As of now, the Congress has nowhere to go but to stick with the Gandhi scion as its leader unless voices of dissent erupt

Binoo K. John

This is the time to write an obituary for the Congress and the focus of all such writings by sociologists, pundits and those rewarded with the Padma Awards over the last two years is how to bury the Congress. It is easy pickings actually considering that the Congress was wiped out not only in Uttar Pradesh, but also illegally in Manipur and Goa where it actually won the elections. So the Congress has been on a lose-lose run and nothing is on hand to break this disastrous run.

Which path should the Congress chose? Is it just a question of “structural changes” and what does this mean? Predictably, there have been murmurs of dissent from within the party as well. Priya Dutt, former MP, has tweeted that her own party (the Congress) suffers from auto-immune disease. “Congress destroys Congress, we need to be treated from within to be healthy again.”

Manmohan Singh has the best credentials to be Congress president, but he can’t force the party to change tack, UNI
Manmohan Singh has the best credentials to be Congress president, but he can’t force the party to change tack, UNI

The focus of all such dissent is a change of leadership.  What options does the Congress have here?

First, the national leadership. Rahul Gandhi is widely perceived as a no-go in terms of giving the party a new impetus. He is not hated but mocked at and at best empathised with. But he has had no issue to drive its cause. To market a lost cause, the Congress needs a better orator, at the least. Leadership comes later.

The Congress has no good orater at the national level, to match Modi’s measured pyrotechnics, ranging from the downright communal to some techno-barble bolstered with some cheap acronyms. Even then, is there any leader of national stature available to the Congress who can hold the party together? The answer is no. If any of the existing national leaders is made president, the party will be torn asunder in no time.

However, Amarinder Singh, fresh from his victory in Punjab, looks a good choice. But, the Patiala monarchy has never been known for its hard work. As deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Amarinder never attended Parliament.

The rest of the top-level Congress leadership, including opposition leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, or even Antony or Digvijaya Singh do not have the ability, the pull or most important powers of oratory which is primary in electoral politics.

Manmohan Singh has the best credentials to be party president at the moment. But, he hardly has the guts to force the party to change tack. Worse, as a speaker, he can only be called to help insomniacs to sleep.

The old rump of the Congress has no value left, either in terms of helping with a course correction or restructuring the party as they call it. But their political value lies in the fact that the BJP assigns all of them high value as sawyers of public perception and it has netted former foreign minister and ex-chief minister of Karnataka, SM Krishna, who has aged beyond reason. The Congress has to look after the seniors since the seniors cannot look after the Congress. Also Rahul Gandhi has other things on his mind.

The structural problem here is that the Congress Working Committee is dead meat and without Sonia Gandhi does not even assemble.

The Congress and the Hindu vote

The Congress victory in Punjab is as incredible as the BJP victory in UP. The Congress won on a Hindu vote which shifted drastically. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was positioned to take over the Congress space, was given a send off because certain Khalistani elements were perceived to be pushing the party’s cause. Once that rumour spread, the Hindus had no difficulty running into the arms of the Congress, their old enemy. Ironically, the Hindu vote helped the party not only  block the mighty wave blowing in from neighbouring  Uttar Pradesh but also snuffed out the challenge of  the upstart Aam Aadmi Party which actually had everything going for it before the elections.

Where does a political party like Congress go from here? Is it the dead end?

If there is one advantage that the Congress holds, it is its centrist position. It has buttressed its claim as a centrist party after seeing off the challenge of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and Goa, both considered difficult for the party. It has lost this valuable political space in many states, but now has rekindled hope that it may be the rightful owner of that space after Punjab, Goa and Manipur voted for it. Mind you, in Goa, it was up against the incumbent BJP.

Congress is well positioned to capture the anti-incumbency vote in many states because of its centrist positioning, like it did in Punjab, especially in Andhra and Telangana. Putting moral qualms aside, they have to woo Jagan Mohan Reddy for some local traction in the twin states. But there is nothing going for the Congress in terms of local leadership, national leadership, and a raison d’etre. In Gujarat too, it could have worked on the Patel discontent. As of now, the Patel anger is a low-hanging fruit which the Congress can capture if it has an energetic local leadership which it lacks.

In the entire cow belt, the Congress lacks a leader of stature since the party has lost its grip on the entire stretch after many years in the wilderness, a status which is bound to continue. In the South, the party suffers from surfeit of leadership.

So the Congress—like it or not—has to stick with Rahul and the family. Since Sonia is seriously unwell, a chance of her taking the reins of the party is remote. Any reshaping of Rahul is also not a possibility since his abilities are limited. The best chance is to stick with him, unless the voices of dissent rise and Manmohan Singh, maybe, is called in for a fire fighting operation.