Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to party president could spark a Congress exodus
There has been nothing to give Congressmen hope that Rahul’s elevation may politically, organisationally or electorally alter the situation for the party.
There has been a marked change in the mood of Congress leaders since November 2016, when the Congress Working Committee (CWC) unanimously recommended that party vice-president Rahul Gandhi be elevated to the top post in the organisation. Senior party leaders were quick to suggest that the ailing and ageing party chief, Sonia Gandhi, would follow up on the suggestion soon.
Four months on, the expected anointment still hasn’t materialised, fuelling speculation around the continuing procrastination of a move considered inevitable. Ever since Rahul came into active politics in 2004 and, more specifically, after Sonia went abroad for an undisclosed illness in 2011, she has been increasingly transferring her responsibilities onto him.
Much appears to have changed during this four-month period. Even leaders and supporters who were not enamoured by Rahul or his leadership qualities had at that time given the 46-year-old Amethi MP the benefit of the doubt and had hoped that his elevation as the head of the 132-year-old organisation would establish the continuity of the Gandhi brand, hold back the Congress flock of supporters, provide a semblance of unity to the organisation and help it fight the resurgent BJP another day.
That is no longer the mood. Indeed, there is a simmering disquiet and an uneasy calm that is looking for its tipping point, with a number of the established leaders now just biding their time.
"So long as Sonia remains the party president, we are around. But once Rahul is anointed party chief, there will be an exodus," said a party leader known for his proximity to the Congress bosses but now chary and wary of the change of guard.
Already, the BJP has been poaching those who could help the saffron party bring in votes. It did it before a number of state elections, including in Assam and the recent Assembly elections in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur. It is a strategy BJP could employ in other states as well, including in Maharashtra, where its relations with the Shiv Sena are not too good and in Odisha, where the ruling BJD is showing signs of inner tensions and where the saffron party had performed well in the local elections.
There has been nothing to give Congressmen hope that Rahul’s elevation may politically, organisationally or electorally alter the situation for the party. It has been one downhill slide over the last few years. Since 2013, the party has lost key elections in almost all states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam, Gujarat, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa.
Wiped out from large swathes across the country, the Congress is currently in power in just five states: Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram, while it is part of the ruling coalition in Bihar.
Once straddling across the country, the Congress has been squashed out by strong region-based parties and a marauding BJP, which has become the dominant pole of Indian politics with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s battle cry of a "Congress-mukt Bharat." It drew a blank in over 15 states in the 2014 General Elections and was reduced to a pitiable 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.
For Congressmen, the serial defeats in the elections was a shock but what shook their confidence was that the central leadership showed a remarkable lack of urgency in trying to deal with the crisis that was staring the party in the face.
After each defeat, the top leadership promised a painful introspection and drastic surgical, structural and strategic repairs to reconstruct and rebuild the party. But, nothing of the sort happened. It did not happen after the Lok Sabha polls, where the Antony Committee blamed every other factor for the party’s miserable loss except for Rahul’s leadership, which others felt was accountable. Indeed, a number of Congress leaders had openly cocked a snook at the Amethi MP and dubbed him a failure, a joker and much worse.
On his part, after losing Delhi to Aam Aadmi Party, Rahul promised changes that "cannot even be imagined." It turned out to be an empty rhetoric. After the loss in UP, where the Congress allied with the Samajwadi Party, he spoke of bringing about "structural changes."
Three weeks after the results, the Congress has not even held a meeting of the Congress Working Committee to assess the crisis, that threatens to turn the party into history. The bottom-line, as one leader recently remarked, is that "Congress has nothing... no leadership, no organisation, no articulation and no money’’ to revive.
Right now, it can only cling to the feeble hope that the BJP would someday falter majorly. Until then, it can only turn to prayers and miracles.
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