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Why Congress must take a cue from what Khurshid did not say

Considered one of the saner voices in the Congress party, Salman Khurshid has summed it up for the grand old party: there is a vacuum at the top despite Sonia Gandhi stepping in as interim chief. The leader has walked away, rues Salman Khurshid in his latest assessment of why Congress is facing an existential crisis.

This is the situation that the BJP wanted the Congress to be in when Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate coined his election slogan, “Congress-mukt Bharat” in 2013-14. The campaign saw the Congress being reduced to its lowest tally of 44 in the Lok Sabha five years ago. It barely improved its presence in the Lok Sabha in 2019 polls.

Explaining his Congress-mukt Bharat slogan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his party did not want to finish the Congress but the kind of political leadership the party stood for decades.

Congress has been under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family since Independence. This is true also for the time when someone from the family was not the head of a Congress-led government or head of the party.

The family leadership worked for the Congress unequivocally till the 1980s. But with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the Gandhi family appeared to have lost its charismatic connect with the people.

Sonia Gandhi, who assumed the Congress’s leadership in the late 1990s, built her political capital on a band of loyalists, who effectively ran the organisation for her. The same lot of Congress leaders is today called the old guard.

The Sonia Gandhi model of Congress leadership proved incapable of meeting the challenge posed by a cadre-based election machine of the BJP, which adopted an approach of ruthless pragmatism with the emergence of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the Union home minister, on the national political scene.

The 2014 election results were a telling testimony of the contrasting election weaponry that the Congress and the BJP were equipped and fighting with.

While the leadership change in the BJP, too many observers, happened in an unexpected manner with stalwarts like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi made to sit in the spectators’ gallery of politics and the next-in-line leaders such as Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh were convinced to accept Narendra Modi as their leader, the Congress followed the expected line in change of leadership, what commentators call a natural succession in the party leadership – from mother Sonia Gandhi to son Rahul Gandhi.

A lot of Congress’s problems lie in this “natural” handover of leadership baton within the family from the older generation to the next. Rahul Gandhi assumed Congress’s leadership with baggage of legacy that runs backwards till great-great-grandfather Motilal Nehru. He was expected to extend the legacy and not break it.

The old guard too was eager to continue its hold on the Congress organisation under Rahul Gandhi’s presidentship the same way as they did under Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi, on quite a few occasions, attempted to break free. As general secretary of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium told a Congress plenary session to offer more opportunities to “outsiders” and young leaders.

Rahul Gandhi built a parallel leadership chain of younger politicians in the party and wanted them to run the organisation much to the chagrin of the old guard.

The tussle between the Rahul Gandhi loyalists and the old guard continued between the two Lok Sabha elections and with another shocking defeat of the Congress in 2019, the Congress is nothing but a moribund organisation which has the only legacy to boast of.

The so-called Rahul Gandhi’s men – Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, Jitin Prasada and RPN Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora in Mumbai, Ashok Tanwar in Haryana, Ajay Kumar in Jharkhand, Pradyot Debbarman in Tripura and even Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab (though Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has equally good relation with both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi) have been sidelined in the party. The old guard is firm in the saddle and holds the organisation in tight leash to keep it subsumed nominally to the Gandhi family.

That there is strong resistance to party leadership being decentralised was evident when Sachin Pilot’s claim to the chief minister’s post in Rajasthan was ambushed to keep an old guard member Ashok Gehlot in the chief minister’s office after the Congress tasted rare success in three Hindi heartland states last year. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were the other two. The plot was no different in Madhya Pradesh, where the old guard, 72-year-old Kamal Nath, was made chief minister and 47-year-old Scindia was made to wait for his turn.

The sordid tale of the leadership tussle in Congress has an inevitable conclusion that the party cannot have a fresh start till Gandhi stays at the helm of affairs. The purge that Congress requires as a political organisation does not seem possible with a Gandhi providing leadership.

Many share the same view as Salman Khurshid that the party workers did not want Rahul Gandhi to resign. But as Khurshid put it, he walked away in a huff. This also signals that Rahul Gandhi is convinced that he could not lead the purge required for rebooting the Congress afresh. This can only come from outside the family. It is like “do or die” moment for the Congress if the party has to come out of the current existential crisis as victorious. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).

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