Column | Cong party polls and political uses of Covid

The Congress has put off the party’s presidential election again. It was scheduled to be held end of June. Now it would be held when the Covid situation improves — hopefully by the end of the decade?

The party’s interim president is Sonia Gandhi. In 2019, Rahul Gandhi had resigned as the president, accepting responsibility for 2019 general elections that swept the Modi government to power.

Rahul Gandhi at the time had argued, with an extraordinary sense of fairness, for open elections to choose his replacement. This was in July 2019. He said he preferred someone outside the Gandhi family to take up the office. His voice was smothered by professional well-wishers, a bane of the party.

As it happened, Sonia Gandhi was installed on the throne. A move that was meant to protect the party from possible disintegration as much as to guard the interest of those who formed the suppliants closest to the throne. These names are not a secret. A K Antony, KC Venugopal, Ashok Ghelot, and the late Ahmed Patel, to name a few.

The throne, such as it is, is a ghost of its earlier self. Its legs are shaky. The hand-rests have worn out. The cushion is bumpy, torn. One lowers oneself into the seat at one’s own risk. Yet it is a throne because a king or queen of a kind sits on it, his or her weight and posture just right to save it from complete collapse.

Roughly a year after the electoral debacle, in August 2020, some 23 leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kabil Sibal, Dr Shashi Tharoor, and Manish Tiwari, had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi, recommending ‘organizational elections from the block-level up till the highest level’. This was a sensational thing to do if only because, despite much talk about the democratic culture of the party, there really is little appreciation of open debates ( in closed forums, of course).

To make it all palatable and par for the course, the G-23 letter mentioned ‘the communal and divisive agenda’ of the BJP – just as did the Tuesday announcement putting off the restructuring. Just another reason why, the letter then said, that the party had to be reinvented.

In the event, nothing happened. And the 23 letter writers remain distributed pretty much at the same distance to the throne, like planets circling the Sun after minor course aberrations. In other words, nothing has happened to change the party since the 2019 general elections. And it is still not happening after the party’s self-shattering performance in the four states that recently went to the polls.

Sonia slams BJP govt for misusing mandate in dangerous fashion
Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi, flanked by former PM Manmohan Singh and senior leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad, AK Antony and KC Venugopal, chairs a party meeting to discuss plans for the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, at AICC HQ in New Delhi, Thursday. Photo: PTI

Tuesday’s decision to put off organizational elections is in honour of the virus. This seems reasonable. But would a ‘virtual voting’ exercise to elect a president be so very out of place, given now a third wave is predicted?

Increasingly, there is not much difference between social media influencers and political leaders. That the Opposition or at least the Congress party has not even taken the initiative to a Covid-compliant-or even a virtual-meeting with the President or the PM to register their protest against the ongoing Central Vista vandalization, for example, shows that the idea of politics for the Opposition has become protracted huddles with their cell phones.

There is no longer much difference between a Congress party leader and a social media influencer. This is perhaps a hazard of our social media times. And the party’s leaders are not likely to be unaware of it.

But the question is, if all of this passive politics is shifting to one’s cell phone, why not use it for electing the party leader? SMS one’s preference? Vote by email? Call in? According to one estimate, there are some 20 million registered Congress party members. So due diligence is possible. They could even convert this into a membership drive.

The Congress party is still considered a national alternative to the BJP-led NDA. The TMC, the DMK, and the CPI (M) have done well in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala respectively. But they are confined to these states. None of the parties who have done well could any longer be called a national party. Only the Congress has that presence. It is thinning, like hair on an old man’s head, but it still covers the scalp. The party’s latency to reform itself is a sign of its desperate comfort with the status quo.

The virus is here to stay, more or less. India has fought down cholera, leprosy, and polio. But Covid is different. It is the most political of viruses. Thousands have died. But a cynically objective observer might say, it's defeating Modi, that so many unfortunate dead is the price for unseating a strongman like the prime minister: each dead man is potentially a family-vote less for the NDA. If the Congress is not clear how to make the virus work for it, the party would find itself on ventilator.

(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)

(Views expressed are personal. CP Surendran is a writer and senior journalist.)

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