Congress Party lurching from crisis to crisis
Factional feud and mutual recrimination among leaders in public, either at state or national level, are nothing new to India's main opposition party—Congress Party. In fact, they are as old as the party itself. But in recent weeks, the turmoil triggered by internecine quarrels have taken a different dimension because it once again underlined the political ineptitude and continued drift in the party's top leadership.
The crisis in the Congress' unit in Punjab and the unceremonious ousting of one of its most prominent state leaders Amarinder Singh after the party high command engineered a revolt against him—led by cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who defected from the Bharatiya Janata Party four years ago—is the latest illustration of the ills plaguing the country's oldest party once known as the natural outfit for governing an ethnically, religious and linguistically diverse country like India.
Spurred by the party's predicament in Punjab and elsewhere in the country in the wake of steady desertions in its rank and file, a clutch of its senior leaders spearheaded by Kapil Sibal has questioned the top leadership (read interim party President Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka,) for allowing the party to be rudderless.
Sibal could not perhaps be more scathing of the Gandhi family. Without naming them, he told the media on September 30 that there was no knowing who were taking decisions in the party. Sibal was backed by many of the group of 23 senior leaders of the Congress who have been demanding organisational elections and a course correction in the party. Within hours of Sibal's criticism of the party high command, he had to face the music as a group of activists of Congress and its youth front staged a protest outside his residence in New Delhi and vandalised his car. Several of the group of 23 "change-seekers," including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor and Anand Sharma, condemned in unequivocal terms the "orchestrated hooliganism" in front of Sibal's house. The group of 23 in the Congress was formed last year and it had shot off a letter to Sonia Gandhi demanding organisational poll and collective leadership. However, the dissident group had gone silent since then and failed to be vocal when needed most after the Congress' dismal performance in the assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Puducherry in May this year, raising question marks over its efficacy as a pressure bloc.
With just four months remaining for the assembly poll in Punjab, the Congress is struggling to set its house in order in the agrarian state where the raging farmers' unrest against the three farm laws piloted by the federal government last year had put the party on a strong wicket. What was the need for a leadership change in Punjab so close to the electoral battle? One of the reasons that reportedly prompted the high command to show Amarinder the door is to blunt the anti-incumbency.
The biggest advantage for the Congress in Punjab is that its main political rival in Punjab Shiromani Akali Dal, a former ally of the BJP, is yet to shake off the negative fall-out of its long association with the saffron party even after nearly a year of parting of ways over the farm laws issue. The sudden removal of Amarinder as Chief Minister and anointment of Charanjit Singh Channi last week and Sidhu as state Congress chief a couple of months ago were initially considered by some analysts as a "master stroke." That is because Channi, a Dalit Sikh in a state where Dalits formed a very sizable chunk of the electorate, fitted into the Congress high command's political messaging of identity politics for not just Punjab, but for the rest of the country ahead of state assembly polls in six states, including the most crucial one of Uttar Pradesh. But much of the effect of "master stroke" fizzled out as Sidhu resigned as state Congress chief, living up to his reputation as a mercurial person, a trait that first came to the fore during his cricketing career when he walked out of India's tour of England in 1996 following a spat with the then team captain Md Azharuddin. Sidhu has now acquired the tag of a "habitual quitter". He had resigned from the BJP in 2016 and after a brief dalliance with the Aam Aadmi Party joined the Congress.
But the "master stroke" seemed to have boomeranged when Sidhu resigned as state Congress President as he is reportedly sulking at not getting the chief ministership and resenting Channi's choice of portfolios for his ministerial colleagues and some key bureaucratic appointments. The entire drama in Punjab Congress has shown how deeply divided the party is.
What has particularly aroused anger in the Congress is a meeting Amarinder had with senior BJP leader and Indian Home Minister Amit Shah on September 29, sparking speculations about his joining India's ruling party and drawing a sharp reaction from the Congress. But a day later, Amarinder tamped down the speculations but made it clear he was not going to join the BJP after being "humiliated" by the Congress high command. This too set the tongues wagging on whether the former army officer was preparing to float a new party and jump into the upcoming state assembly elections in Punjab and hurt the Congress party. The Congress' retort to the Shah-Amarinder meeting stood in sharp contrast to the same when other leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Sushmita Dev, Luizinho Falerio and some in Tripura left the party and joined either the BJP or the Trinamool Congress. In fact, the Congress had maintained a studied silence When the TMC poached the former's leaders in Tripura, Assam and Goa, raising the question if the weakened pan-India party, buffeted by defeat in two successive general elections in 2014 and 2019, was succumbing to regional parties.
Amarinder is too astute a politician. Emerging from the meeting with Shah, the former chief minister went on record as saying that he discussed the farm laws issue with the home minister and pressed for repeal of the laws. Amarinder knows farmers are central to politics in Punjab and that it would be political harakiri if he was seen to be hobnobbing with the BJP in Punjab where there is widespread resentment against the farm laws.
It is not just in Punjab the Congress is facing factionalism. The party is beset with the same problems in two more states—Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—it rules with a section of Congressmen demanding change of guard. It required a lot of fire-fighting by the party high command to deal with this internecine war.
Questions are being raised once again about the functioning of the Congress high command and about the correctness of the decisions taken by it. The party has been without a regular president for more than two years now after Rahul Gandhi quit from the post in May 2019, taking responsibility for the party's debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, after which his mother was installed as interim president.
The removal of Amarinder and choice of Sidhu and Channi are being seen as the handiwork of Rahul and Priyanka, as much as their recent induction into the party-fold of young leader Kanhaiya Kumar of the Communist Party of India is. Ironically, Kanhaiya Kumar has, as a former firebrand leader of the CPI's student front in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, was highly critical of the Congress and the BJP in the same breath. He had alleged that the Congress alone was enough to destroy India. Kanhaiya should know the difference between politics in the confines of JNU and a party's electoral politics. He had hoped to cash in on his image as a student leader in the Lok Sabha poll as a CPI candidate in 2019 but ended up losing to a BJP rival in his home state of Bihar. It is the difference between politics in a well and in an ocean.
A lack of coherent strategy is costing the Congress and leading to its shrinking appeal as a national-level challenger to the BJP.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.