New Delhi: All doesn’t seem to be well in the Congress, India’s oldest political party, which is beset by a growing sense of internal disquiet about the general state of drift and lack of purpose—in both the party and the government of which it is the dominant constituent.
On Monday, law minister Salman Khurshid effectively admitted, in remarks published by The Indian Express, that the party was confronting a leadership vacuum. On Tuesday, Khurshid claimed he had been misinterpreted, but several party insiders, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed what he was quoted as saying in the newspaper.
An analyst said the party urgently needs to fix its internal situation if it wishes to engage the electorate.
“All parties need direction, but the crisis in the Congress is one step beyond that. There is a challenge to its credibility. It should have something to offer to people to excite them,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. “Unless the leadership signals drastic changes, the current arrangement does not have the resources and credibility to deliver.”
The Congress, which returned to power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition in 2009, has been under fire for a series of corruption scandals involving its members or partners. It suffered embarrassing defeats in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa earlier this year. Party president Sonia Gandhi’s illness and prime minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to take up any party or government responsibility, despite pressure from within the Congress, have worsened the party’s prospects.
Two weeks ago, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna said Rahul Gandhi should become part of the government and help solve some of its problems.
Khurshid was quoted as saying in the Express that the party lacked “ideological direction” from Rahul Gandhi, its general secretary. “The fact is that he is undoubtedly and unquestionably the number two leader in the party. Yet he has not taken up the mantle or accepted a functional responsibility. He is so far not willing to accept the number two position. In such a situation, we have to wait. This is a waiting time,” Khurshid was quoted as saying.
Even as Khurshid went red in the face clarifying his comments on Tuesday, four Congressmen, including two cabinet minister, said they agreed with the views attributed to him.
“It is high time that Rahul Gandhi should take the leap. How long can he can be a reluctant politician? If he does not want (to enter the fray), Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) should take a decision to find a successor. This uncertainty cannot continue,” said one of the ministers.
N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been observing the Congress for almost four decades, claimed Khurshid’s remarks “reflected a larger sentiment” among the party leaders. “It has been a long wait (for Rahul Gandhi) and the Congress has become directionless. There is no inspiration like what (former prime ministers) Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi offered,” Rao said.
With almost all its state units in disarray and lack of coordination at the Centre, the Congress faces one of its worst crises despite a weak opposition that has more than its fair share of problems.
In the states where the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is strong, such as Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is almost absent. In many other states, regional parties dominate the political stage.
And even in Andhra Pradesh, where it rules, it is rapidly losing ground to the newly formed YSR Congress, founded by Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of late Congress chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
“The party organization has become so weak that it does not have efficient leaders to send to states for building or revamping the organization. We are facing a major crisis. Unless Rahul Gandhi builds up a fresh team, the crisis will deepen,” said a Congress general secretary.
That, of course, presumes, he is up to the job—something that remains to be seen, according to Mehta.
“He is still an untested leader. We do not know what he is made of.”
But if he doesn’t take charge now, Mehta added, Gandhi may find it difficult to recover lost ground.