While believing that the senior leadership does not have what it takes to resurrect the party, members at the same time are often heard repeating, “It’s the Gandhi family that holds the party together”. Kavita Chowdhury explains
The fog over the field at the Congress headquarters, where party President Sonia Gandhi was hoisting the Congress party flag marking its 129th foundation day on Sunday, was symbolic of the haze that has engulfed the party and its leadership, as it faces one of its worst political crises.
Rahul Gandhi, was notable by his absence, raising the ire of many leaders.
Seven months after the strength was reduced to an unprecedented 44 in the Lok Sabha (mirroring the age of Rahul Gandhi), the party seems in a state of semi-permanent suspended animation.
The first three months after the debacle were spent ascertaining the causes of the defeat by a committee led by A K Antony. The findings were never made public.
The next two months were devoted to national deliberations led by party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi on the changes needed, in the party with as many as 400 people involved. This is to be followed with identical discussions at the state and district levels, but the reports are to be in only by the end of February.
The party recently lost state elections in what were once its bastions of Haryana and Maharashtra. More recently, it has been eclipsed in Jharkhand and Jamu & Kashmir.
For the first time, the number of Congress MLAs (949) countrywide has been outstripped by the BJP’s total, of 1058.
Despite this existential crisis, Rahul Gandhi’s lack of a sense of urgency suggests there is no crisis.
Congress members of all ranks are clueless about the course of action.
“The Congress in Maharashtra has collapsed. In Andhra Pradesh, there is nothing left. It has been destroyed in Haryana,” says a former chief minister, who believes the only way forward is from the states up, not in directives the headquarters in Delhi.
People are waiting for Rahul Gandhi to show the way forward. His past experiments have failed, from Congress primaries for Lok Sabha candidate selection in certain constituencies to organisational elections in the Youth Congress.
His promise that no tickets would be given to sons and daughters of political families was not kept.
The inordinate delay to get moving has several chafing.
One of the secretaries -- who was part of the group of 16 which wrote an open letter to seniors to not voice opinions in public but to do so within the party forum -- said: “It is frustrating. I am raring to go but to launch any agitation at the national level, there has to be a programme."
A handful of "young guns" -- Jyotiraditya Scindia, Deepinder Hooda and Gaurav Gogoi -- who were lucky to win their seats despite the ‘Modi wave’ have been fulfilling their role in the Opposition, raising issues in Parliament.
It is here that the Congress initially made its presence felt as Opposition before the Trinamool Congress and the Left recently overshadowed it; outside Parliament, it has been a marginal presence.
"The real issue is shaking up the DNA of a very old party and making it respond like a start-up," said a former MP close to the leadership.
With the Congress not reacting fast enough, workers are a demoralised lot.
Several have quit as in Bengal. The ongoing membership drive has not met the expected response.
The Tamil Nadu unit split in November with former Shipping Minister G K Vasan quitting and floating his own political party, the high command did not understand ground realities in the state.
A Congressman, who has been with the party for three decades, says: “When you have a scenario where even the secular Hindus who had voted Congress for generations, vote for the BJP, you are left without any vote bank. As it is, all the captive vote banks like the tribals have long gone away. The pronounced pro-Muslim bias and appeasement have cost the party heavily.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success at communicating a clear message of development means any strategic or ideological shifts by the Congress will take time to show results.
"Even if we did rejig (state) chiefs and general secretaries right away, we would have to get our messaging right. We have lost the connect with our voters and need to figure out how to communicate with them. The BJP stole a march over us through their misinformation campaign about the Congress," said a former Union minister.
Despite their defence of Gandhi, Congress leaders, middle and senior rungs are not oblivious of his shortcomings. His propensity to favour a handful of "pedigreed" leaders with no mass base is privately questioned.
His non-communicative approach has also drawn flak.
“He will have to change his working style,” said one leader who was part of the marathon deliberations with Gandhi.
"When we were asked, we told him frankly that he needs to meet party workers. Just like Indira Gandhi used to hold a ‘durbar’, he needs to sit at the AICC headquarters frequently and not just at his 12 Tughlaq Lane residence to meet people."
At recent meetings with Rahul, leaders were handed 15-page notes of feedback from other groups and asked to supplement it with their viewpoints. Despite being critical of the “slow pace”, several leaders were impressed with the “thoroughness” of it.
Thus far, the fightback against the BJP has been in the form of individual initiatives such as State chief and former Union minister Sachin Pilot’s in Rajasthan where the party wrested three of the four seats in the assembly by-polls after adeptly riding frustration to changes in the schooling system and other hastily pushed changes.
The Congress is confident of doing well in the panchayat polls next month.
“I am 120 per cent sure that in another four years the Congress will make a comeback in Rajasthan,” says Pilot.
Nationwide, the onus is on the Gandhi scion to create a blueprint for not only on organisational revamp but also the core message of the party and what it stands for.
The irony is, as a former chief minister points out, the party can only be rebuilt in the states as Pilot is doing and he himself intends to.
“The sustenance can no longer come from Delhi,” he says.
The Congress is thus caught in a Catch-22 situation. While believing that the senior leadership does not have what it takes to resurrect the party, members at the same time are often heard repeating, “It’s the Gandhi family that holds the party together”.