Central Leadership Gets a Bad Rap, But the Roots of Congress's Problems Lie in States

While conversation has been focused on the Gandhis resigning, recent happenings across the party's state units point to the root of the problem.

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New Delhi: The Congress’s troubles in keeping its house in order just don’t seem to go away.

The central leadership in the last Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting decided to hold a “Chintan Shivir” soon and reassured its members of an election to choose its new president by August, in a clear attempt to placate the so-called G-23 group of dissenters. However, the recent crises for the party in states like Jharkhand and Maharashtra signal that the roots of Congress’s problems may lie elsewhere – in the states. 

Congress’s current leaderships in states have failed in containing multiple layers of dissatisfaction and resentment, even as its tried-and-tested organisational framework designed to be democratic has been ineffective in building the party at the grassroots. In the recent past, the party has heavily depended upon a few leaders who have managed to retain their positions and stature in the organisation. They have, however, miserably failed in doing the tasks expected of them. 

In the process, the party has been reduced to fiefdoms of the PCC chiefs, who may have access to the central leadership but are no more than paperweights as far as their influence among the electorate is concerned. 

Having faced a series of defeats over the last seven years, it has lost many of its leaders and cadres to the BJP. Resultantly, enthusiasm among cadres is at its lowest ever, even as there has been no attempt on the part of states’ leadership to energise the party. The state leadership, barring a few exceptions like Karnataka’s D.K. Shivakumar or Telangana’s A. Revanth Reddy or to an extent Gujarat’s Jagdish Thakore, have largely ignored this fundamental problem of the Congress either out of sheer complacency or factional political practice. 

Also read: The Congress Is Doomed Unless It Moves Away From the ‘Three of Us’

Infighting in the party is only bound to grow in such a situation, where each leader is looking to secure her own interests rather than those of the party. Even as dissenters and political observers seek a change in Congress’s central leadership, they have missed this crucial point. One may ask whether a new president can guarantee a complete revamping of the party, which has so far only drowned itself further in patronage politics. What is the likelihood that the new leadership doesn’t end up promoting yet another hue of factional politics? 

In such a state of affairs, the debate on whether the Gandhis should go or not sounds immaterial.

State units in disarray

Recent developments in most states, be it in those where it is in the opposition or those where it is in power or have a share in power, point towards an existential crisis for the party. To be sure, this plight is not solely because of the defeats it has had to face in recent times. 

Let us look at a few instances where the state leadership only made a mess out of the party’s prospects. Punjab is the first state that comes to mind, where animosity between PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and other top leaders of the party, including its chief ministerial candidate Charanjit Singh Channi, was so loud that voters almost felt compelled to distance themselves from the Congress. 

Navjot Singh Sidhu and Charanjit Singh Channi. In the background are Congress supporters holding aloft the party flag. Photos: Twitter and File. Illustration: The Wire

Ever since the grand-old party secured a thumping majority in Chhattisgarh, factions led by chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and state health minister T.S. Singhdeo haven’t missed a chance to take a swipe at each other. As a result, the infighting has brought greater attention to the Congress than Baghel’s own achievements as the chief minister.

Over the last two years, there were many incidents in which Singhdeo-supporting MLAs camped in Delhi to assert their weight against the chief minister. Mohan Markam, as the PCC president, hasn’t shown any inclination to step up and quell the discord in the party, and is probably content with his position as the chief of a party that is in power. 

Also read: ‘Out With the Gandhis’ a Cry of Despair; With No Obvious Replacement, Cure May Be Worse than Disease

D.K. Shivakumar, as the PCC president of Karnataka, has emerged as a fighter and has taken on the ruling BJP on practically every issue by mobilising party members on the streets. And so has former chief minister Siddaramaiah. However, no one in the central leadership has addressed the elephant in the room, which is the constant power tussle between the two top leaders in the state. 

Similarly, the appointment of Jagdish Thakore, known for his agitational approach to politics, as the Gujarat Congress chief was received with great enthusiasm among party members. However, it is also fairly known that he has failed to get the support of a large section of state Congress leaders, who would any day be happier in taking him down than considering the party’s prospects in the upcoming assembly elections.

In Maharashtra, Nana Patole’s appointment as the PCC chief was seen as a temporary arrangement to have a consensus candidate at the top – a political move to appease different factions of the state Congress instead of actually handing over the state leadership. How is it surprising, then, that 22 of the 44 Congress MLAs in the state flew down to Delhi to complain against their party ministers? Most of the dissenters have said that the Congress legislators have been getting “secondary treatment” by coalition partners Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party. They also accused the Congress ministers in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government of “non-cooperation”. 

A similar episode has been unfolding in Jharkhand too. More than half of the 16 Congress MLAs in the Hemant Soren-led government have openly rebelled against the four Congress ministers. They have quoted Rahul Gandhi’s “one leader, one position” formula to dissent against PCC chief Rameshwar Oraon, who is also a minister in Soren’s cabinet.

Some observers say that most of these dissenters are young and ambitious and want a share in power. The rebels have made their intentions as clear as possible by demanding that each minister should have a tenure of only 2.5 years to accommodate other MLAs. Oraon, on the other hand, has chosen to be tight-lipped about the crisis under his leadership. Avinash Pande, who was appointed as the general-secretary in-charge for the state after the exit of R.P.N. Singh to the BJP, has been struggling to contain the resentment within the party. 

Similar uninspiring appointments have also been made in most other states, where the central leadership had to contend between choosing a charismatic and dedicated leader or strike a middle ground to placate all factions in the party by appointing a consensus candidate. 

Most PCC presidents in the recent past, except Navjot Singh Sidhu, are dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen. However, they have lost their ability to inspire party ranks as well as the electorate. Moreover, most of them have failed to understand the system of BJP’s political dominance, both ideologically and organisationally. Neither have they focussed on increasing the party’s reach in the hinterland, nor have shown any inclination to lead from the front. 

The latest implosion in Jharkhand and Maharashtra points to an overall lack of coordination between the party’s central and state leaderships. Following the disastrous performance in the recently-concluded assembly elections, Sonia Gandhi appears to have taken matters in her own hands in what seems like an intention to correct the course. She has PCC chiefs in all the five states that went to the polls. She has given ample indications that the final authority rests with her in what seemed to be a strong message to state units and leaders who have attempted to question her role. She has also been having back-to-back meetings with Congress MPs and exhorted leaders to speak in one voice and come across as a united force. 

However, her appeal until now, as incidents in at least two states where it has a share in power, appears to have been paid no heed.