On Wednesday, senior leader Kapil Sibal held a solitary press conference in the context of the ongoing political imbroglio in the Punjab Congress. He asked his party for accountability from within. The party is at its lowest ebb since independence, and has not had a full-time president since the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It has lost at least three state governments in the last 16 months. It is still the only Opposition party in Parliament with governments in three states, yet rival political parties are poaching Congress leaders across the country. Some leaders have left the Congress even after winning elections on its tickets.
The crisis is compounded by the many allegations the Congress faces, from nepotism to going soft on Hindutva. Yet it seems to be trying to escape from the shackles of this image trap. In his speeches, party leader Rahul Gandhi has often openly targeted crony capitalism and communal fascism. Recent changes suggest it is also in hot pursuit of ground-level workers to fill vacant posts. Work at the grass-roots level and youthfulness appear to be the qualifications Rahul and his sister, party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, seek in new appointees. These newcomers are getting responsible positions, even if they are not from the Congress fold or joined it recently.
The tremendous challenge in reviving its electoral fortunes begins with finding leaders experienced in political struggles that focus on fundamental concerns of the country and people. The Congress has a national character, so, when it picked Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit leader, as the Chief Minister of Punjab, the country noticed. Now, former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani have joined the party. But the social justice plank, induction of leaders from other parties, and aggressive secularism creates contradictions and dissension, within the party and vis-a-vis allies—in other words, these have made made many party stalwarts uneasy.
Perhaps the Congress has no choice but to find new leaders, considering many erstwhile bigwigs have left it. Former Punjab chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh, who once called himself a true Congressman, recently rebelled. Former MLA Laliteshpati Tripathi, the great-grandson of Kamalapati Tripathi, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has also quit. More leaders with an elite background, scions of prominent and influential families, are said to be looking for new homes. Those firming up deals elsewhere are switching sides.
Many in the party ask whether the Congress will gain voters from the new workers it is picking up, considering the veterans with heft and visibility are quitting. At the same time, many new-generation workers inducted in the party, especially in Uttar Pradesh, have long experience in peoples struggles. Several were part of Left outfits, which schooled them in on-ground movements. However, there is discomfort within the Congress over whether this “experiment” should have started while Assembly elections loom.
It is despite these questions and apprehensions that the process of change in the Congress party is in full swing. During a meeting with journalists just before the 2014 General Election, Rahul had said that the Congress would look completely different in the coming days. He could not complete this task for five years. From 2014 to 2019, the headline-grabbing “Team Rahul” included Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Deepender Hooda and Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, among others. Of these, Scindia and Prasada have joined the BJP and become ministers in the Modi and Yogi governments.
Then, in 2019, an abysmal performance in the general election renewed demands for a “major surgery” of the party. Some veterans pacified those uneasy in its ranks by arguing against offloading sailors from a sinking ship. Rahul resigned as party president soon after, but other office-bearers were unprepared to give up their positions. He himself was angry over the lack of support from prominent party leaders over the issues he raised.
Earlier, too, the media vigorously discussed the group of 23 Congress leaders (G23), who told the top leadership to change its strategy. Rahul then addressed social media workers of the party, saying, “There are many people who are not scared, but they are outside the Congress party. All these people are ours, bring them in. And those who are scared within our party are free to leave. They are RSS people and they should go.” There was a lot of panic within the party after this statement.
With the new people, most of them in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul is trying to introduce organisational changes that reflect his unabashed opposition to the RSS-BJP worldview. (He has often called the BJP’s politics as communal and its government casteist or anti-people.) The current Uttar Pradesh president Ajay Kumar Lallu belongs to a backward class. He was a labourer before he got elected as an MLA. He worked for a long time in Noida and Gurgaon. Similarly, Dinesh Singh, the general secretary in charge of the party’s state organisation, was earlier an AISA leader in Allahabad University. He was with the CPI(ML) for a long time but actively associated with the Congress party a few years ago. The deputy head of the party’s media department, Dr Pankaj Srivastava, was with the Jan Sanskriti Manch (JSM). He contested the student union president election in Allahabad University and worked in TV channels too. Shahnawaz Alam, who heads the minority department, led the Rihai Manch for a long time and agitated against the arrest of innocents. He joined the Congress party three or four years ago. Organisation secretary Anil Yadav was with the Rihai Manch too.
Similarly, general secretary Sarita Patel has been fighting on issues related to students, youth, and tribals in Purvanchal, including Varanasi. She was an office-bearer of the student union at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth. The state vice-president Vishwa Vijay Singh ran a movement to save the Aami river in Gorakhpur that brought him in touch with Rahul Gandhi. Radheshyam Yadav, the secretary in the OBC department, worked for many years among the tribals in Allahabad (Shankargarh). Ramraj Gond, a tribal youth, has been entrusted with the Sonbhadra district. Before this, he was an officer in the state unit. That is not all. Ritu Singh, who fought back goons in the Pasgawan block of Lakhimpur during the recent Panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh, left the Samajwadi Party for the Congress. After the attack on Ritu, Priyanka Gandhi had visited her house.
Most of the new people Congress has inducted or handed responsibilities are from ordinary families; neither the sons and daughters of wealthy parents nor those who inherited politics from their families. The party is linking people from the ground with itself based on ideological honesty and political stamina.
After becoming the general secretary, Rahul ran a “Talent Hunt” program for the Youth Congress in 2007. The programme had many educated youths get associated with the party. But soon, they faded out. This time, before newcomers get roles within the organisation, they get scanned for their democratic, secular and social justice credentials. It wants to affirm social justice in the organisation and in its governments. It is in power in only three states, but Punjab’s newly-appointed Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi belongs to a Dalit community, while Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel are OBCs.
The pace at which the Congress is losing leaders is alarming. It means future national alliances will be hard to cobble up. Its national character and history also do not match the ground reality of depleting electoral fortunes, but if Uttar Pradesh is the model, there may still be hope.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.