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Congress, the oldest political party of the country, is once again in the news due to internal politicking. Is this the usual struggle between new and old, or should it be considered as a clamour to change an antiquated structure, like all old parties?

Congress is not the only political party going through internal problems. Assembly elections are to be held soon in Bihar and the main Opposition party Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is seething with discontent there. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, one of the old guard of the party, is dissatisfied with the current leader Tejashwi Yadav. If the situation does not improve immediately, he may change the side with some other leaders. The process of changing political address has already begun. Six RJD MLAs and five legislative council members have so far held the Janata Dal (United) flag of Nitish Kumar. Not only this, Jeetan Ram Manjhi, who was critical of the chief minister till recently, has also met Nitish Kumar. This has triggered parleys on the new political upheaval.

The biggest problem of personality-based political parties is that as soon as the supreme leader comes down the slope the organization starts to wither away. Not only Samajwadi Party and RJD, but Shiv Sena and a number of regional parties are examples of this. More than five decades have passed, Congress has continuously grown in the shadow of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Indira Gandhi got the chair after the sudden demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri. She chose Sanjay Gandhi as her heir after seizing power and organization. Even after she lost the election to the Janata Party in 1977, Sanjay and his supporters did not lose heart. They struggled on the streets. Indira Gandhi’s experience and Sanjay’s enthusiasm brought her back to power in less than three years.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air crash, Rajiv Gandhi had to jump into the political playground in 1981 with a somewhat disinclined attitude. When he was just learning the political alphabets, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984. He became the Prime Minister immediately and even led the Congress to win the next general elections. But controversies soon surrounded Rajiv and he was overthrown by the newly formed Janata Dal in 1989, but the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress did not give up. After toppling the Janata Dal government, when he was contesting the election to come back to power, he was assassinated during the campaign. Congressmen approached Sonia Gandhi, but she did not want to enter politics, so P.V. Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister, but Congressmen did not give up. Sonia was eventually forced to take command. Even under her leadership, the Congress fought a six-year-long struggle. Consequently, the UPA under her leadership took over the Centre from 2004 to 2014. Rahul Gandhi also contested and won the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 itself.

In a way, his case was entirely different from those of his mother, father and grandmother. He got ample opportunities to learn politics and that is why Congressmen were expecting much more from him, despite all the defeats. These hopes have not ended completely.

Rahul Gandhi was party president when it was defeated in 2019, but the situation at that time was not so disappointing. Congress had governments in six states and if the party organization were strengthened, he could succeed even further. Battles in a democracy are not fought only in elections and Parliament. One has to go to the people with issues related to masses and start a political movement. Congress actually was known for this type of politics, all along. But later on, some leader had established some kind of jagirdari (feudal land grant) in their areas, in the name of the Nehru-Gandhi family and Congress started to lose its base. This allowed regional parties to become stronger. The Bharatiya Janata Party filled this vacuum and took possession of the “national space".

Today, at the top of the power establishment, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are leaving no space for the Opposition, even though there are a number of issues including the economic downturn, coronavirus and China. Rahul Gandhi repeatedly tried to be vocal on these issues, but the entire discussion remained confined to the social media.

The party workers had forgotten the art of grassroots politics. What Congress needed was to come out from the web of internal politicking, go to the streets and raise the issues to take people into confidence. Today, those who are expressing dissatisfaction are as guilty as others.

Sonia Gandhi, who has been a successful struggler, is interim president of the party, but her age and declining health have blocked her pace. If the Congress is to be saved from further misadventure, Rahul Gandhi will have to take complete command and this time instead of a synergy of ‘new-old’, he will have to find and bring forward those who believe in grassroots struggle. If he does not want to do so, then the ‘family’ will have to search for a new leadership.This is the only way to save the Congress.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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