Nine months after its meltdown in the national elections, India's main opposition the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, finds itself in fresh in-house churnings over the issue of top leadership. The most immediate trigger for this was the Delhi assembly elections on February 8 as the party failed to win any of the 70 seats. This was a repeat of its performance in the previous poll five years ago.
To make matters worse for the Congress is the unsavoury spectacle of party leaders openly squabbling over the reasons for its Delhi debacle. What has added to the complications for the party is the demand aired publicly for having election to choose its new chief, something unusual for the Congress immersed in the culture of selecting its top leadership.
Soon after the Delhi assembly poll results were out, senior Congress leaders were indulging in mutual recrimination while interpreting the electoral mandate. P Chidambaram projected Aam Aadmi Party's victory in Delhi as a resounding defeat for the Bharatiya Janata Party but was promptly questioned by the Congress' women wing chief Sharmistha Mukherjee, daughter of former president Pranab Mukherjee, who said, "what are we celebrating about?" And instead asked the party men to introspect the Congress' washout in Delhi. Sharmistha was scathing in her response to Chidambaram. Her Twitter response to India's former finance minister read "with due respect, sir, just want to know has (the Congress) outsourced the task of defeating BJP to state parties?" Similarly, when prominent leader of the party from Mumbai Milind Deora commended on AAP's fiscal management and social welfare programmes for its poll win, it drew a sharp riposte from senior Congress leader Ajay Maken of Delhi who asked Deora to quit the party.
The call for top leadership change in the wake of the Delhi poll rout was aired by senior leader Sandeep Dikshit who was almost immediately supported by Shashi Tharoor. Dikshit was quite blunt in his stand as he said the party did not have the courage to "bell the cat" on the leadership issue. The Congress' chief spokesman Randeep Surjewal pushed back at Sandeep Dikshit saying had Dikshit used as much energy in his own parliamentary constituency, the party would have won the Delhi assembly poll.
Other senior leaders like Manish Tewari, M Veerappa Moily and Jairam Ramesh have gone on record as flaying the Congress' inability to draw lessons from successive electoral setbacks and taking corrective actions relating to issues like the economy, secularism and the perception about the party's failure to think beyond the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to provide leadership.
The present turmoil in the Congress and the issues being flagged are nothing new. They have been there ever since the Congress was voted out of power in Lok Sabha poll in 2014 with its lowest-ever haul of 44 seats. But no worthwhile effort was made to address the issues. In fact, the opposite has happened every time the party fared well in state-level elections that saw the Congress regaining power in the three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018 and prior to that in Punjab in 2017—the party seemed to lapse into complacency and slip into the tendency of sweeping thorny in-house issues relating to top leadership and ideology under the carpet.
True, there was a marked improvement in the Congress' performance in the Haryana assembly poll not too long ago. The Congress appeared to rejoice in the break-up of the BJP's alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra triggering a realignment of forces that saw the Sonia Gandhi-led party returning to power. The Congress also savoured the BJP's defeat in Jharkhand assembly elections a few months ago. A section of the party insiders argue that the senior Congress leaders seem to be oblivious to the fact that the party is just a junior partner in the ruling coalition in both Maharashtra and Jharkhand where the regional parties Shiv Sena and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha are leaders. In Karnataka, the Congress had given up its own claim of leading a coalition government some years ago and ceded that position to its junior ally Janata Dal (Secular)—a key regional party—for keeping the BJP at bay after the assembly polls. Is the Congress smug in the belief that the party's sharp decline in two successive national and some state polls in the last five and a half years were merely a cyclical phenomenon? The discussion within the Congress to revive itself organisationally seems to have taken a back seat.
Will the Delhi poll verdict bring the Congress out of its "slumber", as one of its senior leaders put it? Rahul Gandhi stepped down as the party chief in the wake of the 2019 national election setback and it took Congress almost six months to give the reins back to his mother Sonia as interim president in August last year, hoping to put in place a new leadership likely through a credible internal democratic process.
How does the Congress go about emerging from the leadership limbo? Moily has called for a brainstorming session and it is possible that this would be held in April after the budget session in parliament. Tharoor has suggested that the voting for a new Congress president as well the Congress Working Committee, the party's top decision-making forum, be done through ten thousand delegates drawn from the central and state leadership structures. Senior party leader Prithviraj Chavan opposed the selection culture in the Congress to pick its president. He also blamed the "coterie" around Sonia Gandhi for not allowing organisational elections for years when she was the party chief from 1998 to 2017.
The Congress' decline over the years in several states it once used to dominate has resulted in the rise and flowering of regional parties. The AAP's recent triumph in Delhi is the latest example of that. This, along with the BJP, have ensured the steep erosion of the grand old party's standing as the anchor of a pan-India alliance against the saffron surge.
What should worry the Congress more is that most of these regional parties do not share the Congress' intense antipathy towards the BJP. The reason is that these regional parties are in power in many states and need to work in close collaboration with the BJP-led government in power at the Centre to get funds and other assistance for their development agendas. Most of the regional parties ruling the states have given enough indications that they want cooperative and not confrontationist relationship with the Centre.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.