Updated: August 27, 2021 9:34:16 am
The Congress footprint has shrunk and the grand old party now has chief ministers in only three states — Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. A revival of the party’s electoral prospects is contingent on its guarding the fortresses while rallying troops in other states. By all accounts, however, that seems a tall challenge for the party, as infighting grows louder and the high command is unable to keep the peace. In Punjab, it woke up late to a simmering rebellion against Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and tried to resolve the crisis by appointing Navjot Singh Sidhu as the PCC chief, but the dissenters have now demanded that a new leader be the face of the party’s campaign for assembly elections due in about six months. In Chhattisgarh, the differences between CM Bhupesh Baghel and senior minister T S Singh Deo forced Rahul Gandhi to intervene, but there is no sign that the two leaders have buried their differences. The factional feud in Rajasthan that nearly cost the Congress its government last year could revive at any time. The picture that emerges is of a party with no captain at the helm, or a high command unable to draw red lines in a crisis.
Factional feuds have been intrinsic to the Congress since its formation in the late 19th century, and splits have not been uncommon either. But those were caused more by ideological differences. Subsequently, leaders driven by personal ambitions have moved out not just to form their own outfits but also to join or ally with ideological opponents — former Congress leaders head governments in West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In recent times, the dots can be connected with a visibly deepening leadership crisis — the Congress has been without a full-time president since Rahul Gandhi quit after the 2019 election debacle. Sonia Gandhi has since taken over as interim president, but that has not helped to stanch the bleeding. In states where the rebels are leaders who command support at the grassroots, the high command seems unable to enforce its writ or discipline. And the leadership vacuum has emboldened warring factions to ignore the directives from the indeterminate top to reconcile their differences. Central emissaries — senior leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge and Harish Rawat — have failed to get the dissenters to fall in line or make state satraps deliver on their promises, mainly because the high command has lost authority. The absence of a fleet-footed and decisive central leadership helped the BJP outsmart the Congress in Goa and Manipur in 2017, and led to the collapse of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh and the JD(S)-Congress alliance in Karnataka in 2020.
A rudderless Congress is bad for itself, and it is also likely to hurt the prospects of the Opposition, which seems to sense an opening in the government’s management of the pandemic. The Congress continues to be in a pole position in the opposition space. But the party needs to urgently set its house in order if it wants to assume leadership.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 27, 2021 under the title ‘Who’s in charge?’