Home >News >India >Congress at a crossroads, faces leadership challenge

Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan was abuzz with Congress leaders and workers on 14 December morning as the party held a political rally that was addressed by its entire top brass. There were many firsts to the rally, including it being the first since the defeat of the party in the Lok Sabha elections six months ago and the first since Congress president Sonia Gandhi returned to the top post.

However, many within the party and its supporters feel that the rally was the attempt of the Congress to put the political spotlight back on former party president Rahul Gandhi. Senior leaders and experts say that if one word could sum up the party’s tryst with the decade that goes by and the challenges that it will face in the decade set to begin, it is leadership.

Electorally, the decade was bad news for the Congress. It faced a historic defeat in 2014 and its second worst in 2019, which eventually led to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It also lost more than a dozen state elections since 2014. Organizationally, its support base eroded further in the Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, even as most of its state units continued to battle infighting.

The Congress is in power in Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh and is in an alliance government with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham in the Union territory of Puducherry. It has been wiped out of power in the North-East with a gradual rise of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the region.

For the Congress, the decade began just after it had returned to power in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, the situation soon changed drastically for the party. As the anti-corruption agitation peaked, the UPA was embroiled in controversies and its image took a serious hit with Union ministers resigning over corruption charges in 2013.

“Every year and decade is an experience. After 2013, for nearly the next five years it has been more or less electorally gloomy for us, of course with the exception of December last year when we won in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh and the alliances that we struck in states such as Maharashtra. I would say the 2014 verdict was on expected lines but 2019 was not. We expected to do much better than what eventually happened," a senior Congress leader who served as a Union minister during the second UPA tenure said, requesting anonymity.

“It is a fact that eventually Rahul Gandhi will have to come back to the top post not just because Sonia Gandhi’s health will not permit her to have a long tenure but also because his return echoes the sentiments of the average party worker. Eventually, he has to lead from the front as gradually there is a view that only he can take on Modi," said the leader cited above.

The party has come a full circle with the decade beginning with Sonia Gandhi at the top post and with her in the forefront yet again as the decade ends. The only exception to the decade has been the two year presidentship of Rahul Gandhi who tried to effect changes within the party to balance the old guard and the young blood but only to resign earlier this year, taking ownership of the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

“If one has to identify a singular problem that affected the Congress in this decade, it has to be leadership. Earlier in the decade it was only about the problem in leadership but there was clarity on ideology. Now it has got much more messed up and complicated because a lack of clarity on the ideological position is evident on a number of issues such as the dilemma over soft Hindutva versus secularism, views on imposition of Article 370 or even the alliance with the Shiv Sena," said Sanjay Kumar, director at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

“There has to be clarity about the top leadership and it cannot keep going in a cyclical manner.This does not help the party. The Congress needs to select a new face to lead it in the changing times and in the face of newer challenges. Not just among the common voters but within the Congress too Rahul Gandhi’s acceptance seems to have gone down. Appointing him again would not help the cause of the Congress in the long run," he said.

The coming decade likely to be more “dim than bright" for the Congress, Kumar said.

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