This is the first part of the Malayala Manorama series on the Congress party's election debacle and its future.
When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) denied the then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu an opportunity to become the prime minister in 1996, he had termed it 'a historical blunder.' If his party's Central Committee had given its nod, Basu would have been the country's first Marxist prime minister.
The Congress committed a similar blunder by removing Captain (Retd) Amarinder Singh as the Chief Minister of Punjab three months before the Assembly polls. Sonia Gandhi's decision to remove Singh will be recorded in the annals of history as a 'historical blunder.'
During her 22 years at the helm of the Congress, Sonia has committed several mistakes — both minor and major — which took the more-than-a-century-old party to its nadir. The grand old party is in power only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the two States that will go to the polls later this year.
Several leaders, including two MPs, from Punjab had warned the high command against removing Amarinder Singh ahead of the polls. They said such a move would backfire on the State and the party.
A few members reminded Sonia of the warning when the Congress Working Committee met at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on Sunday. "Yes, it was my fault," she replied. "The mistake was not removing Amarinder, but the delay in doing so. If he was removed earlier, the party would have had more time to prepare for the polls."
Sonia might have owned up the responsibility to shield Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. A section of party workers are angry at the unceremonious manner in which Amarinder Singh, who had led the party to two wins in Punjab, was removed from the post of chief minister.
The open war between Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and outgoing chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi after the ouster of Amarinder Singh further fuelled the downfall of the party. The feud between them was reminiscent of the struggle between Sheila Dikshit and Ajay Maken in Delhi.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had capitalised on the intra-party squabbles in the Congress to grab power in Delhi. The same happened in Punjab also. Congress has almost been wiped out in Delhi.
To avoid a Delhi-like situation in Punjab, Congress will have to stand united. AAP's Aravind Kejriwal and others have now set their sights on Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where Congress is the main opposition.
Infighting had adversely affected Congress in the election to the Uttarakhand Assembly also. A section of leaders had come out in public against former chief minister Harish Rawat.
Referring to the factionalism that had impaired the poll campaign, Rawat then said that many crocodiles had been released and he had to swim according to their directions. “Their representatives have tied my hands," he lamented.
The scene is no different in Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where differences are visible.
Besides the drubbing it received in the Uttar Pradesh polls, the result presented another reality. The political brand value of the party's star strategist and campaigner, Priyanka Gandhi, was badly bruised when 387 of the 399 Congress candidates lost their security deposit.
Apparently, Priyanka's strategies, including nominating women in 40 per cent of the seats, failed to impress the voters.
It's the Gandhis or none
Despite the grave crisis the party has been facing after the debacle in five State elections, the Congress is still rallying behind the Gandhis.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath, and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, M Mallikarjun Kharge, are the prominent leaders supporting the Gandhis. They are also in favour of Rahul Gandhi succeeding Sonia as the All- India Congress Committee (AICC) president.
"Only the Gandhi family could hold the Congress together as a single unit," Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, said.
Sonia Gandhi took over as AICC president in 2008 and in the six years that followed — till Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister — Congress won 47 of the 102 Assembly elections, either on its own or with allies.
Of the 45 elections held after 2014, Congress managed to win only seven, and in the 19 polls after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it has not won anywhere on its own.
Lack of political strategy
The Congress had no answer to BJP's move to grab power in Madhya Pradesh after sabotaging the Kamal Nath ministry in 2018. BJP repeated the same feat again in Karnataka, sidelining the Congress as a mere spectator. In short, the Congress high command does not have any strategy to counter BJP's deft moves.
The high command, however, managed to tide over the crisis triggered by Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan in 2020. Though the young leader had been at loggerheads with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, he stood by the party ideology, and the BJP failed to lure him to the saffron camp.
Pilot stands apart even as many other leaders have been leaving the party. He is one of the few remaining strong young leaders in the party.
Rahul: The backseat driver
Though not in the driver's seat, Rahul Gandhi has a big say in the party. Sonia advises State leaders visiting her to meet Rahul also. The G-23 leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, are of the view that such twin power centres will eventually destroy the party.
The Congress has not yet succeeded in projecting Rahul as an alternative to Narendra Modi. Slogans such as "Chowkidar chor hai" failed to make an impact.
The party also failed in effectively communicating to the common man issues such as the irregularities in the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, or the party's poll promise of a minimum income support programme, the Nyuntam Aay Yojna (Nyay).
Additionally, the Congress poll campaign machinery could not catch up with the BJP's well-planned advances.
The Congress will be contesting two elections this year, in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The party does not have apt chief ministerial candidates in both the States. Modi, meanwhile, has set the BJP campaign machinery rolling in Gujarat, his home state. But the Congress is caught up with another election — to find a successor to Sonia in August.
"Congress's election work should begin at the grassroots level. Congress workers should learn from the BJP which is active at the booth-level during and after the polls," noted Rajni Patil, a Rajya Sabha MP of the Congress.
How leaders are chosen
BJP and Congress decide their party office-bearers through nominations. The party president selects the office-bearers from the list of nominees, and it is announced in news conferences. However, in Congress, Sonia makes the final decision. Likewise, Modi takes a final call on the office-bearers though both the parties publically announce that their respective presidents have selected the office-bearers.
Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), however, are exceptions. Mamata has generously offered the post of national vice-president to those who joined the TMC from other parties.
Lalu's benevolence, however, was entirely different. A demand was raised for the immediate appointment of general secretaries when the RJD was formed in 1997. While wondering aloud what makes a general secretary different, Lalu announced that whoever brought him chicken kebab would be made the 'mantri'.
Lalu kept his word, and the leader who brought him the dish became the 'kebab mantri.' He later went on to become a member of the Bihar legislative council.
The RJD also had a general secretary who was known as 'Pan mantri' — the leader who used to give pan to Lalu.
From Coastal Cong to Courier Cong
Congress makes several considerations before appointing its general secretaries. The party ensures the representation of various sections before finalising the office-bearers. General secretary in-charge of organisational matters and treasurer will be the confidantes of the Gandhi family.
The Congress accommodates senior leaders of affiliate organisations. Former Youth Congress presidents Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni, Tariq Anwar, Anand Sharma, Gurudas Kamath, Ramesh Chennithala, Mukul Wasnik, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Rajeev Satav, et al, were made the general secretaries.
The disappointed lot — those who failed to get any posts — clandestinely use other names to refer to the Congress. One such name is All-Indian Coastal Congress, an apparent dig at the party appointing leaders from Karnataka and Kerala, two coastal districts, in senior positions.
All-India Courier Congress refers to the inclusion of 'messengers' of the high command and those who carry funds to State units in senior party posts.