The Congress has been driven to the edge of desperation. A number of party leaders have summoned up the courage to propose organisational elections. In the Congress, such a suggestion is revolutionary. For many, it is tantamount to lèse-majesté - an implied affront to the First Family, which has not been keen on holding elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) for nearly a quarter century.
The last proper elections to the highest executive authority of the Congress were held in 1997, under the stewardship of the late Sitaram Kesri, who had taken over from P V Narasimha Rao the previous year. He did not complete his five-year term, because he was ousted by Sonia Gandhi in a coup d'etat on March 14, 1988. The Gandhi parivar, back at the helm after a seven-year gap, has not been displaced since.
Sonia Gandhi legitimized her presidency in 2001, when she defeated the late Jitendra Prasada by an enormous margin. The next election for party president was held in 2017, when Sonia passed the baton to the next generation of the family. Unlike his mother, Rahul Gandhi was elected unopposed.
After he quit last year, in the wake of the Lok Sabha debacle and his own defeat in the family pocket borough of Amethi, the Congress has been unwilling to suggest a replacement. While Sonia Gandhi is filling in as interim president, her fragile state of health does not permit a pro-active role.
Ten months later, party leaders – at least the more courageous among them - have finally wrapped their heads around the prospect of a non-Gandhi at the helm. Some die-hard 'chamchas' (sycophants) like Anil Shastri and Sanjay Nirupam find the idea unimaginable. Shastri has demanded that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra take charge, regardless of the controversies dogging her husband; Nirupam is convinced that there's no alternative to Rahul.
Others, notably Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Singhvi, former MP Sandeep Dikshit, former minister Jairam Ramesh and spokesperson Sanjay Jha have urged “leadership elections” to energise the party cadre. More to the point, they have suggested “an open and transparent election” to select a new president.
The question is, to quote Dikshit, “Who will bell the cat?” If the initiative does not come from the First Family, who will dare to move a proposal to this effect? Other than Rahul Gandhi, only one of the 23 members of the CWC was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2019. The rest owe their position to the Family. Not one of them has responded to the proposal for “full intra-party elections”. Nor has any of them reacted to the suggestion by senior leaders like Jairam Ramesh and Manish Tewari that the Congress rethink its ideological position and electoral strategy.
In fact, the Congress has shown flexibility in terms of policy only where power-sharing arrangements or electoral alliances are involved, such as in Maharashtra. Not once has there been serious introspection on why its experiments continue to fail. For instance, its attempts to reach out to the majority community – notably during the 2017 Gujarat elections – flopped. But the AAP successfully pulled off the same strategy in Delhi in 2020, decimating the Congress and defeating the BJP in the process.
Likewise, the reliance on populism, like farm loan waivers, worked in the 2018 assembly elections but failed miserably in the Lok Sabha. Tewari's common sense observation, that the Congress must update its thinking on economic policies, deserves serious consideration. The party must offer an alternative model for growth, even as it attacks the failures of the Narendra Modi government. Surely, with an array of economists and former finance ministers in its ranks, it can come up with superior strategies for attracting foreign investment, infusing dynamism, boosting exports and thereby creating employment.
The rocky start to Narendra Modi's second term, which has so far been devoted to ticking off items on the RSS agenda, notably the abrogation of article 370, the Ram Mandir Trust and the Citizenship Amendment Act, offers the Congress ample opportunity to present voters with a dynamic alternative.
Instead, the party is exasperatingly obsessed with the First Family – either waiting for Rahul to return, or waiting for him to announce a succession plan. The Family has not offered a solution and every day that goes by reinforces the perception that there is no alternative. The inertia in the CWC, which seems petrified of stirring, underlines exactly what Tharoor, Singhvi and Ramesh are saying: there is crying need for intra-party elections. A new set of faces, thrown up by the state units, is exactly what the Congress needs.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.