For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Here’s What the Congress Must Do Now to Quickly Reset the 2024 Chessboard

If Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi can jettison the old guard in key states, pick younger leaders, begin a conversation with Mayawati and hand over convenorship of the INDIA bloc to a senior non-Congress leader, the BJP can still be defeated.
File photo of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. Photo: X (Twitter)/@INCIndia

The impressive and unexpected win the Congress has notched up for itself in Telengana is not – and cannot be – a consolation for the totally unexpected loss in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The 2023 assembly vote has seriously curdled the hopes of a much-needed parivartan in 2024.

The question that needs to be faced up to is whether the non-BJP forces and leaders are capable of turning things around in the next few months before the die for the 2024 battle gets cast. For better or worse, the onus is on the Congress to show the will and imagination to reset the chessboard. For that, the party will have to tame its internal demons; otherwise, it will not be able to inspire any confidence among its prospective allies, leave alone the voters.

It is undeniable but also unfortunate that despite the drubbing the party has received from voters, the 2023 campaign has reinforced the centrality of the Gandhi family in the Congress scheme of things. This round of elections saw the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra as a star campaigner, who earned the party leaders’ admiration as the most effective communicator.

By contrast, Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, has, disappointingly enough, refused to explore the potential and power of his office. For a while, it looked like he could be an  ideal prime ministerial mascot of the Congress; but, he has just  been content to look to “10 Janpath” for inspiration and instructions. He does not command the attention, leave alone loyalty, of any of the office-bearers at the AICC. The Gandhi family’s stranglehold over the Congress remains complete and total.

So, the entire non-BJP political crowd has no option but to learn to do business with, what is mockingly called, the BBC or the bhai-behen company. An even more central and pertinent question is whether the brother and sister are determined, even ruthless enough, to jettison their mother’s model of leadership – a model that has completely hollowed out the party’s organisational vitality.

Also read: Sonia Gandhi’s Troubled Legacy

The Sonia model of control was a kind of appeasement of senior leaders, in the states and at the central level. In exchange for acknowledging the Gandhi family’s suzerainty, these leaders were left to run their own fiefdoms. That model functioned well, though for a while. It ran into rough weather when Rahul Gandhi was anointed heir apparent, but the transfer of power never took place. There was no regime change.

This half-way house produced its own dysfunctionality; “young” Rahul could not effect the changes he wanted. Specifically, he was unable to shuffle the old guard out. An undeclared civil war between the Gandhi family and the Congress organisation ate into the party’s espirit de corps.

Now Rahul and Priyanka have clawed their way back to dominance. While this is not necessarily a healthy or desirable development, it is a given, and the rest of the Congress party – as well as the non-BJP leadership – will have to learn to work around it.

More importantly, the brother and sister duo need to demonstrate that they can move away – and move away decisively – from their mother’s crowd. In the next two weeks they should replace the leadership matrix lock, stock, and barrel in the Hindi-heartland. In place of the tired and jaded faces – the Kamal Naths, the Digvijay Singhs, the Ashok Gehlots, the Bhupesh Baghels – they should hand over the party’s reins to younger leaders.

As Telangana has shown, anyone sufficiently empowered and motivated can deliver. Equally important, it is imperative that the brother and sister stop functioning as a faction in their own party. The Congress voter needs to see a cohesive and competent party at work.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra with Revanth Reddy. Photo: X@RahulGandhi

Also read: Three Things BJP’s Definitive Victory in the Assembly Elections Tells Us

No less urgent is the need for the Rahul-Priyanka leadership to understand the limits to their acceptability in the country. The electorate is just getting over its resentment of the younger Gandhis’ sense of entitlement, though Robert Vadra keeps popping up irritatingly, from time to time. And, it goes without saying, that as long as Rahul Gandhi continues to make electoral politics into a personal gladiatorial contest with Narendra Modi, the outcome will not be different than what it has been so far.

A necessary corollary is that the Congress will have to necessarily concede ground to the other partners in the INDIA bloc. To begin with, the convenorship of INDIA should be formalised in favour of Sharad Pawar or Mamata Banerjee or Nitish Kumar. The romantic notion of Sonia Gandhi as the “chairperson” of the non-BJP alliance is today stranded in irrelevance.

To the extent that Uttar Pradesh remains crucial for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the Congress must learn to accept that “UP is not Priyanka Gandhi’s kingdom.” It is imperative for Priyanka to internalise the fact that UP, like the rest of the country, has moved on and is no longer enamoured of her family’s legacy and sacrifices. And, if she has even an iota of familiarity with reality, she should be prepared to work to bring Mayawati into conversation and devise a modus vivendi between her and the Samajwadi Party. On its part, the Congress does not deserve more than two seats in any seat-sharing arrangement in the state. Her challenge is to do whatever it takes to deny Uttar Pradesh to the Modi-Yogi brand. This means that for now she will need to prioritise a change of regime in New Delhi over and above her personal quest for glory and power.

Admittedly, the Congress vote share in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is nothing to snigger at. And that is all the more reason for the Congress leadership to recognise how to play the game differently if it at all hopes to defeat the BJP in 2024.

On the other hand, the non-Congress partners in the INDIA bloc would not want to rub the Congress’s nose in the dirt of its recent defeat. The Congress leopard will not change its dynastic spots but it can be domesticated as a workable member of the hunting pack. The jungle that is Bharat needs to be claimed back.

Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter