'Collective leadership' for Congress? Rahul's inability to lead, rising regional satraps pose serious challenges for party chief

It is a matter of curiosity whether Congress party stalwarts are aware of new research in the field of history which suggests that contrary to popular belief, the Roman emperor Nero was not playing his fiddle while Rome burned. In fact, the new claim is that Nero was not even in Rome on 18 July 64 AD, the day it burned down.

There is an amusing parallel between a Congress party after its second consecutive Lok Sabha rout and the Roman Empire of yore: Congress president Rahul Gandhi is missing in action. Presumably, he is in London, sticking to his offer to resign from his post. In the meantime, the party's leaders have started talking about collective leadership as a new model to run the Congress.

At stake is whether the Congress can revive in time for Assembly elections, due soon in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand. The electoral battle will shift to Delhi and Bihar next year. This means it has to settle the question of what 'collective' rule means. Considering Rahul himself has been spearheading internal reforms since 2011, which promised transparency and accountability, the question remains whether the Congress chief will be part of this collective rule.

After the latest crisis, Rahul's ability to transform his leadership into a diktat-issuing authority, as his grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once personified, is in doubt. The assertion within the Congress, this time around, is not coming from a Gandhi family member, but from regional satraps whom Rahul has not been able to control.

In 1966, when Indira became the Prime Minister after Lal Bahadur Shastri, many Congress leaders were under the impression that she is a mere ‘gungi gudiya’ or a dumb doll. Yet, Indira asserted herself, to the surprise of veteran Congress leaders including K Kamaraj and Morarji Desai. Her assertion was such that in 1969 the party split into the Congress (O) or Organisation led by the disgruntled satraps and Congress (R) or Requisitionists, led by Indira.

Today, a similar challenge lies before Rahul, but with an important distinction: The Congress is no longer in power nor within striking distance of it. Of late, some Congress leaders, such as Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, have affirmed their powerful position in the party. Right after having done well in the Lok Sabha election, Amarinder changed the portfolios of Rahul loyalist Navjot Singh Sidhu. Sidhu has perceived the reallocation of work as a demotion. Therefore, in Punjab, Sidhu is chafing about “collective leadership”, not Amarinder. It is Sidhu who has been asking whether collective decision-making “really exists” within the state Congress unit.

 Collective leadership for Congress? Rahuls inability to lead, rising regional satraps pose serious challenges for party chief

File image Congress chief Rahul Gandhi with senior party leaders. Image/Twitter/Congress

Similarly, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath has struck an independent line as he tries to ensure that his government does not topple. First, he had sought an appointment with Rahul along with his son, Nakul, the newly-elected Member of Parliament from Chhindwara.

After Rahul refused to meet them, Nath took his son to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This sent a signal that the regional leaders will forge their own survival strategy. The more the party High Command weakens, the longer Rahul takes to decide his course of action, the more this crisis will deepen.

In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, three states the Congress recently won Assembly polls in, the news suggests that factional fights are the primary preoccupation of Congress leaders: It is Sachin Pilot versus Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan; Jyotiraditya Scindia versus Digvijaya Singh versus Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh and so on. Twelve of 18 Congress MLAs in Telangana also migrated to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti.

In some sense, this crisis is long in the making. After the February 2017 Assembly elections in Goa, the Congress needed the support of four additional winning candidates in order to form the government. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needed eight.

Yet, while Congress satraps bickered over who will be the chief minister, Rahul did not—or could not—pick a candidate. The BJP, acting quickly, forged alliances and came to power. Similarly, factions arose in Karnataka after the Assembly elections, and the central leadership has barely managed to control the jostling.

Today, the Congress satraps support the idea of collective leadership but can a weak central leadership ever become the source of a strong collective force. For example, through the election campaign, voices from within the Congress had warned Rahul that his harping on the Rafale deal was not resonating with ordinary voters.

With a significantly weaker Congress today than ever before, Rahul recognises that chief ministers and state leaders will insist on calling the shots in their own territories. Should he try to assert himself at the moment, he could face much worse, even outright rebellion. Therefore, it is his compulsion, arising from his weakness, to simply offer to resign.

This is his way of attempting to craft a scenario where regional leaders, after failing to agree on a consensus candidate as his replacement, will come to him and request him to take the party reins. In turn, he will demand that they accept his authority and his decisions.

There are other reasons why a collective leadership plan does not sit well with the Congress. Ever since the 1980s, except twice, a Gandhi family member has been the president, and therefore, the fulcrum of the party. Even today, if one of the Gandhis becomes a member of the collective leadership team, he or she will become the final arbiter of all disputes. He or she will dominate the discourse and strategy.

The Congress had been down the route of functioning without the Gandhis earlier. For instance, Sonia Gandhi, after the assassination of Rajiv, kept out of politics for a few years. She was cajoled and pressured into leading the party, which did return to power in 2004. Even earlier, Narasimha Rao's term as the Prime Minister did try to keep her happy on all counts though she was not formally in politics and a section of the party invoked her name to leave the party including ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh, two leaders of the Congress left the party. Even Manmohan Singh as prime minister had to try hard to maintain a distance from Sonia Gandhi and this was not always possible.

In fact, signals from the party do not suggest that the Gandhis are about to adopt a new or different political direction. Earlier this week Rahul’s sister Priyanka was in Raebareli, the seat their mother Sonia is Member of Parliament from. There, Priyanka lashed out at party workers for her brother’s humiliating defeat from the neighbouring Amethi Lok Sabha seat. She said she would soon identify those in the Congress who did not work for the party. It is evidence that the Gandhis will remain invested in politics.

Call it the curse of being a Gandhi, but, really, Rahul has no middle ground or choice. He either has to lead from the front or retire from politics. He can’t be just another member in the collective leadership team, for he will invariably become its de facto head.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 13:02:35 IST