It has come to be known as G-23, a group of 23 Congress leaders that wrote a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi in August. They wanted institutional reform to save the party. Now, after the Congress party’s poor showing in Bihar, the group is feeling vindicated.
The 23 are a diverse bunch. What unites them, however, is they feel marginalised by both the factions of the party, the Sonia Gandhi-led ‘old guard’ and the Rahul Gandhi-led ‘new guard’. Even, or especially if the Congress were to revive, these leaders wouldn’t find the prominence they think they deserve.
One of the G-23, Kapil Saibal, has given an interview in the Indian Express, criticising the party for not doing much to revive itself. Sibal said in the interview that he was forced to speak in public since voices like his were not being heard on any internal platform in the party. Translation: Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi don’t even lend leaders like him an ear.
The Gandhi family is marginalising these leaders either for showing too much ambition, or retiring some of them, like Ghulam Nabi Azad, who spoke up after being denied a Rajya Sabha berth.
Yet no one can argue that the situation in the Congress party isn’t alarmingly gloomy. Most will agree with the G-23 that the Congress leadership looks almost indifferent to the party’s declining fortunes. They have long forgone issuing even the summary “we will introspect” line after losing an election.
What the letter effectively demanded is accountability from the Gandhi family, when it said the party needed full-time leadership “active in the field and visible, available at AICC (All India Congress Committee)…” It demanded decentralisation of power in the party, elections of office bearers at various levels ‘in a transparent manner’ and so on. In other words, they were politely questioning why the Congress should be run on the whims and fancies of the Gandhi family when they were no longer able to provide good leadership.
That’s all very well, and few will have any disagreements with it. Yet these suggestions are all technical, and their real intent is not the party’s revival but getting a better deal within the party for the G-23.
Holding free and fair elections to the Congress Working Committee may give some of these G-23 greater control of the party but no, it won’t revive the party. If Rahul Gandhi sits all day in AICC and listens to party leaders, effectively doing what Ahmed Patel does, it won’t revive the party.
So what would?
Three things: charismatic leadership, ideological assertion, and mass agitation.
There is a line in former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s autobiography that captures what a party leader should be like. She wrote that her critics in the Delhi Congress wanted to capture the party, whereas she wanted to capture the votes. That is what charismatic leadership is.
Today you can’t find many voters who vote for the Congress because they are inspired by Sonia Gandhi. As for Rahul Gandhi, he actually drives voters away. The long-awaited secret weapon of Congress leadership, Priyanka Gandhi, has also proved to be a dud. If the jury on her is still out, we only have to wait till the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in March 2022.
If revival of the Congress seems near impossible, it is because the Gandhi family can no longer get votes in its name, and won’t vacate to let another leader try their luck. The BJP was able to revive itself because it let a leader who could get votes in his name, Narendra Modi, with one who wasn’t, LK Advani.
The G-23 letter writers, if they cared about Congress and not just their own positions, would actually go to the extent of demanding the Gandhi family step aside.
Political parties are built on the blood and sweat of faceless party workers who give their lives to the cause of the party. It does not happen without sacrifices. Why would anyone sacrifices their wealth, time, family life and career for a political party? People do it on the hope of rising up the ladder of power, a hope not found in the declining fortunes of the Congress. But there’s another reason why people selflessly work for a party: ideology.
Even today you can find people working selflessly for the Congress for ideological reasons, mainly secularism, but not many. The party, however, has been failing them. The party leadership is almost apologetic about its ideology and often comes across as trying to use Hindu nationalism itself to earn votes, as Kamal Nath just tried and failed in Madhya Pradesh.
The BJP’s chequered history tells us that the party was able to revive itself only by giving up its ideological dithering and going full throttle on Hindu nationalism at a time when secularism was mainstream consensus. No matter how the Congress defines its ideology today, unless it can take the ideology to the masses it won’t find people sacrificing their lives for the party. We obsess about the Congress leadership but if the Congress has to revive itself at the booth level, it needs an ideological purpose as much as it needs charismatic mass leadership.
The G-23, if they really cared about the Congress and not just their own place in it, would have demanded ideological clarity and assertion from the party leadership.
It was the Indian national movement that made the Congress party such a formidable force that it is even today one of only two pan-India parties. It was the Ram Mandir movement starting in the late ‘80s that made the Bharatiya Janata Party a force to reckon with. It was the Lokpal movement that created the Aam Aadmi Party. Regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party or the socialist parties in UP and Bihar also came out of social movements.
To revive the Congress today would be almost like creating a new political party, since it is almost wiped out of large swathes of the country. If it won 19 seats in Bihar that was only because of its alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. On its own it would have won perhaps no seat. Instead of this incremental approach of winning a few seats here and there, focusing on one state election after another, the Congress should take a step back and launch a national agitation. As the party prides itself on both economic reforms and welfarism, there is a big opportunity today for a national agitation at a time when India is facing its first recorded recession.
Of course, any such agitation can be successful only if the party has charismatic leadership which can capture the national imagination from Leh to Lakshadweep. And it can be successful if the party has ideological clarity to explain to voters what it stands for. It can be successful only if the party is clear it is doing the agitation not to save Rahul Gandhi’s career or that of the G-23. It can be successful only if the party is clear, Mahatma Gandhi-like, about giving voice to the people of India, their pain and suffering, aspirations and hopes. That is what politics is about, not some elections to the CWC.