Frustrated by improper leadership over the past years, reports have emerged that 23 senior leaders of the Congress including five former Chief Ministers, many Congress Working Committee members, sitting MPs, and several former Union Ministers, have sent a letter to party chief Sonia Gandhi calling for major structural changes in the party. The letter raised concerns about the youth of India siding towards BJP after losing confidence in the Congress and pointed out the gradual erosion of the party’s support base. It essentially called for a change in the leadership and direction of the Congress party.
The letter, sent a fortnight ago, called for “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival. In other words, it called for major reforms, decentralization of power, and empowerment of state units.
It also highlighted the “uncertainty” over the leadership that had demoralized workers and weakened the party. In terms of dealing with the opposition, the authors of the letter wrote that the Congress Working Committee (CWC) is not “effectively guiding” the party anymore in mobilizing public opinion against the BJP government as reported by Indian Express.
Addressing the same leadership concerns in the party, in the recent CWC meeting, party members decided for Sonia Gandhi to continue as the interim president of the party for another 6 months, after which an election will be held for the position. Now, the question on everyone’s mind is -will it be a Gandhi or a non-Gandhi member?
According to Varghese K. George, associate editor of the Hindu, the fate of the Congress party depends on Rahul Gandhi’s decision about his position in the party - either he must leave politics or rescind his resignation. As long as the Gandhis remains an integral part of the Congress party, members will push for them to lead the party.
The legacy of the Congress party so strongly derives itself from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that a Gandhi cannot possibly be an ordinary member of the party, K. George explains in The Hindu’s podcast.
Congress Party Members leave due to no change and stagnant leadership
“If not Modi, then who?” has to be one of the most asked questions during the 2019 election in India. Albeit in different ways, both, Modi supporters and his critics echoed these words throughout the election - the supporters did so triumphantly and the critics disappointedly.
Most Indians had lost faith and trust in the Congress party by that time. So, when former President of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi stood as Modi’s opposition in the 2019 election race, most people had already eliminated him from the race and for this, only the Congress is to blame.
The party seems to be in limbo since its 2014 defeat by BJP and from the looks of it cannot imagine a party without the Gandhis on the frontline. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, both offered to step down as the party president but party veterans are unwilling to accept anything outside the Gandhian leadership. Due to the stagnancy in the leadership in the party, many Congress members have switched sides to join the opposition, convinced that they have no future in the party.
“If your leader cannot get you power, it’s natural for politicians to seek it elsewhere,” says Tom Vadakkan, an All Indian Congress Committee (AICC) insider and family loyalist who switched to the BJP in 2019.
This isn’t a recent development, since 2014 many notable Congress members have left the party. For instance, in 2015, former Union minister for environment, Jayanthi Natarajan announced her resignation from the Congress and wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi, detailing the reasons for her apparent unhappiness and disillusionment about the party’s functioning.
The most recent and discussed resignation was of Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was touted as the next-generation Congress leader. He left the party on March 10, 2020, claiming that he was sidelined by Congress veterans, Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh politics following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The party chose Kamal Nath as the CM of Madhya Pradesh over Scindia, the latter was also ignored while deciding on the state party president post. Eventually, Scindia took more than 20 Congress MLAs with him and joined the BJP.
Judging from the former members’ disillusionment with the party, it seems Rahul Gandhi was unable to revamp the party or provide opportunities to prominent party members during this presidential term.
Rahul Gandhi was an inaccessible leader according to Congress party members
When the Modi wave first hit India in 2014, Rahul Gandhi was the vice-president of the Congress party at the time and after the Congress’ defeat, Rahul had decided to revive and bring a change in the Congress party as reported by India Today. However, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party veterans weren’t supportive of this proposal and rejected his blueprint as they believed that making changes to the party at a sensitive time like that would lead to its demise.
The Congress did bag some wins along the way - the partial win in Bihar in 2015, the electoral victory in Punjab in 2017, followed by the near-victory in Gujarat towards end-2017. However, none of the victories can be significantly attributed to Rahul’s leadership.
As a leader, Rahul Gandhi lacked consistency and as reported by India Today was accused of being inaccessible by his own party members. Former member, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who aspired to be the chief minister was denied access to discuss the same with Rahul, and in retaliation, he left the party for the BJP in 2015.
Blaming lack of change and opportunity, just like a domino effect, more and more Congress party members quit the party, for instance - Former Haryana Congress president Tanwar, Former Tripura Congress president Pradyot Debbarma, and Former Jharkhand Congress president Ajoy Kumar, all left the party.
Another ex-Congress member, Mausam Noor, who changed membership from the Congress party to the Trinamool Congress in January 2019 and later became a Rajya Sabha MP, highlighted, “Rahul doesn’t command the respect Sonia Gandhi does. He’s not consistent. Leaders don’t trust him,” as reported by India Today.
So, why did the Congress not look beyond the Gandhis for leadership?
The party had an opportunity to conduct an election for the president post, which leaders such as Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari wanted, but the Congress Working Committee instead persuaded Sonia Gandhi to fill the position. A lot of veteran members of the Congress party are reluctant towards change in leadership if it involves letting go of the Gandhian legacy.
One member of the AICC, Rajeev Satav believes that falling back on the Gandhis can save the party as, “Unlike most other Congress leaders who have a regional identity, the Gandhis belong to, and connect with, all of India,” he tells India Today.
“They are the common thread that connects every Congress worker from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. They did not achieve this overnight. From Kashmir, where the Nehru-Gandhis have their roots, to Allahabad in the heart of India, Chikkamagluru in Karnataka to Wayanad in Kerala, the Gandhis have a piece of every part of India in them,” he continues.
