Re-energising the Congress from its present inertia is a challenging task. But if media reports of how Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi wants to meet that challenge are correct, there may be reason to worry still. Keen to initiate a culture of “collective functioning” in the dynasty-driven party, Gandhi apparently wants to set up a group of 10 leaders to revamp the Congress. The group’s mandate will include outlining the party’s policies in key issues that are believed to be close to Gandhi’s heart – welfare reforms and tribal rights.
Political analysts have already outlined parallels between Gandhi’s proposed panel and the National Advisory Council (NAC), established by his mother and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The NAC functioned as the fulcrum of the UPA government’s welfare policies, which as many economists since have asserted, did impact the lives of India’s underclasses. Despite frequent allegations of ‘policy paralysis’ levelled against the Manmohan Singh government during its two-term tenure, the welfare policies did make a difference – even if minor. That the Congress was not able to craft a popular campaign around its own productive policies is something the party should ponder.
But Gandhi seems to have forgotten that the Congress today is in a very different place from the time the NAC played an active role in the governance agenda. The Congress then led a coalition which remained in power for a decade. Today, the Congress is a party in Opposition, with just 44 Lok Sabha members. The electoral losses the party has suffered since 2013 have drastically reduced its political power, ceding more and more ground to assertive regional parties like Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal (United), AIADMK and others.
For the Congress, things are about as bad as they can get. This is the time to shake the party up, not to institute committees. Sure, well-researched perspectives and critiques on the present BJP-led government’s policies will help the Opposition to call the government out on important policy fault lines. But policy deficit is not what’s corroding the Congress.
The problem goes right to the heart of the party’s leadership and its political direction. Or more precisely, the absence of political direction and the weak leadership provided by none other than the Congress vice-president himself. These are urgent issues demanding reform. This is where the Congress needs “surgery” – a term repeatedly used by some senior party leaders following the Congress’ recent assembly poll defeats. But if “surgery” means instituting more committees in the name of “collective leadership,” such a project is doomed from the very outset.
The Congress vice-president needs to define the party’s core politics. Playing the soft Hindutva card – especially against an aggressive BJP – has, unsurprisingly, led the Congress nowhere. For instance, we have seen Rahul Gandhi vociferously oppose the slogan Bharat Mata Ki Jai as a mandatory chant, but at the same time his party’s MLAs in Maharashtra assembly have backed a resolution to suspend the AIMIM legislator Waris Pathan for defying the fiat. Neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi has pulled up the party MLA or strictly laid down the party line on an issue that for weeks dominated national conversation.
Such shifting opportunistic stances have become a defining marker of Congress politics. Just as glaring is its lack of a genuine commitment to Dalits and minorities. The only way the Congress can revitalize its organisation is by truly marking out its political differences from the BJP. To achieve that end, the party needs to junk committees and take drastic steps. It has to come clean. And that can only be achieved under a decisive party leadership. Barring the blind and the faithful, few will dispute that Rahul Gandhi lacks the political vision that is needed to extricate the Congress from the morass it has sunk into.
Take the party’s fractious state units, for instance. Even as the Congress talks of a revamp, it has more bad news in the North East. The latest to join its long list of rebellious units is Tripura. Six Congress legislators (out of a total of 10 MLAs) have resigned and joined the Trinamool Congress, which will now be the ruling Left government’s primary opposition in Tripura. In Chhattisgarh, senior Congress leader Ajit Jogi recently announced his decision to launch a new party, severing links with the Congress. Not so long ago, Assam’s important Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, quit the party and joined the BJP. Sarma was instrumental in defeating the Congress and facilitating the formation of the first-ever BJP government in the state.
Clearly, Gandhi hasn’t got his political fundamentals right. The time when he could still be excused as a novice in party politics, is long gone. Rather than focusing on strengthening regional units and fostering a strong line of regional leaders, Gandhi has been running helter-skelter without political purpose.