The better-than-expected performance of the Congress in Haryana, and of both the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, has led commentators to declare that their brand is not beyond its sell-by date. After the disastrous performance of both parties in the general election, it was widely assumed that voters were no longer attracted to the Congress.
Improved performances in two state elections don’t mean that the Congress is back on its feet. But the elections have driven home the realisation that killing off a historic party, with a presence across the country, isn’t quite as easy as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thinks. So what should the Congress do to get back in business?
The most drastic proposal I have heard of is Sagarika Ghose’s suggestion that a new party should be formed called the Swatantra Congress party “free from ideological baggage, and free from dynasty, free from the Gandhis”. But in previous Congress splits, it’s always been the Gandhi family that has eventually come out on top.
Many in the Congress yearn for Priyanka Gandhi to come to their rescue, but she has shown no sign of being willing to oblige. Sonia Gandhi has formed a new group to bring some clarity to Congress policies. But such initiatives are frequently an excuse for inaction, rather than a prelude to action.
I believe the Congress needs to bid farewell to the Gandhis, and reconstitute itself as a federal party. That would be a party which allows for the emergence of strong, self-reliant leaders.
Both the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections have shown the ability of strong leaders to withstand the BJP’s onslaught. In the general election, Amarinder Singh was the only Congress chief minister of a major state to resist the BJP. In the Harayana assembly polls, it was Bhupinder Singh Hooda who pulled the Congress fat out of the fire, saving the party from a widely forecast humiliating defeat. In Maharashtra, it was Sharad Pawar who prevented the BJP from achieving its target of an absolute majority. Significantly, these three leaders have defied the Gandhis. Both Hooda and Amarinder Singh threatened to form their own parties if they were not given leadership of the Congress. Sharad Pawar has retained the Congress name but been on his own now for 20 years.
In the general election, the BJP did make inroads in the East, but in all the states from Bengal down to Tamil Nadu, strong independent regional party leaders still won the largest number of seats. If they were to be guaranteed autonomy in a federal party, some of those leaders might be willing to merge with the Congress. After all, Mamata Banerjee was a a Congresswoman and Jaganmohan Reddy’s father was a highly successful Congress chief minister. Merging would give the regional leaders the advantage of the Congress brand which, as we have seen, does still have value throughout India. It would also mean they would not waste resources and votes fighting the Congress.
In my scheme of things, there should be a way to institutionalise the voice of the state leaders, and give it due importance, at the national level. The national leader could well be chosen from among them. There would be an end to the present darbari culture and centralisation of power.
There will be many difficulties in converting the Congress into a federation. Who, for instance, will tell the Gandhis that their time is up? How will the party be held together when they depart? Who will emerge as the strong leaders in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the party barely exists?. What will prevent the state leaders being riven by rivalry?
Yet, there is no doubt it needs strong state leaders with autonomy. That is demonstrated by the Congress failure to recover in any of the states where it has been ousted by a strong regional leader.
The views expressed are personal