The humiliating defeat of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh has once again triggered a debate about its future and functioning, giving clamour to an age-old demand in the party for "structural changes," and "major surgery."
The poor show by the Congress party in the recently concluded Assembly polls is a testimony of its clear lack of connect with the masses as well as its workers.
The message for the Congress from the results is loud and clear - the party desperately needs a makeover it if wants to make its presence felt in the Parliament and state assemblies in the coming years.
On his part, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi today came out in the open after falling silent following the party’s drubbing in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, where the Gandhi scion had thrown all his might in campaigning as well as stitching the alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.
While Rahul chose to target the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of horse-trading in Manipur and Goa, where the Congress emerged as the single largest party but appears nowhere close to forming the government, he did admit that the Congress needs structural and organisational changes, hinting that the surgery, much-needed and promised many times over, in the Congress could come soon.
“As far as the Congress party is concerned, we do need to make structural and organizational changes. That is a fact,” Rahul said today in his first public appearance since the UP debacle.
However, one cannot help but take Rahul’s comments with a pinch of salt. One, there is nothing new in the promise. And second, all these promises have proven to be hollow in the past with no change whatsoever. Calls for change have come from several top leaders.
After humiliating defeat in politically-crucial UP, senior Congress leader and former Union minister M Veerappa Moily on Monday called for a “structural change”, “major surgery” and the need to decentralise the party.
His call for change, however, came with a rider that this “of course does not apply to our leadership. Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi.”
“Those responsible for the defeat of the party more than two times (in elections) will have to be changed. There is no point in giving them more responsibilities – either at the national or at state levels. Of course, this does not apply to our leadership. Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi," Moily said in an interview with Indian Express.
He argued, "We need structural changes, which require a major surgery right from the top under the leadership of Sonia and Rahul. You cannot replace (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi in the BJP. (Similarly) you cannot replace Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi in the Congress. But Amit Shahs can be changed.”
Sadly, there has been no action to even remotely suggest that any such change – forget surgery – was even in the offing.
Sample these: On May 19, after the Congress party’s abysmal performance in the assembly elections in Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Assam, senior party leader Digvijaya Singh had called for a “major surgery” in the Congress party, suggesting that Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s remarks on introspection within the party were not enough.
Explaining his pitch for a “major surgery”, Singh said that it was time to implement suggestions of changes in the party. He did, however, go on to defend Rahul’s leadership for the debacle. Nothing new there.
Former Defence minister and senior Congress leader from Kerala, A K Antony, had sounded alarm bells even after the Congress’ drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 that saw the Congress reduced to a paltry 44. While his assessment for the loss had more to do with the party’s positioning, no change eventually came.
“Some sections of society have an impression that the party is inclined to certain communities or organisations. Congress policy is equal justice to everyone. But people have doubt whether that policy is being implemented or not,” Antony had said at a party function in June 2014.
This doubt is created by the party’s proximity towards minority communities, and such a situation would open the door for the entry of communal forces into Kerala,” he had said.
So, the call for change – be it on an organisational level or in terms of the party’s positioning -- has existed for long with little visible evidence to support that it did actually happen. How then, one wonders, will Rahul effect the changes that he promises?
The question assumes significance for reasons stronger than ever before. The Congress faces one of its worst phases ever and if the past few years are any indication, things are only going from bad to worse.
In 2014, when the BJP came to power, the Congress was in power in 11 states. But the numbers have dwindled since then. The party lost crucial states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Assam and now has government in just three major states – Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab (just won). Even in the states that go to polls in the next one year, it will be in a direct contest with the BJP. Given the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as is evident from the just declared Assembly results, the Congress could well be facing a crisis of existence.
Clearly, the inaction by the top party leadership to address the problems it faces have dealt a severe blow to the morale of its cadre who have been waiting for a revival since the humiliating defeat two-and-a-half years ago. The most recent results will only act like salt on their wounds.
So, why has the leadership refrained from addressing its problems despite them being highlighted time and again – both from leaders within the party and otherwise? The most prominent reason that comes to mind is the crisis of leadership. Rahul, clearly, has not been able to mature and connect with the masses like the party would have hoped. The firebrand image that he managed to whip up while tearing off an ordinance by the Manmohan Singh government turning down a Supreme Court order on tainted netas has vanished since then.
The debacle that was the ‘Khat Sabha’ is an open secret. Questions are also bound to rise over his alliance with the SP, as well as his political acumen.
So, does Rahul have what it takes to accept responsibility and act against himself? Going by past experience, no. Does he have the acumen to script magic in the states where the party will be contesting elections next? Going by the UP experience, probably not.
Consider the comments by former Delhi CM and Congress veteran Sheila Dikshit as an example. According to Dikshit, the Congress VP is still not mature and needed more time. The comments, that came in an interview to Times of India, have underlined Congress’ biggest problem plaguing it.
The difference of opinion among Congress leaders with regard to the party leadership has pushed the party further backwards. While some openly favour Rahul be given a free hand to pick his own teams, many believe that the party’s charge should remain with Sonia Gandhi, who is at the helm of the party since 1998. The continuous delay and postponements in taking decisions clearly show the lack of a pragmatic approach on part of the leadership and this remains the biggest hurdle in its path to revival.
Moreover, this has given sufficient ammo to the BJP and the likes of Amit Shah who leave no opportunity to target Rahul over his immaturity.
Today, the party stands in a position where its future is uncertain. The next states that will be going to polls are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Winning in all these three states will be a tough challenge for the Congress if it continues to function with the current management.
Under Rahul’s leadership as vice-president of the party, the Congress has only faced losses and this remains a grave concern on whether the party should hand him the baton at all. His leadership has only helped the BJP to move closer to its aim of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.
Coming back to today’s developments, a close reading of Rahul’s statement to the media signals no change in approach for the party. While admitting to the need for change on the organisational and structural level, Rahul further sought to blame the state units – as has always been the case whenever the Congress fares badly.
“If you look at our Uttarakhand elections, if you look at Punjab, who is running these elections? It is the regional leaders who are running these elections, it is they who fight the elections. They have been successful in Punjab and they have been successful in Manipur,” Rahul said today.
What he meant but did not say, however, was that the just like he is crediting the local leaders in Punjab and Manipur for the good performance, the blame for UP and Uttarakhand will also fall on them alone.