India's grand old party finds itself in a royal mess

Congress must listen to its inner voice to survive latest crisis.

By R Krishnakumar (Top Post)

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Published: Thu 12 Mar 2020, 9:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 12 Mar 2020, 11:58 PM

yotiraditya Scindia, in his letter announcing his resignation as a primary member of the Indian National Congress party on Tuesday, said he was taking a path "that has been drawing itself out over the last year". Scindia, a former union minister and popular leader from the state of Madhya Pradesh, was talking about events that led him to believe that his standing in the party was being undermined by the leadership, pushing him to a rebellion backed by loyalist legislators.
If the list of Congress deserters over the past few years is an indication, if the voicing of resentment against the party's uninspiring leadership is an indication, the path which led Scindia out - to join India's ruling Bharatiya Janta Party - will remain a favoured option for many more. This is a crisis the Congress has to manage internally and it all depends on how it cracks its unique, embedded problem - a family with an inspiring history that has also remained dynastic in its control over the party; at once a strength and a failing.
Scindia's exit is a body blow to the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and leaves the state government under chief minister Kamal Nath in serious trouble. That it comes only three months after the Congress reclaimed some semblance of political tact in the state of Maharashtra - the national party chose to play junior ally in a coalition with regional parties to keep the BJP out of power - is bad news.
The real import of Scindia's revolt, however, will not be in the party losing another state; it will, more significantly, play out in a widening trust deficit regarding the party's national leadership. It further dents the credibility of the Gandhis in leading a collective opposition against the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. On a ground fertile for an ideological resistance against a regime that's baring its rightwing designs, this is India's oldest political party, lost, floundering, and in denial.
It's all fine to see Scindia's dissent as opportunistic, as something set off by personal ambition, hurt ego or a generational battle for power within the party.
Scindia is scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior; a man his supporters call maharaj. Since his loss in the 2019 election loss from Guna, the 49-year-old leader has been left on the sidelines with two veterans - chief minister Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, both 73 - running the party in the state.
The arguments, however, do not explain the baffling failure of Rahul Gandhi and stand-in Congress president Sonia Gandhi in retaining an influential leader in the party when it's running awfully short of men of his kind.
The reverses in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, a series of desertions and depleting presence in key states have hit the party hard. The 2019 rout has been particularly stinging but it's tough deciphering a party strategy that continues to gloss over functional questions on its leadership, even 10 months after the electoral drubbing. That's too long to be in shock. Of course, the slack response to calls for internal elections has more to do with fears over the Gandhis losing control on the party than with any informed, collective decision to play the waiting game.
That takes it all back to the question on what the party has stood to gain with this unconditional endorsement of the Gandhi family as rightful show-runners. The Kamal Nath camp has been stalling Scindia's push for an entry to the Rajya Sabha from his home state and is reported to be backing a nomination for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. It's a move that effectively realigns power equations in the party to accommodate another Gandhi at the top rung.
The Congress leadership, for long criticised as being wary of power centres outside of the family, appears reconciled to the exit of leaders like Scindia. The only response from within the party to the leadership crisis is the call to bring Rahul Gandhi back at the helm - this is the Gandhi who lost in 2019 from Congress stronghold Amethi, the Gandhi who could not even convince Scindia, a 'personal friend', to stay and he, the party appears to believe, is the only hope. It's not a good place to be.
It remains to be seen if the Scindia episode, finally, effects that long-due shake-up in the Congress and inspires the party to reinvent itself. The leadership is likely to dismiss the setback with familiar nonchalance and barbs about dissenters without an ideology but Scindia should, at least, inspire the party members to stand up and demand elections to decide who leads the 135-year-old party in tiding over this unprecedented crisis.
Scindia's desertion has also turned the focus on to Rajasthan where state Congress president Sachin Pilot, 42, is fighting another battle of generations with chief minister and veteran leader Ashok Gehlot.
In 2004, Sonia Gandhi had famously followed her 'inner voice' to decline the Prime Minister's post. The power-without-office arrangement worked fine for her and the family until 2014 but this leadership by entitlement, endorsed by a coterie of yes-men, has now exposed itself as perilously incompetent.
The true Congress loyalist should be looking at the Madhya Pradesh fiasco as another opportunity to raise demands for democratic processes in electing the party's leadership. For the leaders, it's time to follow other voices too, to do what they have failed to since 2014 - listen.
R Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, India

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