Two Years Since Leadership Crisis, Congress’s Bigger Trouble Continues To Be From State Units

Many state units are in disarray due to various factors, leading observers to wonder if the delay in electing a president is having a domino effect.

On July 3, 2019, Rahul Gandhi announced in a Twitter post that he has stepped down as the Congress president owing to the party’s poor show in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections. Two years later, while the Congress’s top leadership crisis continues to be unresolved – it is yet to appoint a full-time president, its bigger cause of worry is from the state units, many of which are in disarray.

The Congress, which has a chief minister in only three states, is battling internal challenges on multiple fronts in several states. This includes factional fights in states where it is in power, like Punjab and Rajasthan; a failure to revamp its organisational structure in poll-bound Goa and Gujarat; as well as electoral marginalisation in politically crucial Uttar Pradesh.

These troubles come in the backdrop of seven states – including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat – going to the polls next year. While party leaders say that they are putting together state specific strategies to address different issues and that internal elections have been delayed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are of the view that the Congress’s mounting troubles could further precipitate if the top leadership crisis is not resolved soon.

The party is currently headed by its interim chief and longest-serving party president, Sonia Gandhi. Its top decision making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), in a meeting in May unanimously decided to postpone elections to the post of Congress president until the COVID-19 situation improves in the country. Prior to this announcement, elections were scheduled to take place on June 23.

P.L. Punia, the party’s spokesperson, said, “The Congress had begun the process (to hold internal elections) but it got disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If not for that, our election schedule would have been on time and Rahul Gandhi would have been chosen as the party president. As far as issues in states are concerned, the top leadership including him are doing all they can to deal with the different issues.”

Spotlight on Punjab, but others in crisis too

Amidst a delay in internal elections, the Congress continues to face troubles from its state units. Over the past few weeks, the spotlight has been on Punjab, where chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and former state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu have been at loggerheads. With elections less than seven months away, the central leadership set up a three-member committee to look into these issues.

In an interview with The Wire last month, Punjab’s state unit chief Sunil Jakhar said that the public spat between the two leaders was ‘unfortunate’ and that a certain degree of restraint was needed on both sides. Senior party leaders are of the opinion that the party could announce organisational changes, either in the state unit or the state government, or both, to accommodate some dissenting leaders.

Amarinder Singh (L) and Navjot Singh Sidhu. Photo: PTI/Files

Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and the vice chancellor of the Bhopal-based Jagran Lakecity University, told The Wire that there is an “organic link” between the two issues.

“Unless the top leadership issue is not settled at the national level, the party will continue to face trouble in key states. The top leadership is no longer winning elections for the party, which means the high command does not command the authority it once did. The leadership at the top is consumed by the cause of keeping the party together,” he said.

Like Punjab, repeated murmurs of dissent in Rajasthan have been a cause of concern. Last year, the party averted a political crisis which threatened the stability of the Ashok Gehlot-led state government. Shastri added that similarly, in the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala, the party is faced with factional fights which are likely to spiral further.

In four out of seven states where elections are scheduled to take place next year, the Congress is in a direct contest with its principal political rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is the incumbent, it is a battle for prestige, as general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is in charge of the state.

Manickam Tagore, the party’s Lok Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, said, “There are elections after 2022 which will be directly against the BJP. There are states with a three-cornered fight between Congress, BJP and regional parties. We are concentrating on those in a different way. The idea is that there is no one-size-fit-all strategy.”

“When the Congress [internal] election is held, Rahul Gandhi should be elected as the president because that is the feeling of all party workers,” he added.

Tagore is also in charge of the party’s Telangana unit. Interestingly, in a series of expected organisational changes, the Congress last week announced an overhaul of its Telangana state unit. In some other states – poll bound Gujarat, Goa, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – too, organisational changes are underway. Others are awaiting them.

In Goa for instance, where the Congress had emerged as the single largest party after the 2017 elections, it is out of power and riddled with internal factionalism and worried about turncoats. In July 2019, ten Congress MLAs, led by the leader of opposition in the assembly, merged with the ruling BJP, lending more strength to the incumbent party.

Girish Chodankar, president of the Congress’ Goa unit, told The Wire that he believes Sonio Gandhi and the senior leaders who assist her are handling “all state related issues” and that he doesn’t think that is an issue. “However, I do feel that if Rahul Gandhi took charge, there would be an added benefit for the party. It will give the party more courage,” he said. Chodankar added that the party’s central leadership ‘has made it very clear’ that no defector will be given a ticket.

The Congress currently has chief ministers in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh while it is part of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. In the recent assembly elections to five states, it failed to open its account in West Bengal, could not wrest power in Assam and Kerala, lost in Puducherry, but was part of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition which formed the government in Tamil Nadu.

Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports on the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.