COLUMN: What are Congress’ post-Rahul options?

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Battered by the party’s second-worst defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, Congress Chief Rahul Gandhi is most likely to submit his resignation at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on Saturday. The Congress scion, who took ‘100 percent responsibility’ for the embarrassing loss in the polls, has insisted on resigning as the party boss.

While demands for his resignation have gained momentum since May 23, questions have being raised on who will take the top position. Will the grand old party deliberate on a leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or insist on its usual choices- Rahul, Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi?

Not many gave Rahul Gandhi a shot at becoming Prime Minister. But many hoped that he would emerge as a ‘challenger’ to Narendra Modi. However, he has failed to deliver the result, calling for deep introspection. The Congress President even lost his traditional stronghold, his ‘karmabhoomi’, Amethi, to Smriti Irani.

None of Rahul Gandhi’s tactics against Modi and his party seemed to have really worked. While BJP focused its campaign on ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign was mainly based on the rather negative-sounding ‘chowkidaar chor hai’ slogan targeting Narendra Modi’s character.

THE GREAT FALL

Congress, which has ruled India for 55 years since 1947, is struggling to maintain the title of the chief opposition party at the Lower House of the Parliament.

The 180-year-old party, which had won 364 seats in the first general election in 1951, has been now reduced to just 52 seats in 2019. The party’s vote share has also more than halved since 1951, managing to win only 19% of votes, compared to the 45% in 1951. Apart from Kerala and Punjab, the party has suffered embarrassing defeats in all other states.

The party, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, has failed on many fronts. It could not position Rahul Gandhi as a worthy challenger to PM Modi.

It also seemed to have failed to convince the electorate about Modi’s weak-points, including demonetisation, crony capitalism and rising unemployment. Neither could the Congress capitalise on its wins in recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. It also seemed to have failed miserably to sell its flagship ‘NYAY’ scheme to the masses.

From questioning the authenticity of the surgical strikes after the 2016 Uri attack and the more recent Balakot airstrikes to failing to highlight issues like demonetisation, agrarian crisis, fuel hikes, unemployment and the economic slowdown, Congress party has in a way responsible for its own losses.

CONGRESS SHOULD THINK BEYOND DYNASTY POLITICS

The great legacy of the Gandhi-Nehru family has proven to be a bane for the Congress party for more than ten years. BJP banked on allegations of ‘family run business’ to woo voters during its campaigns.

Even though the Congress has had many non-family presidents including PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari; Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi together have been party presidents for more than 38 year since 1947.

After taking up the party’s reins from his mother Sonia Gandhi in 2014, Rahul Gandhi promised to establish Congress as a power to reckon with in Indian politics. Apart from stitching a last-minute alliance with JD(S) in Karnataka and recent assembly election wins in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress scion has no achievements to boast of.

In hindsight,  it would seem that the grand-old party made a huge mistake by betting on Rahul Gandhi as a challenger to PM Modi as he failed to energise the party and its workers.

IF NOT RAHUL, THEN WHO?

If the CWC accepts Rahul’s resignation, the party will be faced with the question of ‘who’s next’. The first choice will be, of course, his sister Priyanka Gandhi.

But given the fact that Priyanka has failed in her stint as AICC general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, they might be looking for more flexible option.

Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi might be looking for a low-profile leader, loyal and non ambitious, to take over the party’s reins till 2024 and step down in favor of Rahul, should the desire arise. In other words, Congress needs an Amit Shah equivalent.

While leaders like P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal may have the talent, they are also seen as ambitious.

On the other hand, leaders like Manmohan Singh, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Ashok Gehlot, Mallikarjun Kharge, AK Antony and Ghulam Nabi Azad are known family loyalists who may be willing to do a ‘sacrifice’ for the family.

However, Manmohan Singh, who was elected Prime Minister for the first time in 2004 after Sonia Gandhi unexpectedly relinquished the post, is not a mass leader who can re-energize party workers and rebuild the party.

Randeep Singh Surjewala, a close friend of the Gandhi family, is known for his organisational skills and administration abilities. Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad are also potential candidates to steady the party at this hour, without threatening the family’s position.

In the absence of a strong and powerful leader, Congress, swept by the Modi tsunami, will find it very hard to emerge as a challenger in 2024 Lok Sabha Polls, or in the number of state elections before that.

The party needs a thorough restructuring to end its losing streak, and will have to think beyond dynasty politics and nepotism to gain the trust of the people.

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