Rahul Gandhi’s leave pushes congress into leadership crisis

Something never changes in the cesspool of the Congress party’s politics. Two and half years ago when Rahul Gandhi took over as the party’s President from his mother Sonia Gandhi, it was thought it has hailed as a generational shift in the top leadership of the 134-year old party. It was safely assumed that Rahul donning the mantle has settled the debate over young Turk versus old guard. 

But it does not look like that more than a week after Rahul confirmed his decision to step down as party chief in the aftermath of the parliamentary poll drubbing. Post-Rahul exit as President, the party once again finds itself in the thick of an intensified tug of war between the old and the young to take control of the party. A generational fault-line is emerging.

Should a veteran leader become the new Congress chief or whether the generational change symbolized by Rahul’s elevation to the top organisational post be carried on? The search for an answer has plunged the party into utter uncertainty within the party as to who is in charge has thrown it into disarray as the Congress tries to sort out the mess.  The old guards of the party suggest a senior should take over and be assisted by a few young leaders. But the younger lot feels that the rein should be handed over to a young leader in keeping with the demographic profile of India’s population—65 per cent--and the electorate. The old guard’s effort to have someone from among them as a consensus as party chief has been challenged by the younger leaders some of whom seem ready to throw their hats in the ring if there is a contest for the post.

The generational leadership transition debate was kicked off by a veteran Amarinder Singh, Punjab Chief Minister who batted for a “dynamic young leader” to replace Rahul. His remarks came at a time when names of some veteran leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, Mukul Wasnik and Sushil Kumar Shinde were being bandied about as possible candidates to succeed Rahul. Soon after Amarinder’s remark, two key leaders in the younger lot Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora quit their organizational posts as party General Secretary and Mumbai unit President taking responsibility for the electoral defeat. Both cited the accountability factor which Rahul had flagged in his resignation letter. Deora even said he plans to play a national role in the party but did not elaborate what that role will be.

While the younger section wants to get rid 

of the old guard, the latter is pointing out 

how the younger leaders have also lost

 the parliamentary elections and failed in 

organizational roles in many states

However, the young leaders jumping into the fray for the top leadership post has already set off fault lines in the Congress. For instance, Mumbai party leader Sanjay Nirupam has questioned Milind Deora’s motive behind the latter’s resignation as Mumbai unit President saying “is it a resignation or a ladder to climb up to the top?” The Congress’ desperate search for a successor to Rahul has already spawned distrust and clear divide between the young and the old. While the younger section wants to get rid of the old guard, the latter is pointing out how the younger leaders have also lost the parliamentary elections and failed in organizational roles in many states.  

The latest to wade in the young versus old debate was octogenarian leader from Jammu and Kashmir Karan Singh who suggested a veteran leader as party chief to be assisted by four Working Presidents or Vice Presidents one each representing eastern, western, northern and southern zones of the country keeping in mind the Congress’ pan-India character. This inevitably stirred the debate on who all in the party are eligible to elect a new President. Besides Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul, almost all top senior leaders like Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, P Chidambaram, A K Antony, Kharge, Wasnik, Anand Sharma are among CWC members. Among the younger leaders in the CWC is Jyotiraditya Scindia.  

 According to Congress sources, only 24 full-fledged members of the party’s top decision-making forum Congress Working Committee can attend a CWC meeting to elect the new party chief. The same 24 members had chosen P V Narasimha Rao as party President after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May, 1991 and that convention was followed Sitaram Kesri was elected the party chief after Rao’s resignation in 1996. Will a break be made from that convention this time?  it is also being suggested by some in the Congress that instead of leaving it to the CWC to pick the new chief, the party should right away go for countrywide organizational elections and the new leadership that emerges out of this exercise in the states should elect a party President through secret ballots from a list of nominees.

The Congress’ delay in finding new President after Rahul is costing the party dear.  The party is also hit by defections in Karnataka where the survival of its coalition is threatened and 15 of lawmakers in Goa have reportedly switched loyalty to the Bharatiya Janata Party. There are also reports of unrest in the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit. These state-level churnings are offshoots of the bigger top national leadership of the party. The Congress must end this direction journey. 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India.