By Harihar Swarup
In 1989 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress party lost the tag of being a “dominant” party. Since then, it has not figured out how to remain competitive in a multi-party, federal polity. As the next Lok Sabha elections are due in 2024, it continues to face challenges that have haunted it over the past three decades and more. While the usual compulsion and hang –ups ensured that the party treaded cautiously on most matters at its Raipur plenary session recently, it at least seemed that the stagnant party moved a little in its journey from Udaipur to Raipur.
While the Congress reneged on its Udaipur promise of holding elections to the party positions, there were at least three achievements of the party. First, between Udaipur and Raipur, though individuals kept leaving the party, Congress could avoid a major split or exodus. Two, it had a president elected through a contest after a long gap and that too from outside the Gandhi family. Three, and potentially most significantly, the party resolved to have half the CWC seats filled from marginalized sections and youth. One suspects that in order to improve its electoral fortunes, the party may have to do a lot more than this.
In view of the challenge of 2024, the party needed to act more earnestly on two fronts: Organisational consolidation and immediate political action for mobilization. This did not happen at Raipur. The dilemmas the party faces on both these fronts are not new and it was listed five years ago (‘letter from Rahul Gandhi’, Economic and Political Weekly, February 18, 2018)
The essence of Udaipur Chintan shivir was the democratization of the functioning of the party. This is neither for merely moral purposes nor only to silence critics. The objective is to revitalize the organization. But at Raipur, the party baulked at the election for CWC membership. Such elections could have helped ensure that the members would truly have a base in the grassroots of the party; it would have also helped in its greater federation.
As it is, the party is short of mass leaders. It badly needs leaders who have the support of not alone their factions or state units but also the ability to reach out to other states and parties. Having elected the party president, giving him the power to nominate CWC members neutralizes the limited representativeness achieved through his election. The party could have easily found a more collective way to make the nominations to ensure that the representative authority was maintained at least minimally. Kharge might informally engage in consultation and might also end up doing the balancing act but that is besides the point. The issue was to ensure a churn in the party, a brainstorming among its top leaders and an ability to bring together competing leaders with many ambitions and then to meditate among them.
Just like elections, the idea of “one family—one post” was also quietly buried. While media wisdom attributes this to the wish to protect the Gandhi family, this has more to do with entrenched interests of many families that control the party units. The term “dynastic politics” is often narrowly understood in terms of top leadership of parties. In reality, this is more about the way local politics is conducted and thwarts the entry of young activists into competitive politics. Therefore, a departure from the Udaipur resolve only shows the hold of powerful families over Congress and its power structures. This will be a crucial bottleneck in any organizational nomination rejuvenation. Kharge, 80, with a politician son, has the historic opportunity to preside over the liquidation of both gerontocracy of family based-politics by not merely making CWC nominations but also forcing an organizational change by bringing in new faces in every state to build the party and take on the BJP.
The Raipur session turned out to be a tame also because of the inability to chart out a clear path of political action beyond big speeches, harsh criticism and pious hopes. It could have indicated a direction in the matter of forging alliances and action programmes for local units. Through the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi had make it sure that a broader social and political coalition could be possible. That was a template for a more concrete and yet humble statement on a non-BJP coalition. But it appears that both Rahul and the Party are yet to hit the right formula of coalition making in face of a ruthless competitor. On the other hand, the old hang- up that the Congress is a larger and all-India party still dominates their thinking. (IPA Service)