Riding high on its victory in the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly elections, the Congress had begun 2019 on a confident note.
And now, as the year comes to a close, the party can draw similar satisfaction from the fact that it unseated a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Jharkhand even if it meant playing second fiddle to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
However, it would be premature on part of the Congress to think the BJP is now in decline and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is on the wane. It made the same mistake in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when an over-confident Rahul Gandhi was convinced that Modi’s days were over.
A series of corrective measures by the Modi government, the Pulwama attack, and the retaliatory air strike in Balakot soon put Modi back in the game. The Congress stood little chance in the face of the BJP’s aggressive pitch on nationalism while Rahul Gandhi insisted on making the Rafale aircraft deal the centrepiece of his campaign.
As the election results showed, there were no takers for his relentless charge that Modi was corrupt. The Congress was clearly deluding itself.
Undoubtedly, the year had its moments for the Congress when Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s long-awaited entry into politics was announced or when the party put up a credible performance in the Haryana assembly polls and suddenly found itself in a position to be part of a coalition government in Maharashtra despite its meagre numbers.
The threat of a resurgent BJP even drove the Congress to abandon its earlier avowed commitment to secularism and join hands with the Shiv Sena, which had till then been seen as the “communal” BJP’s twin. Though this ideological shift has resulted in considerable unease in the Congress, the party drew solace from the fact that the BJP was denied a second term in a state housing the country’s financial capital.
These satisfying developments were, however, offset by the drubbing it got in the general elections, throwing the Congress into a state of turmoil. Instead of introspecting over its second consecutive Lok Sabha defeat, Rahul Gandhi drove the party into deeper crisis when he stepped down as the party president. Given the party’s complete reliance on the Nehru-Gandhi family, his resignation left the Congress rudderless and directionless.
This state of confusion continued for three months, a period marked by hectic backroom manoeuvres as the old guard and Sonia Gandhi loyalists got an opportunity to assert themselves, while younger leaders, known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, pushed for a person of their choice as the next Congress president.
In the end, Team Rahul proved to be no match for the seniors who ensured their grip on the party remained unshaken once they succeeded in persuading Sonia Gandhi to take over the party’s reins again.
Sonia Gandhi’s return as Congress president has brought about a semblance of order in the party, but uncertainty refuses to go away as it is well known that this is only a temporary arrangement.
In fact, several leaders have already made a public demand that Rahul Gandhi should get his old job back though this year’s assembly polls clearly point to the dispensability of the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi did not campaign in these elections, while Rahul Gandhi only put up a token appearance. And Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is yet to make any meaningful impact.
The internal crisis in the party has been so all-consuming that the Congress gave up on its role as the main opposition party. It virtually provided a free pass to the Modi government which took full advantage of the disarray in the opposition camp as it poached its MPs to increase its tally in the Rajya Sabha and went full steam ahead in implementing its agenda, including the passage of the triple talaq bill, the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the enactment of a new citizenship law.
Not only did the BJP succeed in depleting the Congress’ strength, it also exposed the lack of ideological clarity in the grand old party when its members spoke in different voices on the Kashmir issue, with several younger leaders like Deepender Hooda and Milind Deora supporting the government’s move on Article 370. The party continues to waver between an open display of religiosity to disprove the charge of minority appeasement and the need to stand by its commitment to secularism.
Undoubtedly, the election results have given the party hope, but it cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that it has a long haul ahead before it can be seen as a serious challenger to the Narendra Modi and Amit Shah-led BJP.
The fact is that the existential crisis faced by the Congress refuses to go away. The party continues to lack ideological clarity. It remains organisationally weak. It is suffering because it has not groomed strong regional leaders. Its leadership issue remains unresolved. It has proved singularly incapable of reaching out to the people by setting out its own agenda. Moreover, it refuses to understand that there is life beyond the Gandhis.
That the Congress has lost connect with the people was evident recently during the growing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. The party has been virtually invisible during this agitation. Even when its leaders did put in an appearance at the protest venues, there were no takers for them despite the fact that the Congress has taken a firm position against the new citizenship law.
The state of the Congress is best summed up by a senior leader’s response when asked how the year 2019 had been for the party - “still breathing”. Clearly, the Congress has a long way to go before it recovers from its various ailments. But this requires major surgery. A simple band-aid will not work.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)