The Congress response to its merciless drubbing in the assembly elections has been depressingly predictable; the leadership has refused to see, hear or speak of an existential crisis, much less come to grips with it. Palliating the pain of defeat and side-tracking candid discussion with nugatory measures is vintage Congress strategy.
Sonia Gandhi has, as expected, postponed the election of a party president for the third time, set up a panel to analyse the defeat, given potential dissenters a carrot or two to keep them quiet and shifted the party’s entire focus to the Centre’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. The implicit belief is that anti-incumbency will win voters back, fear of hegemony will allow it to assume leadership of the Opposition and a compulsion towards unity will contain rebels until the 2024 general elections.
The five-member panel probing the electoral debacle comprises hardcore Gandhi family loyalists, the only exception being Punjab MP Manish Tewari, a member of the G-23 comprising Congress leaders who had written to Sonia Gandhi suggesting a radical reorganisation of the party in August, 2020.
It is headed by former chief minister Ashok Chavan, who earned the spot by coming forward to ‘warn’ the three members of G-23 from Maharashtra (Prithviraj Chavan, Milind Deora, Mukul Wasnik) and support the Gandhi clan. Salman Khurshid, the only other heavyweight in the panel, had likewise written an open letter criticising the G-23 for kicking ‘the very ladder you have climbed to the top storey of life’. The other two members are backbencher MPs, Vincent H Pala of Meghalaya and Jothi Mani of Tamil Nadu (a Rahul Gandhi acolyte).
Tewari’s inclusion in a predominantly family-friendly panel is little more than good optics and an olive branch to critics of the business-as-usual approach. The three members of G-23 who had questioned the Congress decision to ally with ideologically incompatible (right-wing) forces in Assam and West Bengal have naturally been left out. These were Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Digvijaya Singh. Thus, the composition of the panel makes it unlikely that it will come up with much-needed home truths, of the kind eloquently described in the G-23 letter.
In any event, previous panels such as the A K Antony committee set up after the 2014 Lok Sabha defeat, have found their reports consigned to the dustbin. The whole and sole purpose of the committee is to avert open debates and discussions of the what-ails-the-Congress variety among the disgruntled party cadres, reassure them that the leadership has the matter well in hand and that steps aimed at recovery are imminent.
The carrot-and-stick policy, vigorously applied to bring the G-23 to heel, has been carried forward in the setting up of a 13-member Covid task force, under the chairmanship of prominent ‘dissenter’ Ghulam Nabi Azad. Another member of the ginger group, Mukul Wasnik, is on the panel. He had already been appointed to the special committee assisting Sonia Gandhi last year.
The rest of the Covid panel, which includes Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, comprises known family loyalists (or dependents) like K C Venugopal, Pawan Khera, Randeep Surjewala, Ambika Soni and Gurdeep Singh Sappal. None of them has any pretension to a mass base and the only one to have won accolades for pandemic relief work is Youth Congress chief B V Srinivas. On the other hand, the Congress MPs, MLAs and local body members who have been working 24x7 to arrange hospital beds, oxygen cylinders/concentrators, ambulances and plasma donors for their constituents, have valuable field experience but have not found a place on the committee.
The Congress high command doubtless hopes a sense of the NDA regime’s vulnerability will buoy its restless cadres and prevent an exodus. Public anger over shoddy handling of the pandemic and the West Bengal election results have shown that the Modi-Shah duo is not invincible, but the fact is that the Congress did nothing to bring about this perception. Assam, the only state where the Congress and BJP were the principal rivals, was convincingly won by the latter.
The five-state assembly results have made it clear that the Congress is a long, long way off from posing a threat even to the pandemic-battered BJP. Its refusal to cede leadership of the Opposition to regional forces, which have proved more than capable of stemming the Hindutva tide, works to the advantage of the ruling party.
Despite this, the Congress leadership shows no signs of honest introspection. For seven years, there has been talk of building or re-building the organisation, but the party has invariably circled back to the status quo. All talk of leadership change has been stymied, and the Gandhi hegemony over the Congress remains.
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