Dubai: India’s Grand Old Party is going through an unprecedented existential crisis. The Congress is yet to recover from widespread rejection by voters in central, north, north-east and western states, and is now facing four big daunting crisis situations – Rahul Gandhi’s resignation; vulnerability of governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka; rebellion in Rajasthan and an acute shortage of funds.
In the order of priority, the leadership issue, although the biggest, doesn’t require immediate attention as Rahul has assured that he would remain at the helm till a successor is found. First, the Congress leaders, including Rahul who resigned on May 25 from the president’s post, must save the faltering alliance with Janata Dal (secular) and insulate Karnataka government from predatory overtures of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Gandhis have led Congress for almost six decades. It has created a huge dependence model, where Congressmen look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return expect electoral success.
1. Trouble in states
Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress lost 28 out of 29 seats to the BJP, the Kamal Nath government has a thin majority and is at the mercy of two legislators from Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). During the national elections, the Congress fielded candidates against the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and now BSP chief Mayawati has no obligation to continue supporting the Congress government in MP. The survival of both these governments is critical not just for the morale of the Congress rank and file, but also the party’s future.
Besides Punjab, the only northern state Congress has done well in national elections, Karnataka is a rich province and a major source of political funds. If the Karnataka government falls due to internal bickering, the party’s support base will erode further. Rajasthan also needs attention and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is facing calls of accountability after he led Congress to a humiliating drubbing. Rahul must take a call on Gehlot to contain the rebellion of ministers and legislators.
2. Fund crunch
For the first time, Congress is facing an acute financial crisis and has little money left to pay for day to day operations. “The party doesn’t have money to pay salaries of peons in its headquarters in New Delhi,” a newly-elected lawmaker told me last week. The financial crisis is “very” deep, said a journalist who covers the Congress. During the elections, another source said, the party had to seek help of crowdfunding agencies. Out of power since 2014, the Congress is finding it difficult to raise funds at a time when most political donations – big or small – are going to the BJP. For example, in the financial year 2017-18, the BJP earned more than Rs10 billion (Dh527.66 million), while the Congress got just Rs2.25 billion, according to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). The donations are expected to dry up further after its embarrassing election performance.
3. Congress without Gandhis
“See, only the Gandhis keep [Congress] together, other leaders are always at each other’s throats,” said the journalist, describing the leadership dilemma. The Gandhis are unable to protect the party from the Modi onslaught but having a non-Gandhi at the helm may lead to disintegration of the Congress apparatus.
Journalist Rashid Kidwai, author of a biography of Sonia Gandhi and another book on Congress, wrote last week: “Gandhis have led the Congress for almost six decades. It has created a huge dependence model, where Congressmen look up to Gandhi family members as unquestionable leaders and in return, expect electoral success, power etc.”
4. Is the dynasty dying?
In his book titled 24, Akbar Road, the party’s official address, Kidwai almost wrote the obituary of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He wrote: “... famous historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun was once asked by Taimur the Conqueror about the fate of dynasties. Khaldun propounded that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation is inclined towards conquest, the second towards administration. The third generation, being free from the necessity to conquer or administer, is left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits. Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty has usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each royal house is embedded in the very process of its rising”.
However, it would be foolish to write Congress off simply because it has shown resilience to bounce back from crises in the past. Secondly, India needs a strong Opposition and there is no other party that can fill the role.
Who will lead Congress?
Captain Amarinder Singh
A two-time chief minister of Punjab, Singh commands respect and is the only state leader who delivered good results in national elections. Son of the last king of Patiala and a product of Doon school, Singh, 77 has the pedigree, educational background and political clout to lead the Congress.
Drawback: His absence in Punjab will create a leadership crisis in the state.
A loyalist of the Gandhi family, Antony, 79, held the defence portfolio in Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet. A five-time member of parliament, Antony is a veteran, commands respect within the party system and has a clean image outside.
Drawback: Lacks charisma to lead the party out of the current crisis.
Tharoor, 63, belongs to the state of Kerala where Congress won handsomely. A former diplomat and a writer, Tharoor held senior positions in United Nations and is popular among India’s middle class and elite.
Drawback: He is not considered a political heavyweight and is unpopular among sections of Congressmen in his home state.
Gulam Nabi Azad
Currently the leader of the Opposition in parliament’s Upper House, Azad, 70, is a prominent Muslim face of the Congress. Azad was chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and has held several Cabinet portfolios in the past.
Drawback: A Muslim can be seen as a liability at a time when a right-wing party, BJP, is ruling India.