The 23 senior Congress leaders who wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi calling for sweeping changes in the party, and the leaders who rallied around the high command during the marathon Congress Working Committee meeting on Monday, both speak of a crisis. Both point to a precarious juncture for the Congress, and for the nation. The gallery of villains for both is also the same: The rising BJP and its ascendant “communal” and “divisive agenda”, an economic downturn followed by a pandemic, a jobs crisis, an aggressive China on the LAC. From here, however, the stories strike out in different directions. For the letter-writers, this grand coming together of setbacks calls for a changed Congress, one that is better able to reverse its own decline and stand up to rapidly changing external challenges. On the other hand, those closing ranks against the group of 23 argue, like Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has, that to demand an overhaul at this juncture is against the interests of the party and the nation. For those watching the Congress drama from outside, the question is a simple one: What does it say about a 134-year-old party, that it has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the mirror?
The marathon CWC meeting on Monday has led to no dramatic outcome. Faith has been reiterated in the leadership of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and the can, or the letter, has been kicked down the road, or at least “until such time as circumstances will permit an AICC session to be convened”. By all accounts, the discussion in the CWC and in the party has been dominated not by the contents of the letter, but by questions about the motives of the letter-writers, their timing — whether or not the process they sought to set in motion would benefit the BJP. Most of all, the letter has become the pretext for the Congress to turn a yet more fervent gaze on its First Family, the Gandhis. In a debate that mainly asks “are you with the Gandhis, or against them”, there is little or no possibility of serious engagement with the broader concerns the letter articulated: About the toll that the uncertainty about leadership and drift has taken on the party at a time of a never-before erosion of its support base, and when it has lost the confidence of the young, who have voted in growing numbers for Narendra Modi and his BJP. The letter’s prescriptions — of a collective leadership and elections for party committees and decision-making bodies, for a decentralisation of power and empowerment of state units, for greater and institutionalised deliberation within — have not even found their way to the party’s table so far.
In times when the pandemic has stilled the politics on the street, the Congress could have profitably used the opportunity and space it provides to turn the gaze within. By choosing not to do so, by reducing this moment to a yes-or-no referendum on the Gandhis, it does a grave disservice to itself — and shrinks the opposition space so critical to the health of democracy.