No light in sight for RaGa's Congress

Published: Jun 24, 2019, 06:35 IST | Aditya Sinha

Be it Rahul's defeat, Priyanka's failure in UP, or senior party leaders' inability to entice the masses, Cong faces more challenges than it sees

No light in sight for RaGa's Congress
Indian National Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi gestures while talking to his mother and former Congress party senior leader Sonia Gandhi during a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi last month. Pic/AFP

Aditya SinhaFormer Congress President Rahul Gandhi has, from all accounts, gone into a shell. While politicians usually take defeat in their stride, living to fight another day, Rahul has taken to heart the worse-than-expected defeat at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) two-man demolition machine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. After a brief holiday abroad – no big deal, given the hard work he put in during the elongated parliamentary election schedule – he's returned and stuck to his decision to resign. He refuses to sign official correspondence and refuses to be drawn into the party's future; in short, he's washed his hands of the party.

There has briefly been talk of reuniting the Congress party to boost its morale and fortunes. The provocation for this was the assembly election in Maharashtra due in October.

The Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), were blown out in the parliamentary election. Though their alliance is not in trouble, the two parties needed something to capitalise on chief minister Devendra Fadnavis's perceived vulnerability. (The blow-out is to Modi's credit, not to Fadnavis's, and some believe the state election will return to the anti-incumbency that has bedeviled state BJP units since the Gujarat assembly election in December 2017.) Fadnavis faces a tough battle due to his state's agrarian distress: 12,021 farmers committed suicide during his watch. A below average monsoon is expected this year. And the general macro-economic indicators of anaemic growth and joblessness that Modi proved immune to, are a threat to the CM.

However, there is no one to take the fight to Fadnavis. A first step might have been a merger of the Congress and the NCP. In one scenario, NCP boss Sharad Pawar could take over as Congress president and lead the fight in Maharashtra for a party CM – or even Raj Thackeray. Even an elderly Pawar could clean house at the party's highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC). It is filled with courtiers who haven't contested an election in years.

Rahul was keen on this merger but it was nixed by his mother, according to party sources. She obviously holds a grudge: Pawar left the Congress party 20 years ago after demanding that the party nominate a PM candidate who was born in India, and not Sonia who is of foreign origin. She may not have needed any convincing from those current CWC members who fear losing influence and privilege yet contribute nothing to the party other than palace intrigue.

This must frustrate Rahul no end, who in any case must wake up each morning conscious of his limitations that prevented him from making a dent in Modi's continuing accumulation of power. If Rahul had notions of bringing others back even into a loose confederation, from the erstwhile Congress family – West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Andhra Pradesh CM Jagan Mohan Reddy – then they have been undermined by the appointment as the party's leader in the Lok Sabha of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is known for his street-fighting skills. Mamata can't be pleased. Jagan must be smirking from a distance.

Now Sonia has to figure out how to manage the transition and keep the flock intact. There is talk that Shah wants to deplete the senior ranks of the Congress party during the next six months, and one should not be surprised to hear rumours of high-ranking defections soon. An MP in focus could be Shashi Tharoor (Thiruvananthapuram), who projects himself as the Congress's liberal face and who wrote a book critical of Modi. However, the BJP has been wooing Tharoor since before 2014 (using the electronic media as "bad cop") as his crossing over would enable a breakthrough in Kerala, on which the party has had its eyes for a long time.

Rahul's sister Priyanka might be persuaded to take over (though he ruled it out). After he appointed her general secretary in charge of eastern UP, she proved ineffective. With hindsight, loyalists say she should not have been tied down to one region. It makes no difference: the Modi machine was just too strong. And Priyanka still has work to do: she was tasked by Rahul to get the UP unit in fighting shape for the 2022 assembly election. This could give her a path forward.

However, those who have met Priyanka in the aftermath of the election do not feel optimistic. She acts like a dilettante and seems disengaged. This is not enough to take on Modi and Shah's ruthless and hungry political machine. It has already chewed up and spat out a well-intentioned Rahul; it will make no concessions for Priyanka either when the time comes. It looks bleak for the Congress, and you can't blame Rahul for withdrawing into his shell.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to
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