The Congress Party: The Crisis Within Requires Deep Introspection
The last few years has seen the gradual building up to a deep crisis within the Congress party. Developments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka are mere symptoms of a much deeper malaise that plagues the party. The party leadership appears to have adopted an ostrich like approach in response to the increase sense of despair among the rank and file in the party.
What has further compounded the challenge for the Congress has been its having to sit out in the opposition at the national level and in several states. This is a party that is not used to being out of power. The attitude of its leaders continues to be one of being a ruling party. This creates a bigger crisis in a situation in which the BJP and its leadership is resolute in taking forward its intention of creating a Congress-mukt Bharat!
The Congress is often nostalgic about its past and prides itself at being, what it would call, a one hundred and thirty five year old party. Is the Congress of 2020 the inheritor of the legacy of the party formed in 1885? Leave alone the call of the Mahatma to disband the party at the time of independence as the organization had served its purpose of securing independence, or the regular splits seen in the party, be it in 1969, 1978, 1996, 1999 and frequently thereafter, the Congress of today is a very weak image of what it represented even if we were to compare it to the party of the 1990s. The party appears to still live in the illusion of being the Congress formed in 1885 without taking heed of the end of one party domination and the emergence of an authentic multi party system in India. The crisis within the Congress is linked clearly to three sets of inter-connected factors.
Firstly, there is no shadow of doubt that the leadership drift which the party faces is both a cause and a consequence of the current crisis. When Rahul Gandhi walked away from the leadership after the 2019 defeat, the party had a wonderful opportunity to bring in a course correction.
It was possibly time to build a post-dynasty leadership. After procrastinating for an agonizingly long period of time, the party refused to bite the bullet. It preferred to return to the dynasty to assume the leadership, albeit, temporarily. One has seen that in Indian politics, what is temporary has this great propensity to transform itself into the permanent! Even if the party was convinced that the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family was critical to maintaining the unity of the party, it needed to take cognizance of the ground reality.
The leadership had been unable to win victories for the party in successive elections. The state election victory in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were a celebrated exception and had to do with a range of inter-connected factors other than the leadership.
The party needed to have recognized the fact that a second line of leadership, especially at the state level, which was grounded in the politics of that state was important to nurture. While an attempt appeared to have been initiated, it was not taken to its logical conclusion. When Rahul Gandhi withdrew after the 2019 defeat, there was a lack of clarity on his future role in the party. The now switch on, then switch off approach which was a legacy of the past, continued to be the dominant style. It gave enough ammunition to those opposed to the party, to attack its approach. This leadership drift has contributed to a clear lack of direction which has in some ways stunted the capacity of the party to take on the ruling BJP.
Secondly, the decision making process within the Congress party does not appears to be in tune with sentiments among the party cadres or the popular mood on the ground. This is linked to the fact that those who have the ear of the leadership have often not won a direct election in recent years and are confined to the politics of the Delhi durbar.
The High Command Culture has catapulted to positions of influence those have mastered the art of presenting to the leadership a picture of political reality often vastly different from ground reality. This disconnect between the pulse of the masses and the voice of the advisers has produced as a natural corollary, the present crisis in the party. Competitive factionalism has come to the fore with local leaders more interested in protecting their small political fiefdoms and in the process, ignoring the larger interests of the party.
Thus the power struggle within the party is a tussle between rival factions, be it the old guard in confrontation with young turks or the loyalists in competition with new recruits or even the privileged elite pitched against the leaders with a ear to the ground. The political drama unfolding in Rajasthan is a clear reflection of this fact.
Finally, the party appears to have lost its focus and a sense of direction. With every passing day, it is conceding the opposition space to the state based parties and its leaders. As the principal opposition to the BJP, it has allowed opportunities to hold the government to account to easily slip away. Both within Parliament and in the public domain, the Congress and its leadership appear to be re-active rather than pro-active. Even when they take on the government, the move seems ill-planned, half-hearted, lacking in conviction and often without a clear focus.
Unless the party gets its act together, it would increasingly find it difficult to assert its relevance and concede the opposition space to state based parties. The party seems to have lost the political appetite for a sustained, well orchestrated and effectively strategized plan of action to provide a meaningful alternative to the BJP. It may well be passing on the political baton to other political players.
(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a leading psephologist)