Analysis | 2020, a year of turbulence for Congress

Uncertainty over an effective leadership has had an adverse impact both in terms of electoral outcomes and leadership in States

A rare act of public defiance by leaders who were always considered as loyalists of the first family, a high profile switch over and the collapse of an elected government in the Hindi heartland of Madhya Pradesh, a string of electoral losses and a few holidays in between.

As 2020 comes to a close, critics may sum up the performance of the party under the Gandhis in less than 50 words.

Historian Ramachandra Guha has repeatedly argued for the Congress to look beyond its first family.

But the party has offered several arguments — from the Gandhis being a glue to keep all factions together to them being the most recognisable face accepted by the rank and file — to explain its reliance on the Gandhis for leadership.

In August 2019, nearly three months after Rahul Gandhi stepped down as the party president following the Lok Sabha debacle, Congress leaders after a series of meetings including several rounds of dramatic Congress Working Committee (CWC) urged Sonia Gandhi to take over the post as interim president.

When the party was going through turbulence, only a member of the Gandhi family can keep the ship from rocking, they argued.

Two events in 2020, however, challenge this argument completely. First, Jyotiraditya Scindia, perceived to be among the closest friends of Mr. Gandhi, switched over to the BJP in March and that subsequently caused the collapse of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

Then came the letter by the group of 23 dissenters (G-23) in August, many of whom have been long time loyalists of the Gandhi family.

For example, in March 1998, Ghulam Nabi Azad was part of the group of CWC members who forced then Congress president Sitaram Kesri to tender his resignation in favour of Ms. Gandhi.

Mr. Kesri was reported to have been locked up in a room in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters to facilitate Ms. Gandhi’s takeover as the party chief.

Now, Mr. Azad is part of the G-23 that is talking about “collective leadership” in which the Gandhi family will be an “integral part”. More importantly, the group has also asked for an “active and full time leadership” to take on the BJP-RSS combine.

Though Mr. Gandhi has been steadfast in his opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy, his consistency on the field has been a matter of debate.

His absence from the party’s 136th Foundation Day last Monday may have been to convey his reluctance for the top job — Randeep Surjewala though officially claimed that he was away to meet an ailing relative and 99.9 % back Mr. Gandhi as party chief — but it certainly made for bad optics.

And the uncertainty over an effective leadership has had an adverse impact both in terms of electoral outcomes and leadership in States.

While the Congress was blamed as the weakest link in the Mahagathbandhan that eventually cost the latter the Assembly polls in Bihar, its unlikely ally in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena, has been talking about the party’s ineffective leadership of the Opposition parties.

From Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat to poll-bound Assam, the party has also seen desertion by elected lawmakers.

On December 19, the Congress announced that it would go for a chintan shivir [brainstorming session] after a meeting of senior leaders including key members of G-23 at Ms. Gandhi’s residence.

Going forward, the Congress must realise that it has a responsibility to be an effective Opposition voice for the nearly 20% of the Indian electorate who voted for them in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and must put its house in order.

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