Perhaps because we are riveted by the scale of Narendra Modi’s victory and what it portends for our future, we’ve somewhat ignored the crisis in the Congress. Yet it deserves at least as much attention because in the present circumstances, a credible opposition is critical for our democracy. Unfortunately, judging by appearances, the Congress seems to be falling apart. Is this an existential crisis or can the situation be salvaged?
The truth is the Congress has suffered two successive disastrous election defeats. This time in 18 states and union territories it didn’t get a single seat. In the Lok Sabha, it only has 52. So, for a second time, it can’t claim the leadership of the Opposition. But there could be worse in store. Its state governments in Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh look precarious. If they fall, only Punjab and Pondicherry will be left. And finally, since May 25, when Rahul Gandhi said he wanted to resign, the Congress doesn’t really have a leader. And, worse, no one knows what’s being done to either convince him to stay or replace him.
At the moment, this is a party with a vacuum at the top. As a result, faction fights have broken out in Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana. In Telangana and Maharashtra, the party has suffered serious desertions. If the party cannot find a strong leader, there’s a real danger it will continue to splinter and fracture.
Which brings me back to the Rahul Gandhi question. For two weeks and more, since he insisted upon resigning, he’s refused to meet chief ministers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh or central leaders in Delhi. It’s as if he’s gone into a sulk because the party won’t let him go. Unfortunately, this has raised two disturbing questions. First, the uncertainty surrounding him as well as the indecisive nature of his behaviour have added to the doubts about his leadership. They were already serious enough though never expressed by his colleagues in public. Now in defeat, his dithering and uncertain behaviour makes them seem a lot worse. The second question, if anything, is more important. After insisting on resigning, can Rahul Gandhi change his mind? If he does, won’t he lose face? In a sense, doesn’t his honour require that he stick to his word and go?
This leads me to the second part of the Congress’ problem. Even if Rahul Gandhi goes, it won’t resolve the crisis facing the Congress. Few Congressmen believe their party could survive under a non-Gandhi president. It split under Narasimha Rao and people started to desert in droves under Sitaram Kesari. Something similar could easily happen again.
Thus it seems the Gandhis are both the problem and the solution. Whichever way the Congress turns, it faces serious problems. After leading the party to two disastrous defeats, Rahul Gandhi clearly does not have the talent or the political skill to craft a comeback. There’s a high probability he could lead the Congress to a third consecutive defeat. On the other hand, without Rahul Gandhi, the party might steadily fall apart. Despite his personal failings as a leader, he is the glue that holds it together.
In which case, what’s to be done? For now, an interim solution seems most sensible. Perhaps the answer lies in appointing a couple of working presidents or setting up a collegium of senior leaders to run the party alongside Rahul Gandhi. That would give the Congress time to agree upon a longer term resolution of the crisis.
However, an interim solution is hardly the best foundation on which to revive the party’s future. The danger is it could resemble a circus with no one able to crack the whip. But what other option is there?
The truth is the Congress is drowning and badly needs a lifeline. At the moment, it’s helplessly thrashing around in the water and the spectacle is only making matters worse. But the lifeline it needs can only come from itself. It can’t come from outside.