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The road ahead: In its worst crisis ever, where does the Congress go from here?

The resounding rejection of the Congress in the Assembly elections poses the worst crisis it has ever faced, as well as the big question: where does it go from here?

At the Congress's head office in Lucknow a day before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results were announced. (Express Photo: Vishal Srivastav)

It is premature to write the epitaph of a party as old as the Congress, which still has a pan-Indian footprint. But the resounding rejection of the party in the Assembly elections poses the worst crisis it has ever faced, as well as the big question: where does it go from here?

The Congress was in power in just three states – Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Mizoram – when Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress president in 1998. From there, it won state after state, returning to power at the Centre in 2004. In 2014, it was in power in nine states. Today, the Congress is worse off than it was 24 years ago — it is ruling in only two states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

In the seven years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the Congress has been able to form only five state governments — the Union Territory of Puducherry in 2016, Punjab in 2017, and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018 — while facing rejection 40 times.

Internal crises…

The results will become yet another arrow in the quiver of the anti-Rahul Gandhi camp to seek democratisation in the party. There will be calls for putting in place a collective leadership model, a relatively alien concept for the Congress, to undercut the supremacy of the Gandhis. It is to be seen whether any leader other than those who are part of the G-23 would have the courage to speak up on this.

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While a large section of the party wants Rahul to return to the helm — he may not face much resistance if he makes up his mind and files his nomination — there is a growing realisation that status quo, in other words the preeminence of the Gandhi family, is proving to be a albatross around its neck. In this crisis of leadership, the Gandhis will have to address the internal blood-letting first. Then there is a serious possibility of an exodus or a split.

The Congress’s humiliation in Uttar Pradesh has also knocked down the last great hope — Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. For many, she was the trump card. She had come a cropper in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. Since she was appointed AICC general secretary in charge of UP only in January, many had given her the benefit of the doubt, but the hammering in UP has knocked down brand Priyanka.

The party has refused to make any meaningful introspection all these years, and remains bereft of fresh ideas or a powerful narrative to hard-sell itself. Another internal crisis is the absence of “vote catchers” in the states.

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… and external

The fresh challenge has now come from the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP showed voters in Punjab the dream of a Delhi model. The Congress, in contrast, has not been able to develop a “model” state government it can showcase in any other state.

The rise of other parties, particularly AAP and the Trinamool Congress, will continue to challenge the Congress’s claim to being the central pole of the opposition bloc.

Although the Trinamool Congress’s Goa dash came a cropper, many parties, including allies such as the NCP and friends such as the RJD, feel that the anti-BJP grouping needs a new form in style, substance and leadership. Like the Samjawadi Party, many regional parties now appear reluctant to even tie up with the Congress as they see it as baggage.

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West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has signalled her intention to convene a meeting of Opposition leaders. The refrain thus far from Congress leaders was to wait until March 10. The reality has now dawned.

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First published on: 11-03-2022 at 03:03:02 am
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