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Worrying times for the Congress

August 19, 2014 08:50 IST

The Congress, notwithstanding its depleted bench strength, failed to corner the government on a range of crucial issues during the just-concluded Parliament session, says Kavita Chowdhury

It's like the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. Ninety days after its worst electoral debacle, the Congress continues to function as if the 2014 polls were just another electoral defeat in its 129-year history and it will bounce back as it has always done.

This despite the party facing an existential crisis, as Rahul Gandhi's leadership is publicly questioned, Congress-ruled state governments are facing rebellion and the Bharatiya Janata Party denies it the courtesy of a Leader of Opposition post.

The Congress, notwithstanding its depleted bench strength, failed to corner the government on a range of crucial issues during the just-concluded Parliament session. It disrupted Parliament over alleged bugging of ministers-kicked off by the Nitin Gadkari episode-claiming it was a violation of fundamental rights. The issue fizzled out after two days.

The Congress, thereafter, demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi clarify his stand in Parliament over his "misleading" statements that the United Progressive Alliance government had betrayed the interests of the country at the World Trade Organisation. While this gained some traction in the Rajya Sabha, in the Lok Sabha it went unnoticed.

The Congress was not even able to bring allies like the Nationalist Congress Party to oppose the insurance and judicial appointments bills, forcing a re-think on pieces of legislation it had initially thought of opposing. It only managed to get the insurance bill sent to a select committee thanks to opposition by regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

The Congress seems to have failed in its aim to unite the Opposition or provide leadership to it.

A Congressman and a former cabinet minister said, "When we were in Opposition in 1999, with Sonia Gandhi raising every issue, we bounced back. This evidently is not the case now."

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who led the party into the Lok Sabha polls, was squarely blamed for the rout outside the party and in hushed tones within. At the Congress Working Committee meeting on May 20, four days after the rout, he offered to resign. It was unanimously turned down.

Nothing changed and voices of dissent against the leadership went public: Punjab old guard Jagmeet Singh Brar advised the Gandhi scion to go on a two-year holiday. He was suspended for anti-party activities.

A Congress loyalist who has weathered many storms and witnessed many regime changes said the party needed to rally around the Gandhis; "The BJP wants to ensure that the Gandhi power is crippled so that the Congress is finished off. Our aim has to be to strengthen the Gandhis."

Matters had become so embarrassing that Priyanka Gandhi -- who many see as the party's only hope -- issued her first public statement rejecting all speculation of her donning a bigger role within the Congress and effectively supplanting her brother Rahul.

An occasional flash in the pan moment like when he stormed into the well of the Lok Sabha demanding a discussion on communal violence and accusing the BJP of stoking it, Rahul Gandhi has not displayed any significant leadership. He did not speak on the communal violence debate, belying expectations.

"At the Congress Working Committee meeting Sonia Gandhi was authorised to take action to revitalise the organisation but there has been nothing. It's been 86 days," said a Congress veteran. The much awaited All India Congress Committee reshuffle has not taken place and patience is wearing thin.

Some like Haryana leader Chaudhary Birender Singh first called for a change of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. When nothing materialised, he hobnobbed with the BJP, was suspended and joined it with several others. In other poll-going states like Maharashtra and Assam, open rebellions broke out. "Although the party leadership has managed to maintain the status quo, peace is elusive. These units are deeply divided and the party is doomed to lose in the upcoming elections," said an AICC general secretary.

Rahul Gandhi was said to be against change of state leadership and therefore despite indications of Tarun Gogoi in Assam being replaced, the party decided to back him. The old guard within the party who have been slighted by the young Gandhi are now still resentful of his coterie. The inner circle of trusted lieutenants of Rahul Gandhi may have receded into the shadows but they are very much around and still managing things.

Congress veteran and family loyalist AK Antony was given the job of probing the reasons for the Congress rout. He submitted a voluminous report to the high command but absolved the leadership of any blame. "We are confident, just as we did in 1977, we will overcome this difficult phase as well. The Congress will overcome this. We will be able to regain the loss, strengthen our party, strengthen our mass base again. We will revive under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul."

Congress Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha Captain Amarinder Singh one of those who believe "it will ultimately work out". "The recent victory of the Congress in all three seats in the Uttarakhand Assembly bypolls proves that things are improving."

Kavita Chowdhury
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