Updated: September 30, 2021 8:37:40 am
In the Congress today, both the stirrings of change and the hurdles to it, of the party’s own making, are simultaneously on display. After a long period of risk-averse politics, the party has made some sharp moves, potentially opening up to newer voices, more dynamic positions. Choosing a Dalit Chief Minister in Punjab, the first in a state with the largest share of the Dalit population, to replace Captain Amarinder Singh, was one such decision. It has the power to nudge the narrative in a state where the Congress government had, by all accounts, performed underwhelmingly and where its leadership had outlived its popularity. Then again, opening the doors of the party to two young leaders, Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani, could help pierce the same-old, by signalling that the party is reaching out to mobilisations in recent times it has been conspicuously left out of. Kumar and Mevani have been associated with movements of students and Dalits, respectively, in eye-catching ways. The year 2016 saw both rise to national prominence — Kumar, after he and fellow students were accused of “sedition” for slogans allegedly raised on campus at an event organised on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, and Mevani, after he became a face of the Dalit pushback following the Una assault. Since then, Kumar, as a CPI candidate, has lost an election but staked out an articulate anti-BJP position. And Mevani has been trying to reshape Dalit mobilisation, from issues of identity and atrocity to include those like land-ownership, while sharing platforms with others like the Left. But that is only half the Congress story.
The other half can be told by the outsized role played by Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab, the free rein apparently given to him by the party high command, which now seems to be backfiring. First the high command, read the Gandhi family, took excessively long to see the need for change in a state where its own MLAs were increasingly restive about fighting the next election under the same leadership. It did not have its ear to the ground either, evidently didn’t hear the rumblings of a mounting popular discontent. With only four months to go for polls, it acted, but reposed trust in someone who has refused to settle down to his job — Sidhu was made party president more than two months ago. His resignation now, his alleged insistence on having his way in appointments or else, is intransigence that might have been foreseen and forestalled by a leadership that took greater ownership of the party’s crisis and its resolution. A similar story is playing out in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where, too, the irresolutions of the high command are joining with factional politics to undermine Congress-led governments.
New political possibilities in the Congress, it seems, will bump up against an institutional impasse: A long pending vacancy at the top, and inert or paralysed structures of collective decision-making mean that decisions are taken in ways that seem opaque not just to observers, but also to Congress men and women. On this fundamental problem, the Congress will have to take an urgent call. It continues to kick this can down the road at its own peril.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2021 under the title ‘Kicking the can’.
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