Indications are that the new Congress president will be elected, not foisted on the party through a consensus mediated by the top brass. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, presumed to be the choice of the Nehru-Gandhi family, has indicated that he will contest if Rahul Gandhi is not ready to take up the mantle. Shashi Tharoor, the Thiruvananthapuram MP associated with the G-23 dissidents, has announced his wish to contest and has also met party chief Sonia Gandhi to apprise her of his decision. Party insiders suggest that Rahul Gandhi will not reconsider his decision to stay away from the party chief’s post and will continue with the ongoing Bharat Jodo padayatra. This is when at least 11 state units passing resolutions urging Rahul to take over. The Wayanad MP has done well to stay with his decision and stick to the road for the next five months. The Congress leadership should seize this moment and facilitate a fair contest to the party president’s office. Internal elections could energise the Congress from within; and if the country’s largest opposition party pursues internal elections, it will send out a positive message in the polity.
Until Indira Gandhi seized the organisation, after splitting the party over ideological issues in 1969, the Congress had a vibrant tradition of internal democracy. In fact, factions and splits have been a part of Congress history. The first major split in 1907 was over the path that the party should follow to achieve Swaraj — the nationalists/extremists and the moderates worked as separate groups for a decade. The entry of Mahatma Gandhi into the Congress national leadership radically altered the character of the party organisation. Under him, the Congress became both a cadre organisation and a mass movement. Party conferences, public meetings, strikes, mobilisations, membership drive, publications etc. became an important part of the Congress outreach with Gandhi giving it a clear ideological orientation. The dissenters — communists, socialists and Royists among them — left the organisation, moderated their views or stayed within the parent body as a separate entity. There were exceptions like Subhas Chandra Bose, who had to quit the president’s post as well as the party after falling out with Gandhi. The longevity of the Congress owed much to the party’s ability to accommodate multiple voices and interest groups within a broad ideological framework and under a collective leadership that allowed provincial chiefs their say. This democratic character of the Congress was eroded during the Indira era. Thereafter the party organisation stultified as nominations by the high command, a unique Congress institution, became the norm.
A genuine contest to Congress chief’s post could challenge this architecture and trigger a churn — organisational and ideological — within the party. The contest has already started gaining an ideological sheen with a section of the party asking candidates to adopt the recent Udaipur declaration and Tharoor endorsing the move. This sentiment, if tapped into, could take the Congress on a democratic path it has not travelled for some years now. Revival is a long road but there is no other first step.