The letter sent to the Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi, by 23 senior leaders, including former chief ministers, sitting MPs, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, former Union ministers and CWC members, ahead of a crucial working committee meeting, is unprecedented. This is the first time that so many leaders have put down their grievances against the high command on record and called for sweeping changes in the way the party is led and how it functions. In recent times, the disquiet within the party over its rout in successive elections at the Centre and failure to form or maintain governments in states, or to prevent young and ambitious leaders from leaving the party, has been an undercurrent. Anyone asking the leadership to reflect on the party’s disarray and decline has been painted as disgruntled. The simmering unease within the party has been attributed to a predictable generational divide. But the signatories to the letter, as this newspaper has reported, include representatives of different generations in the Congress, as well as those who have been in the party for long and held important posts in the organisation apart from ministerial office. This time, the voices are far too diverse and too many to be ignored.
The letter brings the crisis to the fore and also offers the Congress high command an opportunity — one that it would fritter away or lose if it were to respond by making this moment more about itself, less about the party. Though worded carefully, the letter has specific suggestions for recasting the organisation. It has called for an elected Congress Working Committee and a full-time leadership, engaged and available at the AICC and PCC. In a rejection of the high command culture and the practice of nomination to leadership positions, it speaks of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party. Whether the Congress brass listens to these voices and how it responds to them will decide the party’s future course. What is clear is that it can no longer go back to Congress-as-usual, with the current ad-hoc arrangement that has proved unable to stanch the party’s drift or halt its decline. The party could seize the moment and revert to an older organisational form, when elections to the PCC, AICC and even the post of Congress president were the norm. It needs to promote a leadership that is ambitious for responsibility and ready to be held accountable for performance.
It is for the Congress to decide how to run its affairs. But its crisis within has a bearing on the health of the wider polity. The Congress continues to be India’s premier opposition party — it is the only party besides the ruling BJP with a footprint across the country. The Opposition space shrinks when the Congress declines. In a time of large parliamentary majorities, the importance of that space, the need for its vitality, has increased. The question is whether or not the Congress is willing to step up to its role.