Sonia Gandhi seems to have settled the question for now: she is a hands-on president of her party, no question. Her bold performance at the last meeting of the Congress Working Committee on October 16 can leave no room for doubt on that score, although leading issues still remain.
The impact of her forceful words on the party ranks can’t but be positive. The continual degrading of all Indians due to the Narendra Modi government’s disastrous economic policies, the insecurity caused to the minorities and dalits, and the country’s humiliation by China in Ladakh were noteworthy reminders of what’s going badly wrong.
If the Congress’ performance is above par in the next round of Assembly polls, the party will doubtless retain its primacy in any national grouping of anti-BJP forces in the country in spite of its recent poll performances being dispiriting.
The immediate context of Mrs Gandhi’s speech was framed by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s recent strong showing in Uttar Pradesh, where she was in fighting mode as she met farmers after the Lakhimpur Kheri violence, and addressed an impressive rally in Varanasi, Mr Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
In contrast stands the G-23, the Congress’ ginger group whose urgings led to the calling of the CWC meet in the first place. It has no leg to stand on in terms of star power or the vote-catching quotient. Also, the caucus can never become a breakaway group and chart its future as a group. Its members present at the CWC didn’t find the voice to raise the sort of questions they frequently do in the media. They are quite clearly not in the mould of (former Prime Minister) Chandra Shekhar and his Young Turks who, when in the Congress, had frequently challenged Indira Gandhi even when she was at the height of her powers. The limits of the G-23 are therefore quite obvious.
The principal reason the G-23 don’t cut much ice with the party’s rank and file, although many of them are high-profile individuals with liberal values, is that their members were silent spectators and enjoyed the fruits of power dispensed by the Gandhis when the Congress held office. They didn’t then raise questions about democratising the party or the importance of holding regular elections – as they do now when the party is not in sight of power. Yet, has the fundamental question the G-23 posed gone away?
The plain answer is no. This is why the CWC deemed it fit to announce a schedule for internal elections down to the lowest organisational level, and not just for Congress president. The pith and substance of the G-23 demand was not brushed under the carpet when it could easily have been since there is no challenge to Mrs Gandhi from within.
The ginger group constituted itself and has been active in the past year. This is due to the context -- the Congress has been losing elections, causing demoralisation, even disenchantment, in the party fold. If the Congress does reasonably in the coming state Assembly elections in UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa early next year, and then in Gujarat, the party should be able to project optimism for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. If the Congress misses the boat yet again, Banquo’s ghost will be back, one way or another, even if the G-23 dissipates.
At the CWC, Mrs Gandhi called herself a “full-time” and “hands-on” president. In doing so, she exculpated Rahul Gandhi, who was blamed for the party’s fadeouts, and for regrettable decisions like privileging Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab, in the process destabilising a Congress government and siding with a particular faction, that is historically alien to the Gandhis’ way of doing things. By keeping themselves above the fray, the Gandhis had grown into an automatic adjudicatory role, and kept the Congress from being buffeted by factional pressures.
Although Mr Gandhi resigned as Congress chief in 2019, bravely taking responsibility for the Lok Sabha defeat, he remained the prime mover in the party -- perhaps because his mother’s health was a cause for concern. Now it is his mother who has tried to bail him out by stepping forward to take the rap for things that had gone wrong. It’s hard to read Mrs Gandhi’s self-description of being a full-time, hands-on party president differently.
No matter how unkind the circumstances, and how ferocious the attacks by the establishment on the Gandhis, this isn’t the best way to run the Congress, which has an organisational, political and ideological history as hallowed as any party in the democratic world, with the added richness of leading India to victory in prolonged anti-colonial combat. The Congress deserves different.
Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka have weathered the onslaught of the sectarian far right of the majority community (which is in power) as no other Congress leader before them, and of the three it is Mr Gandhi who stood up to false and perverse personal attacks through the social media day after day. The Gandhis have faced the salvos with elan, single-handed -- with no support from other non-BJP quarters, who have singularly failed to appreciate that they will be next once the Gandhis go down.
Mr Gandhi has indeed taken the battle to the enemy camp, ideologically, on a near daily basis, lately winning admiration among an influential intellectual and political tradition that had previously been dismissive of the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress. Nevertheless, if the Gandhis step back and encourage others to play the role of the party’s organsiational pivot, they may be leading a historic turnaround of their party.
Whether imaginary or real, there has existed the fear that without the glue the Gandhi name provides, the Congress would tear itself apart. This a priori assumption has no firm basis, even allowing for the dismal Sitaram Kesri interregnum. But even if the Congress, as we have known it, capsizes, the set of values that make the party will remain a totem against the dynamics and processes of the far right in a very diverse country.
If Rahul Gandhi is a candidate for the Congress presidency next August, as per the announced schedule, those wishing to contest for the position are likely to hold back. In that case, the Congress will be back to where it is, with a Gandhi on top. The way out of the conundrum is for the CWC, for now, to name preferably two working presidents, letting Rahul Gandhi extricate himself from being the chief instrument of the Congress president in day-to-day. When it is time to elect a new president, Mr Gandhi could continue to keep out and back the new leader with the solidity of his experience.