After a near-devastating Lok Sabha election, where it was reduced to a mere 44 MPs, the Congress party now faces internal haemorrhage in several important states. In Assam, education minister and senior leader Himanta Biswa Sarma has resigned, declaring himself and a contingent of other MLAs unable to work under the leadership of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. In Maharashtra, Narayan Rane has quit the state government, saying he did not wish to be a “partner in defeat” in the upcoming assembly election. What’s more, one of the Congress’s showpiece partnerships, with the National Conference in Kashmir, has collapsed.
There are loud rumblings of discontent in party units across the country, and much of this anger is directed at the party’s top leadership. The Gandhis, whose unchallenged authority in the party stems from their supposed ability to keep fractious power centres united, have shown little evidence that they are actively allaying tensions, or taking the right judgement calls.
To come back into the political reckoning, the Congress needs to realise that this is not merely an HR crisis. While some desertions are inevitable in a climate of defeat and adversity, there is an identity crisis that the party must resolve. The party has been slowly losing its hold on its coalition of social groups and interests over the last three decades, and the national victories of 2004 and 2009 did not decisively reverse this structural decline. The problem is not merely organisational, it is a matter of ideology and pitch. The old assumptions cannot hold, and the party has to urgently identify the direction of its reinvention, especially as the partitions between the rural and urban economies erode, or as caste identification begins to soften in aspirational urban contexts. This will be difficult and risky, since it has traditionally been a bridge-builder between various interests — for instance, if it is tempted to lean heavily on its left axis in opposition to an unabashedly market-friendly government, it could alienate businesses and the middle class. Its peculiar version of secularism will be challenged in a situation where its opponents shape the discourse.
The party has to be supple in crafting new appeals to emerging constituencies. While part of that task certainly involves organisational overhaul, building ladders of opportunity all the way to the grassroots and democratising internal structures so that demands can travel up, party vice president Rahul Gandhi risks making a fetish of primaries and other such rituals. He has failed to generate enthusiasm for them in the party, and seems not to care about the business of winning and losing elections at all. A seeming lack of ownership and the clear deficit of communication have undeniably cost the party.