For the past month or so, India has witnessed a growing swell of protests against the Narendra Modi government’s stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Cutting across all sorts of social divisions, citizens have been vocal in their opposition of a new law, a new policy drift that seems to strike at the country’s constitutional commitment to diversity and inclusion. At one such nationwide student protest in the second week of December, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra tried to join a group of protesters assembled at Delhi’s India Gate. She was booed away.
The message was categorical: even while taking on the Modi-led BJP government, the young protesters were not willing to throw in their lot with the Congress or any other political party. Since parties are hard to separate from their leaders, it was also possibly an implicit distrust of the political leaders, even when ranged against the same adversary.
The Congress is the only pan-India opposition force against the BJP, and yet the party seems unable to find any leaders outside the Nehru-Gandhi family with a pan-India appeal. Even while affirming that the Nehru-Gandhis are still by far the Congress’s best hopes, the majority of respondents (58 per cent) in the latest india today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) poll said the party was battling its gravest leadership crisis ever.
Following the Congress’s dismal performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll-52 seats, marginally better than the 44 won in 2014-Rahul resigned as party president, taking responsibility for the rout. It was not only a rare gesture from a Nehru-Gandhi family member, who had so far been insulated from blame for electoral debacles, it also offered the Congress an opportunity to explore leadership beyond the dynastic tradition.
Several young leaders, such as Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia, even made veiled attempts to initiate an election to choose the next president. Even veterans like Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh argued in favour of a young party chief. After dilly-dallying for three months, the Congress, however, handed the reins back to Sonia, exposing the bankruptcy of non-Nehru-Gandhi options. As evident in the MOTN poll, no other Congress leader is seen to have the ability to revive the party. Sonia’s appointment was supposed to be interim but, five months on, the Congress is yet to elect a new leader.
As the poll suggests, bringing Sonia back was perhaps the party’s best alternative. Nearly half the respondents rated her performance as interim Congress president to be good/ outstanding. Also, 49 per cent respondents felt a Nehru-Gandhi family member was best suited to lead or revive the party-up from 29 per cent in the August 2019 MOTN poll. Nearly a fourth of the respondents said Rahul was the best candidate to lead the party, as against 11 per cent in the previous MOTN poll.
With or without the Nehru-Gandhis, the Congress currently has enough reason to feel upbeat. In the past five months, the party has joined the government as a coalition partner in Maharashtra and Jharkhand-states earlier ruled by the BJP. In Haryana, it gave the BJP a close fight last October, and many argue that victory eluded it simply because infighting in the state unit was not brought under control in time. Interestingly, the Congress was routed in these three states in the Lok Sabha election, winning just two of the 72 seats.
This trend is in line with the dichotomy the Congress has experienced since December 2018, when it came to power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by defeating the incumbent BJP. The challenge for the Congress now is to replicate its recent successes in other states. The BJP’s unrelenting attack on the Congress and its legacy proves it still recognises the party as the only serious challenger. The Congress leadership must now live up to that potential.