For the Congress to survive, the old guard has to go
The Congress' very future is at stake. If the party is serious about resurrecting itself, it has to summarily axe the old-timers. There is no time to waste
The Indian National Congress’ manifesto for the 2019 election was titled ‘We Will Deliver’. Today, it’s more a question of “’Who Will Deliver’ for the Congress party?”.
There is not a single politician in the Congress who has the gumption to take up the challenge to resurrect the party. That’s why they could at best be called politicians and not leaders. It’s not even sure they could be called politicians as no one has shown any initiative to ring in the necessary changes.
The veterans in the party still aspire to the top post in the party … without any plan, agenda or vision for revival. They lack the common sense to understand that the May 2019 verdict was as much against the old generation in the Congress as much as it was a vote against the first family of the party.
The Nehru-Gandhi family has at least owned up responsibility for the defeat, in contrast to the behaviour of the old guard. The inability of the Congress to catch the imagination of the people was significantly due to the inherent rigidity and ‘it doesn’t matter’ attitude of the septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders still clinging to the power centres after 2014’s humiliating defeat.
Even after this year’s May 23 verdict, not a single member of the old guard had the courage or the grace to admit they could not deliver, and thus pave the way for a new generation of leaders.
The Dixits, the Kharges, the Nabis, the Voras and the Shindes still want to be the party president. They are not willing to concede they are a burden on the party. Even with Rahul Gandhi continuously asking for accountability, the old guard isn’t budging. This is not out of any conviction born of experience, but the greedy defiance of a group that has enjoyed power for most of their life.
This is a case where it’s not about hunger for power, but rather an addiction to power. This is about a bunch of people who have enjoyed power, more than warranted by their ability or capacity. The BJP leadership, in contrast, is still power hungry, and ready to work harder in the quest to acquire more and more power.
Rahul Gandhi led the 2019 campaign from the front and accepted his failure after the results. Fair enough! What prevents Ghulam Nabi Azad from acknowledging that he won’t be able to deliver anymore?
Two years ago, he was in-charge of Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance was routed by the Modi-Shah-led BJP. It was perhaps too big a state for someone like him. For the Lok Sabha elections, he was shifted to Haryana, which is one-eighth the political size of Uttar Pradesh. Here too, Azad could not help the party to a single seat. Yet, he continues to be the Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha.
Sheila Dixit, who is 80 plus, was made president of the party’s Delhi unit after her short but disastrous stint as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. It was because of her insistence that a Congress-AAP alliance did not materialise in Delhi. As a result, not only did she lose as a candidate, but the BJP once again swept all 7 seats in the national capital. Despite her lacklustre performance over the years, she still doesn’t think it’s time for her to quit politics.
Mallikarjun Kharge is also in the same league. He was Congress leader in the Lok Sabha for a full five years. He had the key responsibility of steering the party campaign in the second largest political state in India, Maharashtra. But as party leader in the Lok Sabha, he hardly travelled round the country to meet people and try and understand their problems and perceptions.
In Maharashtra, he seldom turned up for campaigns. The net result was that Congress won only one seat from the state that sends 48 representatives to the Lok Sabha. Ignominiously, Kharge himself lost from his traditional seat in neighbouring Karnataka. Now, his name and that of Sushil Kumar Shinde are being bandied about as the next party president!
The malaise is widespread in the Congrerss, and not limited to those ensconced in Lutyens’ Delhi. From Assam’s Tarun Gogoi to Uttarakhand’s Harish Rawat, the Congress leadership in the states is a mirror image of Delhi. These were people who delivered for the Congress in the past and enjoyed the fruits of power. Now, since they can’t deliver, they have to go.
It’s a tragedy that the Congress is unwilling to learn from its own history. In the past too, the Congress had faced anti-incumbency and lack of motivation. But it managed not only to survive, but continued to rule. The signs were visible even just a decade and half after independence. It led to the famous Kamaraj Plan to overhaul the party leadership. However, no such initiatives were undertaken after 2014 resulting in a second consecutive defeat in 2019.
Within a few years after the Kamaraj Plan, Indira Gandhi realized that old leadership had become a burden. She not only broke free of the shackles imposed by them, but also reinvented the Congress in the process. Many blame Indira for today’s situation. But despite her record, Indira ensured the Congress didn’t lose its centrality in the country’s politics. Politics is sometimes more about survival, influence and dominance than agonising about the future.
Even Sonia Gandhi undertook considerable rejigs in her first years as party president. Bigwigs like Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad were sent back to their respective states as state president and chief minister much against their wishes. She recreated the Nehru-era system of powerful leaders leading the party in the states, while she enjoyed considerable autonomy at the centre. Hence, Andhra Pradesh was left to YSR Reddy, Assam to Gogoi, Delhi to Dixit, Haryana to Huda, Rajasthan to Gehlot and so on.
This mechanism worked well for almost 10 years. But Sonia lost the plot after the 2009 electoral victory. Paradoxically, the return to power of Manmohan Singh government shifted the equilibrium between state leaders and the high command towards the former. Later on, as anti-incumbency threatened the state leaderships, the high command appeared helpless in stemming the rot.
The net result is today’s disarray and desperation. Today, its MLAs in Karnataka, Goa and Telangana are deserting a sinking ship, a sign that things have gone terribly wrong. If the party is to survive and resurrect itself, Congress workers, its ideologues and its well-wishers need to come to terms with reality, and figure out the way ahead... without any delay.
(The author is Head of School at the MIT School of Government, Pune)