The Congress must save itself, first - Hindustan Times
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The Congress must save itself, first

May 19, 2022 07:16 PM IST

The Congress’s ad-hoc leadership style has left the party in a state of perpetual inertia. The Udaipur Declaration recognises the urgent need for a revamp. To achieve that, the party needs to make some tough calls

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That famous quote, erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein, exemplifies the state of the Congress over the last decade. Which is why the party’s attempt at reviving itself with a “Chintan Shivir” (brainstorming meeting) has been greeted with scepticism. When a party lurches from one defeat to another without learning lessons, what can a three-day retreat achieve that eight years in the political wilderness have failed to drive home?

Can the Congress afford an incrementalist approach, especially when facing an existential crisis? Perhaps the most candid acknowledgement of the party’s dilemma came from Rahul Gandhi when he admitted that the party’s connection with the people was broken. (ANI) PREMIUM
Can the Congress afford an incrementalist approach, especially when facing an existential crisis? Perhaps the most candid acknowledgement of the party’s dilemma came from Rahul Gandhi when he admitted that the party’s connection with the people was broken. (ANI)

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That famous quote, erroneously attributed to Albert Einstein, exemplifies the state of the Congress over the last decade. Which is why the party’s attempt at reviving itself with a “Chintan Shivir” (brainstorming meeting) has been greeted with scepticism. When a party lurches from one defeat to another without learning lessons, what can a three-day retreat achieve that eight years in the political wilderness have failed to drive home?

Typically, the Congress’s Udaipur Declaration is replete with platitudes but no potentially game-changing idea. For example, it calls on members to imbibe the principles of “Bharatiyata (Indianism)” and “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is one family)” as a counter to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva ideology, but doesn’t specify how it will make “Indian nationalism” appealing to a “new” India.

Take the “revolutionary” introduction of the “one family, one ticket” formula. On the face of it, for a party with so many family trees, this would truly mark a break with a nepotistic past. But the formula comes with a rider: The second family member seeking to contest polls should have worked for the party in an “exemplary manner” for at least five years. This exception keeps the door open for the presiding Gandhi triumvirate and many others to contest elections.

Or, for that matter, the most ground-breaking recommendation is that 50% of party posts will be for those below 50 years at all levels, including the Congress Working Committee (CWC), and there would be a five-year term limit for those holding posts at all levels. The party’s youth committee has even proposed a “retirement age” for all “elected posts”, almost akin to the BJP’s successful margdarshak mandal (guidance panel) concept. But the final resolution doesn’t specify any age ceiling or whether term limits will also extend to those who have been perennial Rajya Sabha nominees. The ambiguity suggests a reluctance to bite the bullet.

Recall that the Congress is perceived as an ageing party where no elections have been held to the CWC since 1998, where the parliamentary board is dysfunctional, where many remain in the same assignment for years despite failures and where Sonia Gandhi has been party chief for almost a quarter-century. In effect, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Can the Congress afford an incrementalist approach, especially when facing an existential crisis? Perhaps the most candid acknowledgement of the party’s dilemma came from Rahul Gandhi when he admitted that the party’s connection with the people was broken.

So how will the party reconnect with the masses? At the Chintan Shivir, the party announced a “Kanyakumari to Kashmir Bharat jodo yatra” from October 2. However, a yatra, invoking Mahatma’s sepia-tinted imagery, is no silver bullet for revival. A successful resurgence demands a compelling narrative, organisational robustness, plentiful resources and charismatic leadership that attracts ordinary citizens. At the moment, the Congress lacks all these and struggles to walk the talk. Rewind to last October when the Congress claimed it was launching a “continuous” agitation against rising fuel prices, even promising padyatras. In the end, there was more clamour on Twitter than on the ground.

Which brings us back to the elephant in the room: Leadership. At the Chintan Shivir, it was evident that Rahul Gandhi is still the de facto leader of the party. While the Gandhi scion describes the party as his “family” and promises to wage a long political struggle against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-BJP ideology, there is uncertainty about whether he can carry the party’s well-entrenched lobbies along with his reformist impulses. The Congress craves power and Rahul’s diffidence in practising power politics means that the party is trapped in pause mode, almost waiting for a miraculous turn in electoral fortunes.

Equally uncertain is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s role in any future power arrangement. Her tryst with the minefield of Uttar Pradesh politics came badly unstuck, but she remains an influential figure in decision-making. But, will she have a more frontal role or allow her brother to take all the significant calls? And what about Sonia Gandhi herself? Will she fade into semi-retirement or remain the mascot who holds a factionalised party together for now?

If BJP is guilty of the politics of “permanent polarisation”, the Congress’s ad-hoc leadership style has left the party in a state of perpetual inertia. The Udaipur Declaration recognises the urgent need for a revamp, but a creaking Ambassador car can’t become a sleek BMW overnight without making some tough calls. Which is why before embarking on any padyatra, the Congress needs to end the self-delusional fantasy that one family alone can “save” India: New India has rejected the politics of entitlement embodied in the old Congress. Forget about saving India, the Congress first needs to save itself by ending the status quoism.

Post-script: In the last eight years, endless obituaries have been written of the Congress. “If we are dead, why do the media still keep obsessing about our future?” a senior Congressman asked me. My response: Because Indian democracy needs a strong Opposition where the Congress, as a pan-India brand, has a crucial role to play.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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