Opinion: Gandhis' Ineptitude Costs It One State After Another

Has the Congress under interim president Sonia Gandhi and de facto president Rahul Gandhi decided to give Narendra Modi his third Prime Ministerial term on a platter? Has it concluded that Modi cannot be defeated in 2024, and hence, there is no urgency in setting its own crisis-ridden house in order?

What is happening in the Congress in Punjab can only be described as the 'Theatre of the Absurd'. Edward Albee, one of America's greatest playwrights and an exponent of that genre of theatre, once said, "That's what happens in plays, yes? The shit hits the fan." As a well-wisher of the Congress, it pains me to say this, but it must be said: in the seemingly endless play of absurdities being enacted by Congressmen, the s.... has indeed hit the fan.

In Uttar Pradesh, politically the most consequential state in the country, the Congress stands no chance in the upcoming assembly elections. Until a few months ago, the Congress was confident of comfortably retaining power in Punjab, ousting the BJP governments in Uttarakhand and Goa, and performing well in Manipur. If that calculation were realized, it would enable the Congress to emerge as the magnet for Opposition unity in the run-up to 2024.

But everything is now topsy-turvy. In Punjab, the party might well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Its high command allowed infighting to fester for months on end. In a move that took many by surprise, it made Navjot Singh Sidhu the President of the state unit, knowing fully well that he was leading a bagaawat (rebellion) against Captain Amarinder Singh, the party's incumbent Chief Minister. When the power struggle between the two reached breaking point, it asked Amarinder Singh to step down. It installed Charan Singh Channi, a Dalit leader, as the state's new Chief Minister. The choice was widely hailed. But within days, Sidhu, who was most certainly sulking for not getting the coveted office, stepped down, issuing an absurdly-worded press statement. Losing no time in making things even more awkward for the Congress, Amit Shah, the BJP's master strategist in tod-phod politics (politics of breaking other parties and engineering defections), invited Amarinder Singh for a meeting. Speculation is now rife that this Congress stalwart might join the BJP.

This entire sordid episode begets a serious question: why has the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi become so inept?

The ineptitude has been haunting the Congress in state after state. I was in Gujarat a fortnight ago - indeed, on the same day the BJP High Command suddenly replaced Chief Minister Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel. Most people I spoke to in Ahmedabad said Patel is the lightest of lightweights in the state BJP. Rupani, whose government was highly unpopular, was unceremoniously sacked because the BJP was not confident of winning the assembly elections next year with him in the saddle. Replacing him with another inconsequential person made one thing clear: Modi would once again seek a renewed mandate for the BJP in Gujarat in his own name, just as he had done in 2017. He knows, just as he knew five years ago, that a defeat for the BJP in his own home state would be fatal for his standing. 

To know what is happening in Gujarat now, we should look back to 2017. The Congress came close to defeating the BJP. In an assembly of 182 seats, it improved its tally from 57 in 2012 to 77. The BJP's seats fell from 115 to 99. Had the NCP not divided anti-BJP votes, Gujarat might well have seen a hung assembly. The impressive performance of the Congress was largely attributed to Rahul Gandhi's spirited campaigning. He was ably assisted by Ashok Gehlot, who, as the then prabhari (in-charge) of the Congress in Gujarat, had worked out a brilliant ground-level electoral strategy. Manhar Patel, the young and dynamic spokesperson of the Congress in Gujarat, told me: "Gehlot-ji knew the political situation in every single constituency. He criss-crossed the state several times and knew all the important district-level Congress leaders and workers."

But that was then. Now the Congress is in total disarray in Gujarat. There is no full-time President for the state unit after Amit Chavda resigned following the party's debacle in the local body polls earlier this year. Hardik Patel, the popular young leader who was made "working president", has openly complained that he feels "isolated" by seniors in the Congress, many of whom are highly discredited. In the meantime, the Aam Aadmi Party is growing in Gujarat at the expense of the Congress. It may not win many seats in the next election, but it will certainly damage the Congress in dozens of constituencies. Strangely, the Congress High Command seems to have no sense of urgency in fixing the mess in Gujarat. Due to its manifest ineptitude, it will almost surely allow the BJP to retain power Gujarat in 2022.

In Goa, too, the AAP is trying to cut the Congress to size - reportedly, as in Gujarat, in collusion with the BJP. The Congress High Command has not been able to stop in-fighting in Rajasthan, where Gehlot's Chief Ministership is challenged by Sachin Pilot. The party lost its government in Madhya Pradesh in March 2020 due to a similar internecine power struggle. In Assam and Tripura, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC), so far confined to West Bengal, is poaching leaders from the Congress in a bid to gain the status of a national party. How can there be a credible anti-Modi Opposition alliance at the national level in 2024 if rivalry between the Congress and TMC continues?

All this is happening because of a stark leadership vacuum in the Congress at the very top. Nearly two and a half years after its second consecutive debacle in parliamentary elections, the party still remains unable to elect a full-time President. It does not have a properly-constituted Congress Working Committee for institutionalised deliberations and decision-making. The Congress is suffering from an appalling level of arbitrariness in its top-level functioning, which can only produce one debilitating crisis after another.

The Congress has to do many things for its revival. But right now, Rahul Gandhi has to take one urgent decision. He must end the dangerous drift in the party. For this, he has to either get elected as Congress President - that is, exercise leadership with accountability - or he has to quickly make way for a non-Gandhi to take the reins of the party.

(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)

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