Is the Congress having a meltdown? By now, we in the media should have turned our attention to reporting on the new government and beginning the process – our job – of holding it accountable. So, too, should have the Opposition. But when a country is in danger of altogether losing a cogent Opposition, we should all be worried.
While BJP president Amit Shah is already pushing the party to open battle in the remaining bastions of BJP resistance – Kerala and Tamil Nadu – the Congress leadership is by turns paralysed and inexplicably arrogant. All talk of Rahul Gandhi’s resignation appears to have been placed in suspended animation. Meanwhile, in possibly her worst gaffe in this election season, his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decided to blame a section of party workers for the humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh. That she warned an already depleting party cadre without first taking any responsibility herself – or on behalf of her brother – made the comment nothing short of feudal. And while there are no absolute endings in politics, it has been a rude reality check on the much-hyped “Priyanka phenomenon”. While her supporters have argued that she wasn’t given enough time and was unveiled at the wrong moment, and without a plan, none of that explains the sort of entitlement and political naivete that such statements display.
Congress leaders argue that there can be no party without the Gandhi family; that it is the glue that holds them together. If so, it points to a structural crisis within the organisation. Within their own fold is an example to emulate, and that is of Sachin Pilot. While he, too, could have been branded a dynast, the reason that he has successfully escaped the judgement of that label is because he visibly uprooted his life in Delhi and moved bag and baggage to Rajasthan. Since the results – an extreme embarrassment coming so soon after the win in the assembly elections – Pilot has returned to the road to renew a mass contact programme with the people. By contrast, Rahul Gandhi is still to visit Amethi, where he lost and his sister has ranted at even those who helped them win in Rae Bareli. Yet, in the present structure of the party, where the Gandhi family controls the party as if it were private real estate, it is impossible for a Pilot to rise to the top of the hierarchy.
This inexplicable attitude of a right to rule was also on display when the siblings decided to pose with Navjot Sidhu, the recalcitrant rebel of Punjab, in a visible undermining of Amarinder Singh’s authority. Why would you publicly snub the one state satrap who delivered you a handsome result in these Lok Sabha polls? It is reminiscent of how the Congress lost Himanta Biswa Sarma, and before that Jaganmohan Reddy, from the deluded belief that it is entirely in the hands of the Gandhi family to make or break political careers.
Other Opposition leaders like Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee are also making fatal mistakes. The negative volatility with which she has responded to slogans of Jai Shri Ram or her handling of the doctors’ agitation are all betraying signs of deep anxiety and political unravelling.
In Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal miscalculated his prospects in the election and cannot take the assembly performance for granted.
In Uttar Pradesh, cracks have appeared in the relationship between Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati.
And the Left of course is all but done.
But no democracy can function without an assertive Opposition. So what is the answer? At this moment, if the Opposition had any humility or common sense, it would all merge into a common party or platform. Not an alliance or a gathbandhan (coalition); but a single entity where the leadership should then be decided by a process of internal elections. What could this platform be? Well, the Congress could be reborn as a new group that brings Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Reddy – maybe even Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar – on the same page. That would also address the criticism of the Congress being reduced to the party of one family. For this to happen, however, the Gandhis must give up control and get out of the way. They must be ready to be merely one of many.
India desperately needs a new Opposition. Among the available options, this can only emerge if one of the existing regional leaders develop a national footprint or if the Congress is reorganised to be a newly born melange of assertive state chieftains.
If Narendra Modi’s mega mandate isn’t enough to shake them out of their stupor, they must ready for political extinction.