Home / Opinion / Views /  A shaken Congress faces a moment of reckoning

The election of a Congress party president, it had been hoped, would sharpen its leaders’ appetite for power, coax them to get into political jousts of wide impact, renew its pan-India mass appeal and eventually refresh its odds of success. So far, one surprise of this process has been the open defiance of the party high command’s apparent plans shown by Rajasthan legislators loyal to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was seen as interim president Sonia Gandhi’s choice of successor. Clearly, there is plenty of guile left in the party’s state-level chieftains. With funds reportedly in a squeeze and its recent loss of shared power in industry-heavy Maharashtra, every state matters; Rajasthan is one of only two states that India’s grand old party currently has under its rule. But so steep is the Congress party’s broad challenge today that stirrings in Jaipur have not led to a less gloomy diagnosis of its future. After all, for a leader to emerge from a poll that captures opinion within the party, every contestant should have a chance that is uninfluenced by perceptions of the outgoing president’s preference. Unless Gehlot withdraws from the race, rumours of which swirled on Wednesday, this episode could put him on an even keel with other leaders on the ballot, such as former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, in that respect. So it may serve as a race resetter.

Succession is always tricky, but revelations sprung by inner-party rivalry can make it a moment of truth. As seen earlier in Punjab, the Congress leadership’s premium on loyalty might have made it harder to read the minds of local leaders. It was no secret, for instance, that Gehlot was keen to retain his job in Jaipur, even though being pitchforked into the arena for party president was meant to assure him an all-India role. That his state rival Sachin Pilot was in the spotlight as his replacement may have seemed a bit too expedient to the Gehlot camp, reducing its will to yield authority. In the context of a testy Pilot-Gehlot divide in Rajasthan, where Pilot had been eyeing chief ministership, all of this was foreseeable. What may have changed, as ground signals suggest, is the esteem in which the high command’s top-down decisions are held. A change of guard, these flares of rebellion seem to say, cannot be done by party fiat anymore.

That Gehlot, a three-time CM with some claim to a regional following of his own, has signalled a will to go for broke in a power tussle could be the prelude to a churn within the Congress and a renewed search for ideas. It could also, instead of serving as a moment of reckoning, turn out to be the start of a crack-up that leaves it weaker still. For the sake of democratic diversity, India needs an opposition force of national stature, and while Congress values have cache and the party still has several strong state-level leaders, the question it must answer is who could take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Lok Sabha elections. Politics is the art of the possible. It demands a capacity for realpolitik as well as a commitment to values. The restlessness visible right now in the Congress could either spark hard conversations about its role in our national life or confirm what its critics say about its grim destiny. Can the Congress use this period of flux to discard old habits and confront itself? This week’s Gehlot dig-in is a sign that something must give. And the party can’t go back to business as usual.

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