The abysmal results in the Assembly elections have spread alarm and despondency in the Congress, reviving the debate over leadership even as the majority still believes there is no alternative to Rahul Gandhi.
The leadership question, however, was the overriding concern among both ordinary workers and leaders who felt Rahul had done great disservice by leaving the party rudderless at the most critical juncture after the debilitating loss in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
A senior leader told The Telegraph: “There is nobody to lead from the forefront. The Congress is being surreptitiously run from behind; all the counters are in the basement.”
While many younger leaders didn’t want to debate the causes of defeat, wondering if the elections were fair, some of them insisted that the leadership crisis was indeed a major handicap.
“Rahul is a good leader but if you take a great actor and ask him to act in a C-grade film with a bad script and supporting cast, what will be the outcome? We can see that Rahulji has failed to make a strong team and his refusal to lead from the front has also caused immense damage.”
A Congress veteran said: “Rahul is doing everything that the party president does but he is not the president. He takes all the decisions; every single delegation from the states meets him to discuss issues. Sonia Gandhi, who is the party president, rarely meets anybody. What is the message he intends to send out? The leadership question had been settled before 2019. He should have spent every minute of his career in rebuilding the party organisation but he chose back-seat driving.”
The leader added: “Who is responsible for the failure to read the situation correctly in Punjab if Captain Amarinder Singh was having a nexus with the BJP? How can you expect the new chief minister to dramatically change the political reality in 111 days? Who is responsible for Navjot Singh Sidhu ceaselessly attacking Charanjit Singh Channi during this brief period? Our inability to retain Punjab despite the farmers’ movement raises many questions about our political management.”
In Goa, Rahul retained Girish Chodankar as state chief despite stiff resistance from the majority of senior leaders. In Uttarakhand, the party dithered till the last moment to settle the leadership issue and extended only half-hearted support to former chief minister Harish Rawat, that too after he threatened to sit at home.This casual approach to politics and elections continues even though the Congress has to fight against a massive RSS-BJP network that has expanded its base through majoritarian politics.
The Congress organisational election schedule has been announced and a new party president will be elected by September-October. While Rahul hasn’t so far indicated whether he is interested in returning to the helm, some leaders have started pushing for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. But there is a section that is angry with Priyanka as well.
One of them said: “Reserving 40 per cent tickets for women in elections was self-destruction. Ignoring established leaders and hunting for women candidates without any experience is not a good strategy.”
A Congress general secretary said: “There is no alternative to Rahul’s leadership. There are certain issues that need to be tackled. We will have to rebuild the organisation and work harder on the ground. But thinking in terms of a new leader for 2024 will be suicidal. Our electoral setbacks are not primarily because of leadership failure.”
Some other leaders also fiercely countered the claim of leadership failure. Former minister Shakeel Ahmed told The Telegraph: “India is passing through a phase of caste and communal politics, which is against our core principles. People should commend our leadership for not compromising with constitutional morality and our ideology despite repeated setbacks. Both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi forcefully drew people’s attention to this problem, explaining how some political parties gained by exploiting emotive issues. This is, however, a temporary phase.”
Party communications chief Randeep Surjewala insisted that the Congress gave voice to people’s concerns by remaining focused on issues such as the economic downslide, unemployment, price rise, health, education and women’s empowerment.
“If people’s issues become irrelevant, that will sound the death knell for democracy,” he said. Surjewala hinted at internal rifts, asking leaders in states to introspect whether they were hurting the party’s interest by indulging in personal competition.
Surjewala conceded that some leaders were cutting the very tree they were sitting on, appealing to them to think whether they were helping political rivals by giving priority to personal ambitions and fighting among themselves.
The Congress leadership is grappling with a group of senior leaders, known as G-23, who raised questions about the functioning of the party. Those senior leaders were sidelined instead of making any serious reconciliation efforts.
While there is gloom among the workers, Rahul tweeted: “Humbly accept the people’s verdict. Best wishes to those who have won the mandate. My gratitude to all Congress workers and volunteers for their hard work and dedication. We will learn from this and keep working for the interests of the people of India.”