At the Congress Working Committee meeting on August 24, the old dispiriting spectacle: rumblings of dissent and calls for greater intra-party democracy, the Gandhis turning it into a question of loyalty to them, emotional displays by the faithful renewing their vows to the Gandhis. The Congress is living testimony to the principle that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
It was a week that started with talk of reform. A letter written by 23 senior party leaders became public. It called for sweeping changes, flagging concerns about the Congress’s eroding support base and worker morale, pointing to the need for “effective leadership”, decentralisation of power and elections to party posts.
But at the working committee meeting called to discuss the contents of the letter it was barely discussed at all. Instead, reports suggest, it saw a sustained attack on the dissenting leaders with Rahul Gandhi leading the charge. By the end of the durbar, interim president Sonia Gandhi, who had earlier offered to resign, remained in the post.
Although the Gandhis are believed to have said that a new president should be chosen in six months, they fail to convince. Ever since the Congress’s second Lok Sabha defeat in 2019, the Gandhis have repeatedly protested that they would like to bow out, only to be ushered back to power by loyalists. The old pieties about party reform are trotted out, never to be implemented.
What stopped the Congress from holding elections to party posts over the last year? Why must the Congress high command micromanage state election campaigns, especially when there are competent regional leaders? Why does questioning the Gandhis amount to treason in the Congress party?
It is said that the Congress could implode if it attempts to hold elections, that the Gandhis are the only glue holding together an amorphous party with no clear ideology. But the leadership of the Gandhis is not a pitch that would fetch votes for the Congress. For some years now, it has been evident that the Congress needs to reinvent itself to keep up with the social and political changes that have swept across India. Rapt in its own inner workings, the party has hardly spared a thought for crafting a message that could win back voters.
Which leads to the question of why it matters whether the Congress survives or not. A 135-year-old party with ossified power structures and no new ideas to offer may well be allowed to die. Many have even called for the death of the Congress so as to make space for new parties and political ideas. But, as other commentators point out, India needs a thriving Opposition to act as a check to the rising tide of majoritarianism and the Congress is still the party best placed to provide it.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has taken its massive Lok Sabha mandates as permission to subvert almost every democratic institution that could be a check to its executive and legislative power, to tamper with basic Constitutional values.
For all its flaws, the Congress is the only other party that has a national presence – it won elections in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in Central India, Rajasthan in Western India, and was able to mount a substantial challenge to the BJP in states like Karnataka and Manipur.
Without the Congress, the Opposition will be reduced to a collection of regional parties, often with competing agendas and often amenable to alliances with the BJP. For now, it provides the bipolarity that keeps India from collapsing into what would effectively be one-party rule. But unless the party checks its decline, this may no longer be true. The contents of the letter of dissent need a thorough review.
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