Time for Congress to look beyond Gandhis

Updated: May 21, 2014, 16:25 PM IST

As I argue that it is time for Congress to look beyond the Gandhi family after the party`s colossal defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, I know that I am asking for the impossible. There is no one denying the fact that the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the life-line of the party since pre-Independence days and provided it the much-needed oxygen for its survival whenever the situation warranted.

So to think of Congress sans Gandhis, is like asking for a bit much. The two are inseparable - so much so that Congress means Gandhis and the Gandhis mean Congress. What happened at the recent Congress Working Committee meet, called to search for answers for its crushing defeat, was very much on the expected lines.

Ahead of the CWC meet, there were intense speculations that Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the main face of the party in the General Elections, will take moral responsibility for Congress` humiliating defeat and quit paving way for a leadership change. But despite this, there was little doubt that the CWC members will accept their resignations – obviously no one in the Congress has the courage to ask for or accept their resignations.

Sadly, the CWC meet, which was called to brainstorm over factors that led to party`s mammoth electoral drubbing at the hands of Narendra Modi-led BJP, which put up its best-ever performance, wasted much of its time in defending Sonia`s leadership and `yuvraj` Rahul Gandhi.

As expected, the entire blame for party`s debacle was taken by Dr Manmohan Singh, who was the Prime Minister in UPA I and II government and formally ``retired`` a few days back. The `Sonia, Rahul` praise went on so long that senior Congress leader RK Dhawan had to allegedly say “how long will we continue with this”.

After the two-and-a-half hour drama, the CWC adopted "a unanimous resolution expressing full faith" in Sonia and Rahul`s leadership and asked them to continue to guide the party while rejecting their resignations. The CWC resolution, while admitting that the party did not "tackle effectively" the country`s frustration with growing inflation or corruption, stated that "resignations are not the solution" and authorised Sonia to prepare a new roadmap for change.

Sonia, who has been the UPA chairperson for ten years, was also authorised to reshuffle key posts – a move which has again catapulted the 67-year-old lady to the centrestage, downplaying her criticism for Congress` electoral drubbing and rejecting the call for a leadership change.

So it is clear that Congress is not ready to exist without the Gandhis and the “culture of patronage”, which many feel should end, will continue in the party. The party, which is in terminal decline, especially as it has been confined to mere 44 seats in this election, urgently needs a facelift.

It can’t be denied that the Congress, which has fought two General Elections – 2009 and 2014 – with Rahul Gandhi as its general secretary and vice president and several assembly elections, has not gained much under his leadership. Despite Rahul`s concerted efforts to revamp the party and hectic campaigning, the party could not open its account in seven states and its tally could not touch the double-digit in ten other.

This simply means the voters, with whom the party failed to “connect” well, have rejected it and voted for a change and that`s why if they have given the mandate to Modi-led BJP. Moreover, Rahul`s rise has increased the gap between the old and the young guard of the party, with many senior leaders either ignored or sidelined in the party affairs. The lack of coordination between the party`s experienced leaders and Rahul`s young brigade could be one of the many reasons for Congress` dismal performance in the polls.

The decision to give tickets to party hoppers, which was based on Congress strategists` internal assessment of caste equations in a particular belt or region, did not benefit the party and disappointed a large section of its workers. Ahead of elections, Rahul Gandhi had said that party hoppers won`t be given tickets on a platter after joining Congress but this was done in a number of cases and hence those who did it, in defiance of the Congress vice president`s view, should face the music now.

Another factor responsible for Congress`s defeat is the failure of Rahul`s pet project of introducing US style `primaries` to elect candidates for Lok Sabha polls through direct feedback of grassroot party workers. Not a single such nominee from the 15-earmarked seats could win his or her constituency. The parliamentary seats where candidates were selected through "primaries" are New Delhi and North-East Delhi (Delhi), Guwahati (Assam), Bhavnagar (Gujarat), Bangalore North and Daskshin Kanadda (Karnataka), Indore and Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh), Wardha and Latur (Maharashtra), Bikaner and Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan), Sant Kabir Nagar and Ambedkar Nagar (Uttar Pradesh), and Kolkata North (West Bengal).

Prominent among those who lost were Rahul`s key aide Meenakshi Natarajan from Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, AICC general secretary Ajay Maken from New Delhi and former Delhi PCC chief JP Agarwal from North East Delhi.

Rahul had announced about his pet project at an AICC meeting on January 17 where he said that the candidates would be finalised on the basis of the feedback from party workers at the grassroot level but the experiment has fallen flat. Rahul had said then if the experiment proved successful, it would be implemented nationwide in future elections.

Instead of shielding her son, whose foray into politics was more due to compulsion of his lineage to the Gandhi surname than by choice, Sonia Gandhi should have respected the popular demand to bring Priyanka to the forefront. And all the other measures – changing the mindset and re-evaluating its core principles – are just futile exercises. Unfortunately, at the Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) soul-searching meet, the party stopped short of throwing any indication to show that the change has begun.

Sonia Gandhi replaced Sitaram Kesri as party president and leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in 1998 on the grounds of poor performance in the general elections. Going by the same logic, both Sonia and Rahul should have been relieved of their duties and a new leader should have been given the charge. Again in the late 90s, the party which was in a state of complete disarray, survived due to the oxygen provided to it by the Gandhi family. Barring the NDA’s small stint at power, the party continued to hold on to that momentum and stayed in power till 2014.

This time Narendra Modi destroyed Congress’ citadel by attacking the dynasty politics it has practiced. The Gandhi surname can no longer guarantee you a victory in elections. And to believe that Rahul Gandhi can resurrect Congress in 2019 is a far-fetched thought.

There is no clarity on Priyanka Gandhi’s future role in party. At the moment, Congress has decided to rely on Rahul Gandhi, but the party should also look at the second rung of leadership, which unlike its A-lister, has greater connectivity with masses.

The Gandhis need to promote intra-party democracy even if it slightly lowers their say in party affairs. Time is over to look at a person’s loyalty and years of association with the Gandhi family before giving him key roles. The situation warrants a major vision overhaul since the task of gaining the lost ground is colossal. As the party prepares itself to sit in the Opposition for the next five years, I hope the party will continue the soul-searching exercise to come out as a winner in the long run.

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