Stung by Congress veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad’s departure, the Congress Working Committee announced its decision to hold an election for the post of party president on October 17. The last time a contest took place for the post of Congress President was way back in 2001.
If the grapevine is to be believed, Rajasthan Chief Minister and veteran Congress leader Ashok Gehlot is tipped to lead the Grand Old Party. If elected, he will be the first non-Gandhi to head the Congress in 24 years.
What works in favour of Gehlot – also called the ‘magician of Rajasthan’ politics – is that he is a veteran leader who has weathered multiple political storms. What works against him is the perception that he is subservient to the Gandhis. Nominating Gehlot for presidency is widely expected to benefit the Congress nationally, as well as in Rajasthan. Primarily, the move will help it in countering the narrative of its opponents that the Congress is a ‘family run private limited’ party.
If Gehlot agrees, he will have to leave the Chief Minister’s post for his young bête-noire Sachin Pilot, who has been sulking for quite some time and is feared to be another potential party deserter. In all probability, the Congress is expected to address the leadership crisis in the very near future. However, critics have put a question mark on the effectiveness of the new Congress President in the backdrop of Rahul Gandhi having already been declared the face of the party’s nationwide Bharat Jodo Yatra, which starts on September 7.
Whatever happens during the run-up to the election of the party President, the incumbent will have a difficult task ahead. Apart from halting the present spate of desecrations, his most formidable challenge will be to come out of the shadows of the Gandhi family and to chalk out a roadmap for the party’s future. Arresting the decline in the party’s shrinking political space is not going to be easy, especially with one’s hands tied. The Congress saw its historical low in 2014 where it won only 44 seats from 206 seats it had secured in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It was virtually wiped out from many states, and failed to bag even the post of the Leader of Opposition.
The 2019 election was no better. The party could win eight more Lok Sabha seats but its vote share remained the same. The party’s decline has been across the country. In 2014, the Congress and its allies had governments in 13 states, out of which nine were ruled by the Congress on its own. Today, the party has its own government in just two states — Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan— and is a junior partner in Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.
The matter is worsened by the heightened crisis between the old and the new guard within the party. The party has failed to strike a balance between the two resulting in many young and promising leaders, like Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma or current Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, quitting and joining the rival camp.
From 2014 to 2022, India has seen 50 Assembly elections, out of which the Congress could win just nine. What should be more worrying for the party is that most of these wins are from smaller states that are electorally insignificant for a party’s pan-country survival.