The internal upheaval in the Congress continues, with P C Chacko, a four-time MP from Kerala, recently quitting the party over factionalism in the state unit of Congress and lack of leadership at the central level. Upheavals in the Congress over the leadership issue are nothing new, neither is the outflow of senior people from the party in recent years.
It’s a little less than two years since the Congress has had a full-time president. Despite calls by several senior leaders, including the ‘G23’, to end the ‘organisational slumber’, there are no signs of election-driven intra-party reforms and the Congress continues with Sonia Gandhi as an interim chief. For quite some time now, there has been continued confusion on whether Rahul Gandhi was ready to helm the Congress again, given that so far no other candidate has emerged for the post of Congress president. As of now, there is no clarity on the leadership issue and the mood in Congress continues to be gloomy.
Rahul Gandhi's return
Time and again over the last year-and-a-half, there has been clamour in the Congress for Rahul Gandhi’s return to the president’s post. Like in the past, speculations about his likely return to the helm after the current round of four state polls are also rife in political circles. Media reports suggest that moves are on in full swing to make Rahul return as the Congress president at some point in the coming months and the reluctant dynast may accept the top job in the party.
The overwhelming view in Congress is that the Gandhi family is the ‘cementing’ force for the grand old party and Rahul is the only leader who could counter Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah ‘courageously and fearlessly’. Not many outside the Congress would agree with this view, as Opposition parties are looking at exploring a non-Congress alternative to the BJP. But it’s worth going back to the 2019 general election to put things in perspective.
2019 general election
As India started to vote in a seven-phase national election in April 2019, two leaders were the lead campaigners for their respective parties and alliances: Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the BJP/NDA and Rahul Gandhi for the Congress/UPA. In the long-drawn-out election campaign, Modi did not dwell much on his record in office or his plans for the future.
Instead, the focus of his campaign was on criticising his opponents and national security matters, claiming credit for the airstrikes against Pakistan and asking for votes in the name of soldiers who died in the Pulwama attack. This was largely because the BJP/NDA was expected to fall short of the majority mark. This was also the projection of opinion polls. A large measure of Modi’s anxieties in the general election had to do with the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as an important opposition leader.
When Modi stormed to power in 2014, the Congress party was reduced to its lowest Lok Sabha tally and at that time Rahul seemed reluctant to succeed his mother Sonia as the Congress president. Known to be an indifferent public speaker, he was an easy target for right-wing trolls and was run down quite often by BJP leaders. But he made a remarkable turnaround towards the end of 2017, with a strong showing in Gujarat with assured public speaking and sharp social media campaigns.
His interactions with people in town hall settings and his regular press briefings, something that Modi has refused to do since 2014, have contributed to his rise as a key opposition leader who espoused politics of unity, social peace, hope and inclusiveness. A year later, Rahul led the Congress to victory in three heartland states, demonstrating his ability to counter a toxic social climate in a diverse country and the gumption to take on Modi in electoral battles.
Importance of the Congress
His promise of offering social peace as a public good, a return to constitutionalism, institution-building and a strong social democratic policy focus were thought to be enough to counter Hindu nationalism and upset Modi and his party in 2019 general election. Though his critics had mixed feelings about the Congress and its president, they also came to realise, even if reluctantly, the importance of the Congress and leaders like Rahul Gandhi, who reaffirm constitutional values and practice a form of politics that seeks to represent all groups, a marked contrast from the BJP, which has been mainly working on forging a Hindu vote. Rahul Gandhi faced several challenges: he was battling a popular leader in Modi; the RSS, the influential business houses which back Modi and the BJP; fake news industry; and the abashedly partisan mainstream media that tends to underplay him, while displaying its vocal support to the Prime Minister and his party.
Few expected the Congress or the rest of the opposition to triumph, but Rahul Gandhi’s remarkable comeback at the national level kept him in the hunt. Eventually, the well-funded muscular right-wing nationalism of the BJP with the resources of the government at its command won over progressive politics and the promises of social and economic justice of the Congress. The BJP won handsomely and the Congress lost badly.
Probably, if Pulwama had not happened two months before the election, leading to the consolidation of Hindu votes around BJP, the outcome could have been different. Taking full responsibility for the debacle, Rahul Gandhi quit as Congress president. But he did not walk away from active politics and public life. He is an MP from Wayanad in Kerala and in the last year-and-a-half, he campaigned for the Congress in four state elections, in which the party did better than expected. He is once again the Congress’s lead campaigner in the current round of elections.
He is not the Congress president, but his views and decisions are evident in the party’s position on key issues like the unprecedented economic slowdown, the CAA, NPR, NRC and farmers’ agitation. There is no other opposition leader who enjoys as much pan-India appeal as Rahul Gandhi. At a time when the country is badly polarised and most institutions seem to be playing it safe, it is the Congress party which has the nationwide presence required to mobilise secular forces to confront the BJP’s divisive politics and policies.
Whether one likes it or not, it is the fifth-generation dynast that the Congress needs to lend itself stability and cohesion. To stand up for values that the Congress professes, it needs a popular leader who can infuse hope and optimism in the party and lead it from the front. In the current scheme of things, Rahul Gandhi is the best hope for the Congress. But he needs to step up and become a 24X7 Congress president. After all, he is the most prominent leader in the opposition ranks, nationally.
The author is an independent senior journalist