Over the last few years, the Congress has lost control of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa and Manipur – states where it either had won the most seats in state elections or was in a position to remain in government. Not unfairly, the party was criticised for being listless, lacking vision and privileging clueless High Command leaders over the street-smarts of its regional chiefs.
As the party’s crisis in Rajasthan appears to come to an end this week, even if the new arrangement remains to be tested by time, it is clear that the Congress has manage to stave off the loss of yet another state in part by addressing the criticism it had received in the past.
After the revolt staged by Sachin Pilot, a dynastic politician considered close to former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the Congress appeared to put its weight behind Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, whose handle on state politics is much stronger.
In fact, Pilot was removed as both deputy chief minister and head of the state unit of the Congress, a clear sign of disapproval. Yet, even as it sent the message that proximity to Rahul Gandhi would not prevent party leaders from being demoted, the leadership also maintained an open line to Pilot. This was a response to the accusation that it was privileging the old guard at the cost of talented younger leaders.
Both those moves appear to have borne fruit.
Pilot effectively withdrew his rebellion this week, agreeing to let a three-member panel – including Priyanka Gandhi – look into the concerns he has raised. This implied that he would move to the national leadership rather than remain in the state.
Gehlot’s hold on his flock appears to have become stronger. The 18 MLAs who had rebelled with Pilot returned to the fold. The Gehlot government seems likely to comfortably pass a confidence vote, assuming the new arrangement holds.
Supporting the old state leader while persuading young talent not to leave. What more could the Congress ask for?
Plenty. The Congress remains a party with no clear sense of national identity or ideology, former president Rahul Gandhi and his coterie keep suggesting that he will try to become president yet again with little indication of why this time would be different, the leadership rot goes beyond the Gandhi family and the Congress has struggled to develop a response to the immense popularity of Narendra Modi and the spread of Hindu nationalism.
Yet all these challenges might have been multiplied manifold if the party had, just months after losing Madhya Pradesh to Bharatiya Janata Party machinations, fallen out of power in Rajasthan too. For once, the Congress appears to have thwarted a BJP maneuver. Perhaps as importantly, considering how that script has played out in the past, it prevented the emergence of a regional Rajasthan party under Pilot.
Of course, something similar was said when Pilot was made deputy chief minister under Ashok Gehlot in 2018, and that set-up lasted for less than two years before cracking apart at the seams. The same thing may well happen to the current arrangement. But for the moment, the beleaguered Congress has shown that it is capable of stemming the flow, even if it remains a long way from actually infusing new blood and ideas into its leadership.