The Congress has been rocked yet again by a controversy arising from internal differences, this time in the shape of a letter laying out an agenda of organisational reform in the party signed by many senior Congress leaders.
The problem lies not in having debate and difference within a party – that is not just par for the course, it is desirable. The issue is how to manage these, so that they contribute positively to its development. In the case of the Congress, which has always been ideologically and structurally a broad church, this point is even more valid.
The question then is why differences are threatening to derail the party altogether. The issues in the foreground at the moment relate to organisational health and political tactics. The letter sent to Sonia Gandhi, to all intents and purposes the party’s interim president, which has thrown the party into a tumult and occasioned a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting today (24 August), is mostly about organisational issues.
First off, it must be clarified that the letter was signed by leaders across the spectrum, spanning multiple lines of divide, mainly the so-called generational one: thus, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad, alongside Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada and Sandeep Dikshit. There seems to be another, albeit extremely subtle, if not actually arcane, distinction: that between Gandhi-Nehru ‘family loyalists’ and the adherents of, more particularly, the current torchbearer of the dynasty, Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi.
The latter group, which includes luminaries such as Rajya Sabha MP Rajiv Satav, general secretary in charge of organization KC Venugopal, Lok Sabha member Manickam Tagore, seems to have construed this letter to be an attack on Rahul and deplored it from that standpoint. Tagore has reportedly called it a betrayal. It was reported today that Rahul had intervened during the CWC meeting to say that the letter had been sent in collusion with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sibal reacted with a furious tweet, but took it down when Rahul apparently called him to deny having said anything of the sort.
Till this point, the pro-Rahul and distanced-from-Rahul strands seem separable. But it also appears that some have construed the letter to be an attack against Sonia as well, if n0t primarily, because the letter talks of a full-time and ‘effective’ leadership, visible on the ground; collective decision-making; and, a thorough overhaul of the organization, including elections to the CWC and the revival of the Parliamentary Board, at one time a vital organisational cog subordinate only to the working committee.
Sonia has as good as said that she will relinquish her position. It is likely that she will make her position official at the CWC meeting. There are suggestions that she has taken the critique personally. But from what can be gathered at this point, it does not appear that the criticism is either ad hominem, or, in fact, directed at Sonia in the first place. The list of names affixed to the letter does not suggest that the signatories are against her as such: thus, apart from the names already mentioned, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, rehabilitated by Sonia after being sidelined by Rahul, Shashi Tharoor, Renuka Chowdhury and Veerappa Moily.
A simpler explanation, which will probably not resonate with Rahul’s group, is that the letter genuinely wishes to bring to the table issues that must be resolved if the Congress is to go forward, though leaking the letter to the media could hardly have been in good faith. It is possible that there is some dissatisfaction with Rahul amongst the older leaders because he operates in and through an exclusive sort of a cabal, mostly consisting of the younger leaders. We shall return to this point in just a bit.
Whatever the factional alignments, the fact that the letter was sent and then leaked to the media means that the problems facing the party can no more be ignored. The drift has to be arrested and the CWC will have to do that if not on Monday itself, then much, much sooner, rather than later.
The starting point has to be the election of a full-time president. Once Sonia gives the party a deadline, the CWC will have to get moving. The problem, of course, is Rahul. Let us assume that most, or all, Congress leaders and members honestly think he is the best leader available. If that is the case, he should be prevailed upon to go through due process and be elected president of the party. But, it appears, Rahul is neither ready to rescind his objections to leading the party, nor does he want any other Gandhi to take the job.
Rahul can’t possibly be unaware of the fact that the party is waiting for him. Thus, what he has been doing for over a year amounts to stringing the Congress along. The party will have to make do with a ‘provisional’ president, in the terms used in the party constitution, till he makes up his mind to make a grand re-entry onto the stage. Can’t the Congress leadership see that this completely untenable? Especially since the person who’s left holding the fort, Sonia, is obviously unable to devote enough time and energy to the job because her health does not permit it.
It is actually worse than untenable because not only is Rahul stringing the party along, he is actually giving it all the cues without taking any responsibility. Since, Sonia is not fully functional, Rahul is exercising de facto power without being accountable. A recent example is the final resolution to the Rajasthan crisis, which happened only after rebel MLA Sachin Pilot held talks with the Gandhi siblings. Whatever some sections of the Congress may think, this is hardly a conscionable or effective way to run a party, because the likelihood is that senior leaders who do not have a place in the charmed circle are seriously cheesed off at being unofficially sidelined.
We must also remember that the current crisis is not exactly a bolt from the blue. It was prefigured at a meeting of Rajya Sabha members convened by Sonia at the end of last month, in the course of which Satav and Venugopal launched an attack on the record of the second United Progressive Alliance government, which could easily be construed as a frontal attack on both Sonia and Manmohan Singh. Barely had the dust settled, following a clarification from Satav early this month, was the letter under discussion sent, though the media got wind of it later. In the absence of an elected leader, a settled leadership, and transmission protocols, it becomes difficult to deal with factionalism and infighting, which plague even the most disciplined of organizations, as opposed to genuine debate and dissent.
There are no obvious hurdles to electing a new president: the Congress constitution lays down in detail the procedure to be followed in electing the party’s president, while also providing for the appointment by the CWC of a ‘provisional’ one to meet an emergency arising from the death of resignation of an incumbent (Article XVIII). Given that Sonia’s one-year ‘interim’ term is over and that the Congress has been without an elected, full-time leader for almost 15 months, the letter sent to Sonia must be seen as a blessing out of disguise rather than a conspiracy or an attack on the party at one of its weakest moments, as many, including Rahul, at the CWC meeting, have been describing it.
The only construal of a further refusal by Rahul to switch from the backseat to the wheel is that he truly doesn’t want to become president in the current conjuncture, which will mean that the party will be compelled to look afield for a new president. That could be party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, if the gravitational pull proves of dynasty proves ineluctable, or someone else.
But the person who takes the wheel has to be elected, because that will provide the new president greater legitimacy and traction. If the Congress has to re-emerge as a genuine, national Opposition party, this will have to be just the beginning. The hard work of rebuilding the party in the wide swathes from which it has been wiped out, beginning with the Hindi heartland, will have to follow, as will, as the signatories to the letter have apparently written, the task of uniting a fractious opposition.