infighting and resolute denialism. The session was prompted when a letter calling for a ‘full-time and visible’ leadership of the party to be active in the field and at AICC headquarters, and reforms at the organisational level, signed by twenty-three eminent leaders including the Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, was leaked to the media. The meeting, however, took them back to square one, with the party deciding to retain the status quo with Sonia Gandhi as Interim President for another six months, confirming, yet again, the Congress’ commitment to preserve personal egos and failing historical narratives at the cost of its own survival.
On the ideological front, the Congress has shown restless confusion about what it stands for as an institution. The Congress’ ideology came into question with the rise of the BJP on the vehicle of, among other things, the Hindu identity and unity. This was fuelled by the Congress’ own policies of apparent minority appeasement and disregard for the majority community. Instead of introspecting on its organisational failure to communicate its ideology to the masses, looking into its policies or the acts of its leaders that led to the majority’s disaffection, the Congress decided to adopt an often dichotomous, cut-copy-paste approach, trying to be a pale imitation, in many cases, of the BJP.
Pluralism and secularism have now become inconvenient stepchildren of the party ideology, projected only to attack the government, and discard as needed. Their alliances with the saffron-flexing Shiv Sena on the one hand and the Muslim League on the other were reflective of the very opportunistic, selective secularism that the Indian Right has accused the Congress of for years. Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping trips and the Congress’ revisited stances on issues like Ayodhya came across as clumsy attempts to emulate what some commentators describe as ‘soft Hindutva’. The Congress’ interpretation of secularism became one of cosying up to either end of the spectrum – a balancing act of catering to both extremes, which probably started decades ago with Rajiv Gandhi’s handling of the cases of Shah Bano and Ayodhya/Babri Masjid.
Rahul Gandhi’s shallow, frivolous and brash likening of the RSS to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood of the Middle East and the optics of embracing his Hindu roots seemed fake in the context of the other. Eventually, the Congress’ ideology became the lack of one.
Ears in the air
On issues of policy, people and of the nation, the Congress has remained indecisive. The high-level jargon of economics which a P. Chidambaram or Manmohan Singh would occasionally espouse in an English paper aside, the Congress hardly made efforts at the grassroots to extend its criticism of the government’s economic policy, or its own economic program to the common man. Party representatives themselves seemed thoroughly unconvinced of the NYAY scheme, eventually side-lining it and concluding it with noisy sloganeering against the central government of their 2019 campaign. The ‘chowkidar chor hai’ campaign became yet another one of the Congress’ stratagems which boomeranged right back at them, courtesy the BJP’s strong social media presence.
On issues of national security and international relations, the Congress’ plan and intentions for India remain hazy, with the BJP having meticulously built a narrative of flaws in their own handling of security, all the way back to Jawaharlal Nehru; that is his handling of the Indo-China war and refusal of a permanent seat on the Security Council, among others.
Even on the organisation front, the Congress hasn’t been able to keep up. While the BJP has been able to create an entire ecosystem for itself on social media, the Congress has largely stuck to ancient mechanisms with an almost lazy inertia to investigate the prospect of progress and change. In a spate of exits, among whom were prominent leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, it has become clear that the Congress has failed to give opportunities to fulfil the aspirations of its own members, leave alone the people of India.
From Tripura in the East, to a close call at Rajasthan in the West, the Congress has lost leaders on grounds of corruption, disregard by senior leaders and in general, a miserable handling of personal relations within the grand old party. In sharp contrast to the now regular stirring of an unsatisfied young leader within the Congress, the BJP has routinely pumped out young, new faces, be it Tejasvi Surya or Jamyang Tsering.
There is a perception that any young leader will be considered sceptically as a rival to Rahul Gandhi, side-lined and disregarded – a perception that isn’t baseless. From Patel to Pranab, the Congress has had a long history of doing just that.
The lack of opportunity isn’t restricted to young leaders. Congress stalwarts of the likes of Captain Amarinder Singh, who have kept the sinking ship afloat, don’t particularly seem to have a future beyond where they are already. The party remains obstinate not to project him or Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh, as national leaders. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi hasn’t been able to remain Rahul of Amethi for too long, leave alone Rahul of India.
The insecurity that a young leader may depose the Gandhi dynasty has become so pronounced over time, that rather than making efforts to satisfy demands and reconcile relationships with the likes of Jyotiraditya, and initially, Sachin Pilot, the knee-jerk reaction of the higher-ups was to show them the door at the first sign of discontentment. Brash reactions of antagonising dissent haven’t been restricted to newer leaders either.
When Shashi Tharoor acknowledged the good intention behind the Swachh Bharat campaign, he was removed as national spokesperson, and more recently, when Sanjay Jha criticised the lackadaisical attitude of the Congress, he was suspended from the party on the cryptic pretext of ‘anti-party’ activities.
In their treatment of constructive criticism and calls for change, the Congress has demonstrated a resolute blindness to even the existence of a problem. Rahul Gandhi and the politics of dynasty has failed to click with the people, something that is in plain sight but still constantly shirked and brushed under the carpet. The reception of the letter for reform at the CWC meet didn’t come as a surprise, for it didn’t expose a new phenomenon but merely reaffirmed the paralysis that has long affected the Congress.
The merits of the letter were neither discussed, nor considered. Instead, the members of the CWC questioned the timing and the intentions of the letter, with Rahul Gandhi leading the charge. Close aides of the Gandhis like Selja Kumari were seen calling the signatories of the letter BJP agents, while another leader asked why all former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, except one, had been put under detention – a barb directed at former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. An opportunity to open the dialogue of change was transformed into an occasion to attack, insult, humiliate, and call in question the loyalty of even party veterans.
While it was later conceded that Rahul Gandhi had never made remarks about a collusion with the BJP by the signatories of the letter himself, the silence of the Gandhis at such accusations being thrown at senior leaders by their associates and by entire state units of the party speaks volumes. At the conclusion of the seven-hour meet, Sonia Gandhi agreed to remain President for another six months, and ‘pardoned’ the writers of the letter.
A committee was also constituted, comprising mainly of close associates of the Gandhis that would look into the prospect of reform, election and change, something most commentators brushed off as just another exercise in the hollow promise of introspection the Congress has been making to its cadre since 2014.
The Congress has failed the idea of democracy that it claims to stand for in more than one way. Predictably, it’s reaction to the very idea of an election of party leader and intra-party democracy has been hostile. More significantly, it has refused to hurt individual egos and the idea of the divine right of the Gandhis, even at the cost of Indian democracy.
Only a functioning opposition can mitigate what the CWC described as a ‘pernicious assault on India’s democracy, pluralism and diversity’, and in its current state the Congress is denying the people of India just that.
The crisis in Congress has fast escalated, with what started on an organisational level swiftly transforming into a crisis of identity, and now of existence. The feeling for a while was that the Congress had become synonymous with a small group of a few senior veterans in Delhi, stalwarts of decades who were resisting change.
The myth was busted when Ghulam Nabi Azad, the only member of the CWC who even holds a constitutional position, was insulted at his and other members’ first call for reform. The Congress isn’t even an oligarchy; it is effectively the Gandhi family and no one else. Any supporter of the idea of their leadership is a loyalist, and anyone who calls the system into question is treacherous.
The Congress needs to rebuild, with or without the Gandhi surname at the top. It must emerge as a young, meritocratic, determined front. In the context of the present state of the party however, such intentions seem absurd, laughable even, to some. For now, the Congress will remain a failing family proprietorship, and it seems, the only losers will be the people of India who will continue to feel the lack of opposition, let alone an alternative to the ruling party.