A series of news items appeared recently in relation to the Congress party of India. While the news reporting went largely without comment (or with usual snark from their political opponents), to me, they brought to sharp focus the extent of dysfunction and rot within the party.
First, leading up to a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, some senior party members wrote to the “interim” Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. (Remember, she became interim President after her son, Rahul Gandhi, resigned from the post. Before Rahul, the very same Sonia was President.) Here is the gist of the demands in the letter, including the following:
It calls for a “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field; elections to the CWC; and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival.
OK, so this is in effect a serious criticism, from senior members of the party, that some changes are required going forward. So, what happened next? Rahul Gandhi’s response was to criticize the timing of the letter, since this is a time of weakness for Congress and his mother was in hospital:
Early in the Congress Working Committee meeting that went on for seven hours, Rahul Gandhi questioned why the 23 top leaders had written a letter attacking the Congress when it was at its weakest, when it was battling crises in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and when the Congress president (his mother Sonia Gandhi) was in hospital.
If you’re wondering about the seriousness of this critique, it was serious enough for the conversation to completely pivot:
The veteran leader [senior Congress member Ghulam Nabi Azad], a Rajya Sabha member, said he had called and checked with Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary twice before sending the letter. “I was told that she is in hospital for a routine check-up. Still, we waited till she was back home before sending the letter,” Mr Azad told NDTV.
Sonia Gandhi, who was admitted to hospital late last month, was discharged in the beginning of August.
He [Azad] said the Congress chief called a few days later and said she could not respond to the letter because of her poor health.
“I told Soniaji, your health is paramount, all else can wait,” said Mr Azad. He claimed that Rahul Gandhi heard him out and was “satisfied” with the response.
Two things. First, is Rahul suggesting that Sonia is too ill to discharge her duties as President? Then why is she still holding the post?! This is a professional organization, where office-holders have duties and responsibilities… such as dealing with grievances of senior members of the organization! Second, if Sonia’s illness was a temporary matter, why is there not a chain of command in place?! It is perfectly natural for any single individual to occasionally be “off-duty”, so to say, due to either illness, or personal commitments, or vacations, or myriad other reasons. Any coherent organization should have a command structure where such absences are planned for! If Sonia is ill and unavailable, that should NOT mean that normal operations cease; it should only mean that someone else accepts the letter and follows an established protocol.
Next, at the CWC meeting itself, this was quoted to Sonia Gandhi regarding the ‘dissenters’:
Sonia Gandhi reportedly said in her closing remarks that she held “no ill-will” towards anyone in the party, a remark intended at the dissent-letter writers. “I am hurt but they are my colleagues, bygones are bygones, let us work together,” she said, ending the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on a note of conciliation.
Does this seem to come from an organization of equals? Or does this seem to originate from a king/queen ruling over his/her subjects? How does it matter if Sonia Gandhi holds ill-will for the letter? Why does it matter? Again, this is a professional organization, where senior members are suggesting changes going forward for what they think is the benefit of the party. Why is Sonia Gandhi “hurt”? Because she was criticized? Does she consider herself above criticism? “Let us work together? Bygones are bygones?” YOU, Sonia Gandhi, and your son, are the ones throwing a tantrum! Your senior members were the reasonable adults coming to you with proposed changes going forward that might benefit the party!
You know what I think the problem was? Maybe Sonia and Rahul were not entirely convinced that ‘benefit of the party’ and ‘benefit of the power dynamics of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’ were well aligned. At the CWC, it was decided that elections for the next “full time” president would be held within six months. Remember that the last president, Rahul Gandhi, resigned after the last election where their political opponents basically humiliated them. Already, quotes like this:
The Congress” Assam unit on Monday said that it wants senior leader Rahul Gandhi as the party”s national president as soon as the interim chief Sonia Gandhi demits the office.
[I]t is imperative that the party should be led by Gandhi family. I humbly request you to continue as the President of All India Congress Committee, and if you feel that your health may not permit for full-fledged dedication, I urge you to convince Shri Rahul Gandhi to take up the position.
have started to appear. Would you take a bet on Rahul Gandhi not being the next Congress President, again? I wouldn’t.
What I wrote in my post on India’s Independence Day, in criticism of the current government of India, applies equally well to the party in government opposition. If, instead of performing their duty of providing strong, thoughtful rebuttal of the government’s policies, the main opposition is worried about controlling their internal power dynamics, and especially about keeping power within a dynastic family, then that bodes terribly for the country as a whole.
Where are the Congress’ ideas for India? For all that we criticize the Indian government, if an election were to be held today, who is providing an alternative narrative that citizens can latch on to and organize around? What does Congress think India should do in the next 10, or 20, or 50 years? Does it have any opinion as an organization? The current Indian government came to power on the heels of 10 years of Congress led government— after massive corruption and malfeasance, but also with BJP fanning the flames of criticism, and equally importantly, providing an alternative vision and path forward. (This was, of course, in 2014. The 2019 campaign was a different matter.)
It seems to me like Congress today is missing vision, missing organization— and perhaps even missing a pulse. It seems to me like the senior Congress members are very, very right.