Satav is a strong supporter of Rahul’s leadership, “Why do you think the BJP fields a dozen spokespersons and Union ministers every day to react to and dismiss every word he utters and every social media post he puts out? It is because he rattles them with the truth. The only way they can counter him is to heap ridicule on him,” he says.
However, there is a small section of dissenters in Congress that are in favor of electing a new president, a Gandhian, or not. “Some may be motivated by ambition and others may say it out of genuine concern, but there is nothing wrong in the demand that elections should be held to the post of president and the matter should be resolved once and for all,” says a CWC member in an interview with India Today.
The party needs to bring structural and organizational reforms
According to a Congress general secretary, “The organizational network is in a shambles. There is no coordinated effort by the central and state leaders to change that.”
It was reported that to have an ideological support block for Congress, just like BJP with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Rahul Gandhi had attempted to rebuild the Congress Seva Dal - founded in 1923, it was the central volunteer organization of the Congress. However, the results didn’t pan out well and no updates were given after Rahul’s resignation. So, unlike BJP, Congress doesn’t have an organization to send the party inputs from the grassroots.
Another organizational flaw is that important party sessions and meetings such as AICC sessions are rarely held. According to News18, the previous All India Congress Committee (AICC) session was held in March 2018 even though the Congress constitution states it is mandatory to meet at least once, preferably twice.
Even the party’s topmost decision-making body meets only in times of crisis or when critical issues need to be discussed. Another common allegation is AICC in-charges rarely spend time in their respective states and rely on minions to bring them information on the events in the particular State.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, an ex-Congress member explains how the BJP and Congress differ in their feedback mechanism. “In Congress, an in-charge pays a visit, meets the chief minister or the party chief, and returns within a day or two. In the BJP, the in-charge meets party workers as well as RSS leaders and holds transparent interactions. So the high command gets the real picture,” he says.
In 2016, to improve the party’s feedback gathering, Rahul had appointed 600 young leaders for party work but seems like it wasn’t well-executed as the workers complained about not getting any responsibilities as reported by Mail Today.
Should the Congress party change into a cadre-based party like BJP?
In terms of a stronger organizational structure, certain Congress party leaders believe that the party should change into a cadre-based party, meaning consisting of trained individuals such as the RSS. Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh and former chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, both, think that Congress not having a cadre to support Congress is a big disadvantage for the party.
“The Congress has been a party of [mass] movement. It was never cadre-based, which did not make much difference while it was in power. But now, we need a cadre-based leadership and a sustained training program for all leaders,” feels Digvijaya.
“The Congress constitution is not being followed, which is why the party’s organizational functioning needs to be reassessed at all levels,” he adds.
Other members of the AICC say that there are signs of the formation of organizational structure in villages, according to Shaktisinh Gohil, AICC in-charge for Bihar and Rajya Sabha member, the Congress now has presidents and workers in 80 percent of the panchayats.
Congress lacks a strong ideology to counter BJP
Unlike the BJP’s strong ideology about embracing Hindu culture, Congress has failed to create a framework for their ideological position in order to counter the BJP’s narrative.
In an interview with India Today, Shashi Tharoor talks about how the party needs to stay invested in its core ideals. “The ideology of an inclusive and progressive party, liberal and centrist in its orientation, committed to social justice and individual freedoms, patriotic in its determination to protect national security and promote human security, still has great appeal if it is projected properly,” he says.
However, the party has not been able to reach out to citizens with their progressive ideology, rather it seems to be busy voicing criticism against the BJP while offering no solutions. For instance, Rahul voiced his concern about the coronavirus pandemic as early as February but the party didn’t offer any suggestions for what could have been done to deal with the crisis.
Similarly, even on the border conflict with China, Congress has offered no alternative point of view. About two weeks back, Rahul Gandhi brought up the stand-off with China but only to castigate Modi by tweeting, “Everybody believes in the capability and valor of the Indian army. Except for the PM: Whose cowardice allowed China to take our land.”
The party also has internal ideological issues that it needs to sort out. For instance, recent contentious issues such as the abrogation of Artic7le 370, NRC (National Register of Citizens), and CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) showed the differing opinions and ideologies that didn’t align with Congress’ public ideology of social justice.
While most Congress leaders opposed the abrogation of article 370, former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda supported the abrogation, claiming that “Congress has lost its way.”
The Congress has also been accused of double standards on certain issues. Tripura Congress president Pradyot Debbarma comments on the same, “The Congress criticizes Veer Savarkar but joins hands with the Shiv Sena to form a government,” as reported by India Today. However, Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh counters this by highlighting the fact that the Common Minimum Programme created by the NCP-Shiv Sena coalition in Maharashtra doesn’t compromise with the basic ideology of the Congress.
The Common Minimum Programme is a document outlining the minimum objectives of a coalition government in India. The document has acquired prominence since coalition governments have become the norm in India.
The Congress needs to make voters believe in its ideology
Manish Tewari, a Congress member, believes that the party needs to remind people of Congress’ philosophy on issues like secularism, nationalism, and economic development.
Another Congress leader, Salman Khurshid says the party allure people with storytelling by building a narrative around the ideologies, in order to reconnect with the people. “If you fail at good storytelling, others will take over. If one’s story is superior, I believe the Congress’s is, one will win the hearts and minds of the people,” he says to the Outlook.
“For the Congress, this is the time to stick to its ideology all the more strongly. Only then can the party fight the BJP, which is determined to destroy parliamentary democracy in the country,” says Ahmed Patel, Congress treasurer, and CWC member.
Even though Congress is attempting to fight the BJP through legitimate criticism, it isn’t enough as anybody can play the role of a self-righteous but passive critic. Till it can prove to its voters that the party is capable of meaningful change, it will not be able to give a strong opposition to the BJP. It is yet to be seen if a new Congress party leader will be elected and whether that decision will bring the much-needed change to the party.