How Many More Defeats Will It Take For The Congress Party To Tweak Its Leadership?

23/05/2016 2:45 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, right, and her son and Vice President Rahul Gandhi listen to a speaker during celebrations marking the 125th birth anniversary of the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. Nehru is the great-grandfather of Rahul Gandhi. His birth anniversary falls on Nov. 14. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

In an emotional speech Rahul Gandhi had said that his mother had come to him and wept after he had been appointed the Congress vice president.

“My mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried… because she understands that power so many people seek is poison,” Rahul had said.

Power might be poisonous but in politics, being powerless is fatal. As the Congress loses the helm of two more states in India its climb back to national relevance becomes that much steeper. In that same speech Rahul Gandhi had said, “We should not chase power for the attributes of power. We should only use it to empower the voices.”

But the Congress’ ability to “empower” other voices also took another bruising blow in these elections. Its “jote” understanding with the Left in Bengal fell flat on its face at the hustings allowing Trinamool to romp home with a thumping unassailable majority.

The Congress can take some solace there. The understanding helped it improve its own seat tally in the Assembly. It will now replace the Left Front as the main opposition in the state. But the fact that some Left votes transferred to the Congress in seats where it ran but the reverse did not quite happen augurs ill for the prospects of future alliances.

Power might be poisonous but in politics, being powerless is fatal.

But what should trouble party workers is the national leadership’s response which came from an out-of-date script.

“No failure is permanent,” said Sonia Gandhi.

And then she trotted out the same mantra that has long stopped working for the party.

“We have to compensate for each drop of Rajiv’s blood spilled on Indian soil by promoting and strengthening social harmony.”

Granted this statement was on the occasion of the 25th death anniversary of the former PM. But the Congress cannot ride to the polls on the back of its slain leaders anymore. And it is the worst form of self-righteous noblesse oblige to expect that voters will vote for the party in gratitude for the fallen Gandhis. The voters have already made that clear but the Gandhis cannot seem to hear it as they trot out the same shopworn story of sacrifice.

Sonia said, “Success achieved by discarding basic principles will not last long. And if the basic principles are intact, then no failure is permanent.”

But the Congress has long lost sight of any basic principles it really stands for. It stands for secularism but a wishy-washy kind, watered down when politically expedient or when vote banks are at stake. The “jote” in Bengal articulated little by way of an alternative vision for the state other than a one-point agenda “Anything but Mamata”. In his speech at a rally in Kolkata Rahul’s most specific promise was building the collapsed flyover in six months.

gandhi polls 2016

Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress (INC), center, inspects the collapsed under-construction Vivekananda overpass in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, on Sunday, 3 April, 2016.

The only “basic principle” the Congress has nurtured and held fast to, through thick and thin, is Gandhi-worship.

“We are a party of all, for all and by all,” said Jyotiraditya Scindia but did not mention that above all, it’s a party for the Gandhis.

After the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi predictably accepted responsibility, offered to resign, and then graciously yielded when the party refused to accept that offer. It’s a farce that accepts responsibility without taking any responsibility.

Even before the final results were out, it was clear that Congress leaders were gearing themselves for an encore performance of that same naatak. The results could not be laid at Rahul’s door. “The electoral strategies in the five states were made by the local leadership. The high command didn’t enforce its wish on any state,” said spokesperson P C Chacko.

The party satraps can protectively circle their wagons around Rahul but the choices for him are bleak. If he takes on the mantle of the party right now he will be “rewarded” for leading it to defeat yet again. On the other hand, if he does not take over the mantle, it just prolongs this status quo that is yielding ever diminishing returns. There might not be much of a party left to take over.

The only “basic principle” the Congress has nurtured and held fast to, through thick and thin, is Gandhi-worship.

The grand old party watches as if paralysed as even its opposition status gets usurped by regional forces. And the more it shrinks, the more dissident party leaders from Arunachal Pradesh to Uttarkhand will mull whether it makes sense to hang on to a sinking ship or jump boats before it’s too late. “The Congress will soon concede the opposition space to a federated group of parties which will be made up of strong regional parties, including something like the Aam Aadmi Party,” said Jai Mrug, a political analyst in HT Mint.

Prashant Kishor might have been brought in to change its fortunes but the biggest misfortune for the Congress is that it is a party inherently allergic to change. A party leader told the Economic Times, “After the 2014 debacle not a single general secretary has been changed. Madhusudan Mistry and Shakeel Ahmed are good examples of this. There seems to be no accountability.” Congress leader, V Kishore Chandra Deo has demanded 15-20 leaders be sent on compulsory holiday for a few years for “misleading the leadership.”

The silver lining in the cloud has already been identified. S M Krishna has pointed out the BJP has only won 67 Assembly seats to the Congress’ 137 and the Congress is now the main opposition in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. And it’s the party in power in Puducherry.

Digvijaya Singh has now said, “We have to hand over power to the youth. There is no other option.” But the Mail Today said some 600 young leaders recruited by Team Rahul are still waiting in the wings.

“We have done enough introspection shouldn’t we go for Major Surgery?” tweeted Singh. But what if the major surgery calls for a head transplant?

That’s the one sacrifice, a party addicted to sacrifice, cannot stomach.

Better hold on to the face-saver of Puducherry.

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