On the face of it, you cannot call this the worst situation the Congress has ever faced in post-Independence India. It has more seats in Parliament than in 2014, managed to stave off the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka last year despite winning fewer seats and even won back three North Indian states from the saffron party.
Yet this certainly feels like an extremely precarious moment for the party. After 2014, there was still the hope that Rahul Gandhi’s ascendance as party president might lead to a resurgence. The victories in assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year only seemed to reaffirm this belief.
But the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections should end any idea that the Nehru-Gandhi scion is the Congress’ answer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The results suggest that the Congress can compete at the state-level, but that Indian voters do not believe Gandhi can be trusted with the reins of power – at least not when he is up against Modi.
Does the Congress understand this?
Rahul Gandhi appeared to have read the signal in the days immediately after the loss, reportedly saying at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee that he wanted to resign as head of the party. The organisation is said to have unanimously rejected this demand, though reports at the time said that Gandhi was adamant about stepping down and even asked why the president had to be from the Nehru-Gandhi family.
But it has been two weeks since then, and the Congress is still unsure where it stands.
Reports of infighting
In various states, it is now facing the spectre of infighting, even as questions remain about what is happening at the top.
- The Karnataka government, being run by an alliance of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), looks to be on extremely shaky territory, with both parties unclear how long the coalition will last.
- The Congress-led Rajasthan government is facing open calls for mutiny, with many claiming that the Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot should step down in favour of Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot. The two have always butted heads, but supporters of Pilot got a boost after Gandhi berated Gehlot for spending more time campaigning for his son than in the rest of the state.
- The Congress-led Punjab government one of the few states where the party actually did well in both state and Lok Sabha elections, is also seeing some infighting with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh attempting to consolidate his position and pull away power from minister Navjot Singh Sidhu.
- In Maharashtra, the Congress and its alliance partner the Nationalist Congress Party fear a large number of defections over to the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance, which would endanger any hopes of blunting the latter’s momentum ahead of state elections later this year.
- In Haryana, former Congress chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has all but demanded the removal of the state Congress president Ashok Tanwar, in a bid to assume the driver’s seat ahead of state elections later this year.
- In Jammu and Kashmir, where assembly elections are expected later this year, many in the Congress have complained about the state leadership as well as the decision to ally with the National Conference.
- And in Telangana, the Congress has nearly disappeared from the state assembly, with 12 of 18 legislators joining Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti.
None of this is aided by indecision at the top, where it is still unclear whether Rahul Gandhi is going to continue as party president.
Fork in the road
The general demand from the senior leadership, which after all was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi, is for him to continue in power. Some have suggested that he at least stick around to conduct an overhaul of the party, which the Congress Working Committee authorised him to do, while giving it time to look for a replacement.
If Rahul Gandhi is adamant on stepping down, some have suggested that his mother Sonia Gandhi should return to be the president, but that the party should have two working presidents who can carry out the job of identifying fresh leadership and reorganising the institution. There has also been talk of reviving a “parliamentary board”, which has not been in place since the early 1990s, that would make decisions if Rahul Gandhi is not in charge.
Missing from all this is a genuine evaluation of where the party went wrong. Some state units have indeed been preparing reports on the Congress debacle. But without clarity about who will actually be looking at these reports, it remains to be seen what level of actual introspection the party will allow itself.
Either way, some sort of decision seems likely over the next week. The first session of the new Parliament begins on June 17, by which time the Congress will need to decide who will be its leader in the Lok Sabha.
Even if Rahul Gandhi has concluded, as seems apparent, that voters do not trust him in a one-on-one contest against Modi, he will face another dilemma: though the next national contest is not for another five years, the Congress needs to get its act together in time to face assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and possibly Jammu and Kashmir later this year.
If he does indeed step down now, will he unleash even more infighting that could endanger any chances of a spirited fight in those states? If he doesn’t, on the pretext that he needs to steady the ship, will he even get another opportunity to leave?