Sonia Gandhi is no stranger to Opposition benches in Parliament. Nor is she unfamiliar with voices of dissent within the party. After all, just about a year after she took over as Congress president in 1998, she had witnessed a split in the party over her foreign origin and later, she had overcome a challenge to her leadership in party elections. But this time, the challenge is even more daunting — not just in terms of reviving the party but also in re-establishing the political credentials of her chosen successor, Rahul Gandhi, who is under intense scrutiny of the party’s rank and file. There are already murmurs — from even a family loyalist like K V Thomas — about bringing Priyanka Vadra into the party organisation, a euphemism for lack of confidence in Rahul’s leadership.
The Sunday Express spoke to many Congress leaders, and they have a long list of suggestions for the party’s revival:
The leadership question
After he attacked the coterie around Rahul, former Congress MP Milind Deora was learnt to be getting a lot of congratulatory calls from his party colleagues. The young MP from Mumbai was once perceived to be a weathercock who sounded out the direction of Rahul’s thinking, be it on the controversial ordinance on convicted legislators or on Maharashtra government’s rejection of the Adarsh Commission report. Last January, hours before the CWC meeting decided not to project Rahul as the party’s PM candidate, Milind seemed to echo his friend’s inner voice as he tweeted quoting Pink Floyd, “Mother, should I run for President? Mother, should I trust the Government? Mother, will they put me in the firing line?”.
When the same Milind, who lost his election, started firing salvos at Rahul and his team in an interview to The Indian Express on Wednesday, it only reflected the extent of frustration and disgruntlement in the Congress.
Rahul’s USP since his induction as AICC general secretary in 2007 had been his “democratisation experiment” that was supposed to rejuvenate the grand old party by infusing “fresh blood” into it. Almost complete transfer of power and authority to the vice-president’s office might have left some veterans sulking, but there were no questions asked as his “revolution” was expected to bring back the glorious old days of single-party rule. On May 16, India did get a government unencumbered by coalition compulsions and the knives were out in the Congress.
“Where was his Youth Congress and NSUI this election? His entire democratisation experiment has finished the assembly line that brought ideologically committed youth into the party. In the name of democratisation, he ended up alienating those who had re-built the party through difficult times. This has to be reversed,” said a senior Congress leader. There is increasing realisation that with a “master strategist” like Narendra Modi leading the BJP, there is no time for Rahul’s “guerrilla politics”.
“His vision to bring young people into the party is great but he (Rahul) should think of replenishing and not replacing. He has to connect and not disconnect. When you saw Soniaji’s choice of Governors, you would think she had dug into the archives before recommending the names. That’s what kept Congressmen, young or old, loyal to the party. They never felt unwanted or diconnected. Rahul has to learn this leadership trait from his mother,” says a former Youth Congress president.
Some leaders are, however, supportive of some of Rahul’s initiatives and ideas. Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who had to sweat it out to prevent the BJP from opening its account in Kerala, said, “We must try to strengthen our inner-party democracy. There should be free and fair exchange of views inside the party and, possibly, elections at all levels. We have to have accurate membership rolls. Rahul Gandhi had introduced all these things in the Youth Congress. It is a question of perfecting it. It should be at all levels, including membership to the CWC.”
Party’s image crisis
Congress leaders are unanimous about re-establishing the party’s image as a “secular, democratic and progressive” party which stood for all sections of the people. Party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed said, “We have to explain to the people, especially the young generation, that secularism does not mean favouring any specific community. The BJP spread that propaganda; they branded us as a pro-Muslim and anti-majority party. We somehow failed to effectively rebut it.”
Tharoor said, “We should define what we stand for — the values of secularism, inclusiveness and our support for the marginalised. Once the yardsticks are defined, we should communicate it repeatedly. In 21st-century politics, reticence is not fully understood.”
According to former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, the Congress used to have an “unwritten coalition” of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, who were joined by other communities. “Now Brahmins have gone to the BJP, Dalits to the BSP and Muslims to a number of parties. We have to instil confidence in all these communities that their interests would be protected by the Congress. It’s a tough fight and we have to struggle, but that is the only way,” he said.
Returning to grassroots
Party leaders say there should be regional or state-level interactive sessions to gather feedback and suggestions at different levels. “We should not treat any dissenting voice as rebellion. We should hold in-camera party meetings involving leaders from state to block levels to give them an opportunity to vent out the steam. That will provide the leadership a solid feedback about what the party needs to do to reconnect with the masses,” said another AICC general secretary. He suggested that all the Congress candidates who lost by a margin of less than one lakh votes should be allotted their respective constituencies to work on for the next five years.
Outgoing External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, “We will now have space for outreach at different levels. We did this exceptionally well before we came to power in 2004 and I think we should now continue to do that. Another thing, we should absorb the changes that have happened and understand them and only then take up positions. I don’t think it helps to explore these things publicly.”
Last Monday, after the well-scripted ‘resignation episode’ at the CWC meeting, the apex decision-making body authorised Sonia to take “whatever steps necessary in order to revamp the organisation at all levels”. She herself spoke of the need for “structural changes” in the party. But these words haven’t impressed many. Leaders recalled how, after the party’s drubbing in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, both Sonia and Rahul had blamed it on organisational weaknesses, and then again after the rout in the Assembly elections last December, Rahul spoke of transforming the party “in ways you cannot imagine”. Nothing changed.
Leaders are now suggesting an overhaul of the organisation. “We have to build cadres. We can’t remain a party without a cadre. We have to project youngsters right up to the booth level,” said Ajit Jogi.
Tharoor and Jogi were unanimous in advocating that the Congress has to “nurture and encourage” local, state and regional satraps. “Local leaders command immense affection and popularity. So, I think it is only fair that we bring them up rather than imposing leadership from above,” said Tharoor.
But a local Congressman from Gorakhpur, who had lost the Assembly election in 2012, isn’t very optimistic of anything changing. “Immediately after the results, Akhilesh Yadav sacked 36 of his ministers and Mayawati dissolved the BSP’s units. What did we do? We held a CWC meeting and forgot about it. First let your workers see that you are serious about reviving the Congress,” he said.
While Sonia Gandhi is not known to go for drastic actions when it concerns her loyalists, she is expected to drop many AICC functionaries and replace them with a new team. But, given the dismal performance of those brought in by Rahul in the last reshuffle, she may not have many options.
It was in Sonia’s speech at Pachmarhi in 1998 that the party had opened its door to coalition politics. “This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam. But, in the interim, coalitions may be needed,” she had said.
Sixteen years hence and after two stints in power at the Centre, the Congress is set to witness a debate on this issue with some in the party wanting to abandon coalition politics and use the next five years to rebuild the Congress. Tharoor has a different view. “There are some states where there is a need for pragmatic alliances so as not to cede anti-government space to regional parties. At the same time, we must be careful not to let our own local party structures atrophy because of such understandings. It also makes sense to have a sensible understanding with parties in Parliament vying with each other for the opposition space.”
Given that the party’s ekla chalo policy, whether opted or forced, in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu didn’t work in this election, Sonia may be forced to adopt what she had first expounded in Pachmarhi 16 years ago.