Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi chairs the Congress Working Committee meeting, in New Delhi, Sunday, March 13, 2022. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is also seen. (PTI)
Leif Babin, a decorated former US Navy Seals officer and self-declared "student of leadership", had once said "there are no bad teams, only bad leaders". This quote is extremely apt in the backdrop of the continued outpouring of belief in India’s Congress Party, even after the debacle it faced in the recent Assembly polls, as articulated by many respectable people — not sycophants by any chance — whose opinions I have high regard for. Before starting this article, I recalled many written in recent years by several like me — secular Indians who believe in the "original" worldview and earlier dynamism of the Congress. People still hope the Congress leadership shall arise from its self-induced comatose state and lead the country back to times when hate was not normal, and when the majority community felt they owed security to religious minorities, that there was a need to empower and uplift the poor and not just keep them trapped in an endless cycle of receiving "charity" in the name of "benefits". Could I, or other like-minded persons, say anything very different than what was previously stated after the latest four-hour long meeting whose outcome was known immediately after it was convened?
What do we make of a political party leader who, after another electoral rout that further chipped away at the territory it held previously, asks the general body a question whose answer is inlaid in its tonality: "Do you think I have made a mistake?" In this case, Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi — neither stopgap, nor permanent but someone holding the job for another, not yet willing to resume the job — had a specific poser: If some attendees at the Congress Working Committee meeting feel the Gandhi family is responsible for the state of affairs, she, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were ready to do any "sacrifice" for the party and withdraw. After seeing the fate of the small group with the G-23 nametag (one of them quit and is part of the BJP now) and how they were reviled by significant sections of the party with backing from the top brass, who would give an honest answer and publicly state that the "family" was indeed accountable?
Looking at repeated exercises like the latest CWC meeting, the Congress is little more than an old long-playing record, always stored at the bottom of the chest because that was the universal place in yesteryears for discs stuck in the groove. Families did not discard those records although they were jammed in a perpetual loop purely for reasons of nostalgia. Sadly, for the Congress, with its electoral capacity and influence diminishing by the day, it has been relegated to existing in the collective consciousness of those who don’t agree with the BJP’s majoritarian overdrive, as an unredeemed idea only because its leadership neither resumes charge after relinquishing it, nor do they allow anyone else to step in and try to revive its fortunes. At the end, one must ask the question: how much power does an idea have, if it is solely dependent on an ageing matriarch and GenNext — mind you, Rahul Gandhi will complete two decades in politics in 2024 — who neither wishes to resume charge, nor make way for someone else. How committed are they to the cause, the idea and ideals they represent?
At the root of the Congress’ inability to reverse the party’s decline that set in after 2014 is that the leadership has neither accepted its responsibility, nor apportioned it to anyone else. Instead, it has resorted to a blame game, laying the fault on the doors of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has been most evident in the accusations after several leaders, including Rahul Gandhi’s personal loyalists, began crossing over to the BJP, the latest being R.P.N. Singh. Although an unsparing post-mortem has been the need of the hour from 2014 onwards, especially after 2019, the emphasis has been on allowing the party to drift along. Rahul Gandhi resigned after the debacle almost three years ago and since then it has been clear Sonia Gandhi is merely holding on to the job till the time that her son thinks that it is an appropriate moment for him to resume charge. The problem with this approach — that the resignation was essentially a ploy to ensure sycophants gathered around imploring "please continue" to prevent criticism — which eventually surfaced in the form of the G-23 letter — is that it is dubious and motivated by personal interest of holding on to the office and not keeping the long-term interest of the party in mind.
Following the CWC meeting and the two decisions, that Sonia Gandhi will continue and her two children will not "withdraw", and that organisational polls scheduled in August-September may possibly be advanced, there has been a concerted bid once again by the loyalists to brush uncomfortable issues beneath the carpet. It does not take much wisdom to comprehend that the much-delayed changes made in Punjab and Uttarakhand were the primary reasons for the party’s ouster from the former and failure to return to power in the hill state. The lessons have not been learnt and there is no certainty that the organisational polls shall be held because Rahul Gandhi may yet not be willing to take up the challenge. Despite the indignation that the leadership evokes, it continues getting the love of numerous people because they fear that in the event of its death, the Congress’ space shall be taken up by another BJP-like grotesque ideological imagination. But how long can the party survive on this belief? Eventually only those who have no utility elsewhere shall remain in the rump.
The big challenge before the Congress now, before it can stage a comeback as a credible challenger to the BJP, is retaining pre-eminence in the Opposition space and forming alliances with other parties. The number of Congress-ruled states has declined from 2014 and is now down to just two — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. These two will go to the polls in late 2023 and the BJP will get a shot at realising its objective of a "Congress-mukt Bharat", in terms of state governments at least, if not in the ideas the party represents. There are polls in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and several states in Northeast India prior to that, but with the present disarray and the ambitions of the AAP, regaining territory is a daunting challenge.