OPINION | The Paradox of Rahul Gandhi: Why Congress's Biggest Weakness is Also Its Biggest Strength
The party’s latest defeat has undoubtedly led to internal rumblings in the Congress as leaders have been quick to point fingers at Rahul Gandhi’s poor leadership and faulty campaign.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi reacts as he addresses a press conference on 2019 Lok Sabha polls results at the party headquarters in New Delhi on Thursday. (PTI)
There was a familiar ring to the proceedings of the Congress Working Committee which met here over the weekend to mull over the reasons for the party’s second humiliating electoral defeat.
As expected, Congress president Rahul Gandhi took responsibility for the debacle and offered to resign to make way for a non-Gandhi to take over his position. On cue, the members of the party’s highest decision-making body unanimously rejected his offer and authorised him to restructure and overhaul the party organisation.
This was a replay of developments which unfolded after the party’s equally disastrous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when Sonia Gandhi had offered to step down as Congress chief. Not surprisingly, there were no takers for her offer and shortly after, it was business as usual. But this time it is different as Rahul Gandhi is standing firm on his decision to vacate the party's presidency.
The party’s latest defeat has undoubtedly led to internal rumblings in the Congress as leaders have been quick to point fingers at Rahul Gandhi’s poor leadership and faulty campaign. Some have even gone as far as to say that the Congress cannot be revived with Rahul Gandhi at the helm.
And yet, with Rahul Gandhi insisting on stepping down as Congress president, there is a deep concern in the party on the way ahead. Though questions are being raised about his capabilities, there is also an underlying realisation that Rahul Gandhi may be the party’s biggest weakness but he is also its biggest strength essentially because of his lineage.
The Congress party’s dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi family can hardly be overemphasised. For most Congress members, the party is synonymous with the family. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi, they have looked to them to deliver on two counts: keep the party united and win them elections.
There are no prizes for guessing that Rahul Gandhi has not lived up to their expectation of ensuring electoral victories and empowering them with political power. He did hit a successful patch when the Congress won assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh but it has been downhill since then. The successive decline in the Congress numbers and the party’s shrinking footprint shows that Rahul Gandhi has been unable to reverse this trend.
On the other hand, he is still the party’s best hope of keeping it together. There is a fear in the Congress that any move to appoint a non-Gandhi as its president could intensify the infighting, which, in turn, could result in a situation where the party will splinter into smaller regional outfits.
It is clearly a poor reflection on the Congress that it has not groomed new leaders and, as a result, it does not have anyone today who has pan-India appeal and will be accepted within the party. For instance, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh is being mentioned as a possible choice for the party’s top post but there is no knowing if he will be able to establish a connect across the country or how other Congress leaders and cadres will take to him.
Similarly, will senior Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge from Karnataka be able to establish a connect with the cadres from the heartland states though he is proficient in Hindi? Moreover, age is not on his side. Similarly, any move to appoint Jyotiraditya Scindia will meet with strong opposition from Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh. But even if the Congress names a replacement for Rahul Gandhi, it will only be with the approval of the party’s first family. In that case, it is doubtful if the new president would enjoy functional autonomy. Instead, it will lead to the creation of two power centres in the party, which will add to the confusion among the cadres.
It is a fact that leaders such as Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Jagan Mohan Reddy, who walked out of the Congress to form their own parties, have done well outside its fold but they all have limited appeal and are single-state leaders.
While the Congress party’s immediate concern is to ensure that the party remains intact, there is also a realisation that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership still does not inspire trust though he has shown vast improvement over the past two years. There is no getting away from the fact that he has not reached that spot where he can be seen as a serious challenger to Narendra Modi. The Nehru-Gandhi scion is just not in the same league. His image has taken a knocking because of the BJP’s relentless campaign lampooning him and projecting him as a joke and a non-serious leader.
Besides the usual complaints about his inaccessibility and his “non-political” team members, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in this Lok Sabha election has shown up further warts. The Congress chief has a serious credibility crisis on hand as he has a long distance to cover before he can be accepted as PM-material. He has also been unable to present an alternate vision to the people. In fact, the party lacks ideological clarity which is evident from its confusing stand on Hindutva and issues like triple talaq.
Moreover, Rahul Gandhi’s messaging has been off course. Take the case of its Nyay slogan — it failed to click because it was far too nebulous and was unveiled virtually on election-eve giving the party no time to explain it to the people.
The persistent emphasis on the Rafale deal proved to be a serious error of judgment. The Congress president should have dropped the campaign on realising that the “chowkidar chor hai” line was not resonating with the people but it only shows his disconnect with the public that he insisted on continuing with it. Remarking on the party’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi once said that the party lost because it stopped listening to the people. Clearly, the situation has not changed since then.
Rahul Gandhi has also failed to put his house in order. The party organisation has suffered because of years of neglect but the Nehru-Gandhi scion did not give it the attention or primacy it deserved. His choice of appointments has been questionable and he has been ineffective in dealing firmly with squabbling leaders or, on other occasions, allowed himself to be pressured by them. The appointment of former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda as the head of the state’s election coordination committee and Sachin Pilot as Rajasthan deputy chief minister is a case in point.
Rahul Gandhi is said to have spoken sharply at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee about how senior leaders like Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and P Chidambaram were only focused on the election of their respective sons. But instead of complaining now, it would have been better if he had cracked the whip on them when tickets were distributed. If the party is able to dissuade Rahul Gandhi from stepping down, the way forward for him would be to first concentrate on fixing the deficiencies in the party organisation before launching an offensive against the Modi government.
Without taking away from the fact that Rahul Gandhi did make an effort in this election, there is also no denying that the Congress is staring at a serious leadership crisis. And there are no easy answers on how it can deal with it. Which explains why the uncertainty and confusion continues to persist days after Rahul Gandhi told the Congress working committee that it should look for a new party president.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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