Seemingly in the clutches of a terminal leadership crisis, the Congress party seems dazed and confused as it deals with the Modi government's bold decision to revoke special status to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and turn the state into two union territories.
It took a whole day for ex-Congress president Rahul Gandhi to tweet a reaction critical of the BJP government; he said the Constitution was being torn to shreds.
The Congress was left red-faced in the Lok Sabha when its leader of the house Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury tied himself in knots by questioning, "If Indira Gandhi did the Simla agreement and Vajpayee did the Lahore agreement, then how is Article 370 an internal issue?"
A combative Amit Shah, Union Home Minister who has led the Kashmir gambit, immediately seized the comment and demanded to know if "that was the Congress's official position".
Chowdhary fumbled and left Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, both present in the House, looking upset at the self-goal.
Worse was to come as verbose Congress MP Manish Tewari offered a laboured comparison of the move to the soft-porn bestseller "Fifty Shades Of Grey". How this made any sense only Tewari knew.
Meanwhile, a mini-revolt has started in the party which has been in crisis since May 25, when Gandhi quit as president. Yesterday, Bhubaneswar Kalita, handpicked by Sonia Gandhi as chief whip, resigned saying he could not carry out the party's whip as it was against the people's wishes.
Several young Turks from states that will vote in less than three months have veered off the party line.
Deepender Hooda from Haryana welcomed the step publicly, calling it his personal view. Milind Deora from Maharashtra treaded cautiously and came up with a neutral stand. Jaiveer Shergill welcomed the Kashmir decision and senior leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi admitted that the BJP had politically outfoxed the Congress on the issue.
How the Congress was clueless is a mystery, since the move was practically an open secret with the Modi government cancelling the Amarnath Yatra, moving all tourists out of the Kashmir Valley and cutting off all communication.
If the Congress was still blindsided by the move, it truly speaks volumes about its lack of leadership and political smarts. To add insult to injury, sidelined senior leader Janardan Dwivedi, whose claim to fame is that he was Sonia Gandhi's Hindi teacher, came out in support of the big changes.
The voices of dissent cut across the age bracket and showcased a party in leadership paralysis. Senior leaders told me that the party, till this morning, did not have a clear-cut line of opposing the Kashmir move, which lent itself to much cross-talk and political flailing.
Several Lok Sabha leaders were taken aback by former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad's vehement and intemperate reaction against the scrapping of special status. Azad today said those who differed with him were unaware of the party's history.
Senior leaders now despair at the leadership vacuum that seems to be near-permanent since the Congress's crushing Lok Sabha defeat. No one has any idea of how to even get the party on prep mode for the upcoming state elections.
"What elections? We still don't know if we have a party president. We don't have any funds or a publicity plan for the assembly elections. We don't even know what plank we are going to the public with. My current worry is that Rahul Gandhi may go abroad again and delay any succession planning," says a senior leader from Maharashtra.
Take the case of Maharashtra - both Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena's Aaditya Thackeray are now on public connect yatras while the Maharashtra Congress can't take a break from its internecine battles to even iron out a seat share with ally NCP of Sharad Pawar.
The government's Kashmir play has truly put the Congress in a spot. It has to take into account its legacy as the party which got Kashmir to accede to the union of India and the history of the Simla agreement. A senior leader says: "We have to be extremely careful. We can't take lessons from the BJP on nationalism but any loose remark will have the Modi government paint us as 'anti national'."
Senior Congress leaders bemoan the lack of nuance in the current debate, saying that even if the Kashmir decision was needed, the process followed by the BJP was "undemocratic" and "hasty". "Cutting off your head is also a bold move, but will it help your body," asks a former Congress home minister bitingly.
The Congress has to tread a very fine line as the media is already running blaring headlines on Chowdhury's faux pas in the House.
The Congress is also isolated in the opposition as most regional parties, including the BJD, the TRS and AAP have welcomed the move, sensing the public mood.
The Rajya Sabha has also capitulated to the BJP. Now more than ever, India needs a functioning opposition. The Congress, once the linchpin of Indian politics, needs to get its act together. Or else, oblivion beckons.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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