Congress leaders India
India's principal opposition party, Congress, seems caught up in an internal political tussle at a very crucial time in the country's history Image Credit: Supplied

Perhaps nothing symbolises the decay of India’s grand old party, the Congress, more than the images seen on television this week, of a mob of Congress workers shouting slogans and throwing tomatoes at the home of senior party leader Kapil Sibal.

Hours earlier, Sibal had told reporters that the Congress was headless, without a party president (isn’t that true?) and no one knew who was taking decisions.

He reiterated a demand made by him, and other leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, for early elections to the party president’s post and other bodies of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). What is so unreasonable about that?

The fact is, the truth hurts. The sight of Congress workers abusing leaders like Kapil Sibal only shows that the edifice has truly collapsed.

Let's not even begin to talk about the fiasco in Punjab, where a sitting Chief Minister was thrown under the bus for a maverick, party hopping Navjot Sidhu, who then turned around and pulled a fast one on the Gandhi siblings, who had molly coddled him till now.

This, just months before assembly polls in Punjab. The result is a spectacular implosion in the party, Amarinder Singh’s exit, and a Congress literally at war with itself.

Rift wide open

The drift has been apparent for some years now. Since the Congress’ poor performance in the 2014 general polls, the party has not really recovered and found its feet. The 2019 defeat seems to have set off a complete breakdown. At the heart of the problem is a lack of leadership, one clear authority that the party listens to.

Rahul Gandhi decided to quit as party chief after the last Lok Sabha polls. He has every right to take a decision that he sees in his best interest. But instead of taking a back seat since then, he and sister Priyanka take decisions without any responsibility.

Why should Rahul Gandhi take decisions for the Congress when he no longer has any party post? And if a majority of the party wants him to lead, then why doesn’t he simply contest party elections and become the Congress President? Who should lead the Congress is their call but just take that call once and for all.

Yes, there is dissent in other parties as well. There are, for example, murmurs of unhappiness within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too, as seen with the recent change of guard in Uttarakhand and Gujarat. But the BJP has managed to largely keep that dissent out of the public fold because they have a clear, authoritative leadership at the centre.

In the case of the Congress, it is the exact opposite. The result is Punjab, open dissent in the ranks in Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan, erosion of the party’s base in places like Gujarat and even Goa, where top leaders have migrated to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) instead.

The big story

But the big story here isn’t the Congress. It is the implications this has for the entire opposition ahead of the 2024 general election. Look at the data: the Congress and the BJP were in direct face-offs in 186 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabh polls.

The BJP won 170 of those seats with a strike rate of over 91%, up from an 84% strike rate in these seats in 2014. The Congress won just 15 of these seats. What does this mean? It means that if the opposition has a serious chance at defeating Modi’s BJP in 2024, it is going to need the Congress to get its act together.

Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal are trying to expand their parties beyond their traditional strongholds of Bengal and Delhi. That is clear in the way Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is trying to take over the Congress space in Gujarat and become a serious contender in Punjab, while the TMC is looking to strengthen itself in Tripura, get a foothold in Assam, UP and now Goa.

In both Goa and Gujarat, the Congress had actually done pretty well in the last polls. In fact it was the single largest party in Goa but got upstaged by the BJP. Over the years, factionalism and lack of leadership has seen the party crumble in both states.

The TMC meanwhile is clearly trying to project Mamata as an alternative “national” face to take on Narendra Modi. But it is too early to say if this will succeed. The fact is, even now the Congress is the only pan India opposition party and is needed in any credible opposition fight against the BJP.

But for now, the Congress is only busy scoring one self goal after another and unleashing social media trolls and other mobs on those who show them the mirror