A determined matriarch has taken the reins at a time when the party is totally demoralised. The Congress leadership should offer a ‘new Congress’ to the voters to attract them like the Labour Party in the UK came up with a New Labour
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s comeback as the chief recently might have silenced the Young Turks as well as the old guard in the party about who should replace Rahul Gandhi, but she has her task cut out.
However, it’s not as if Sonia doesn’t know the problems that beset the party and the challenges that lie ahead, as she was the Congress president for almost two decades before she relinquished the post and Rahul was elected president in 2017.
Sonia took charge of the Congress in 1998 when it was at its lowest ebb, with many leaders leaving the Grand Old Party, but she was able to stop the exodus. She even brought the party back to power in 2004 and then again in 2009.
Now again, an ailing but determined Sonia has taken the reins at a time when the party is totally demoralised after its humiliating defeat in the recent Lok Sabha polls and consequent desertions by party workers and leaders. But 2019 is not 1998.
The Gandhis have deftly resolved the leadership issue albeit temporarily. The old guard propping up some senior leader and the younger leaders suggesting names like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia were quickly silenced after Sonia came back, stifling the debate about Rahul’s successor. Her return provided them with relief even as it scuttled chances of any non-Gandhi becoming party president.
The other challenge for Sonia is the growing erosion and indiscipline in the party. On August 18, former Haryana chief minister BS Hooda gave an ultimatum that unless he was made the chief of the party unit in the State, he would explore other options. The impressive rally at Rohtak was a show of strength. Though the Congress leadership has not reacted, it may send a wrong signal if Hooda leaves the party now. As it is, the chances of the faction-ridden Congress in the State are bleak. If Hooda departs now, he may not benefit but the party will get zero seats in the ensuing Assembly polls. There is not much time left for damage control as three states, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, will go to polls later this year and Delhi will follow suit early next year.
In a trend that is bound to worry Sonia, ten Congress legislators recently shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Goa. In Telangana, 12 of the 18 MLAs went over to the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Maharashtra too saw defections. The party saw its strength reduced in the Rajya Sabha, too, as senior leaders Sanjay Sinh and Bhubaneswar Kalita resigned their membership and joined the BJP. All these do not augur well.
The third urgent matter on Sonia’s plate is the need to contain the discordant voices emerging from Congress leaders on various issues. There’s a division in Congress ranks on the party’s response to key issues such as the Triple Talaq Bill, abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
Moreover, leaders like Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor suggesting that the Congress stop demonising Narendra Modi was embarrassing to the Congress leadership, which has been making personal attacks on the Prime Minister. Do they perhaps mean that there’s a need for change of strategy or are they emboldened because of a weak leadership?
Fourth, more than anything, Sonia has to think of organising a brainstorming session to thrash out several issues, including the reasons for the 2019 poll defeat and come up with a new strategy to take on the BJP. The party leaders should be given a chance to speak their mind in the session. This might stop them from voicing their views in public.
If the party could win even one of the three poll-bound states, it would go a long way to revive the party that received yet another body blow with the recent arrest of senior Congress leader P Chidambaram in the INX Media case.
Fifth, the Congress should be clear about what it stands for. The earlier planks of unity and diversity popularised by Indira Gandhi have become an old concept. Secularism versus communalism also has lost its appeal as seen in the last two Lok Sabha polls. The Congress only ended up with being perceived as a pro-Muslim party, which ignores the majority community. Therefore there is every need to come up with a catchy slogan like the Aam Aadmi as it did in 2004, to lure the voters. In fact, the Congress leadership should offer a ‘new Congress’ to the voters to attract them like the Labour party in the UK came up with a ‘New Labour.’
Above all, with so much water under the bridge, is the Congress ready for a course correction? Is it ready to look back and introspect what has gone wrong? If not, it can give up hope of a revival as things have changed, voters have changed, aspirations have changed and leadership is in transition.
The defeat should be viewed as an opportunity and a new Congress should emerge out of a party conclave.
(The writer is a senior journalist)
Writer: Kalyani Shankar
Courtesy: The Pioneer