India's opposition Congress in public crisis over leadership

Senior party members write letter calling for a more 'visible' leader, while others rally around Gandhi family

A protester at a rally to demand that the Congress party elect its leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family, outside the party's headquarters in New Delhi yesterday. Congress' interim president Sonia Gandhi had wanted to step down following the release of
A protester at a rally to demand that the Congress party elect its leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family, outside the party's headquarters in New Delhi yesterday. Congress' interim president Sonia Gandhi had wanted to step down following the release of a letter of dissent written by 23 party leaders, but was persuaded to stay on for now.PHOTO: REUTERS

India's main opposition party Congress was thrown into turmoil yesterday as a leadership crisis spilled out into the open, in the latest setback for the party which is fighting an uphill battle for political survival and relevance.

A marathon meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's top decision-making body, was held yesterday after a letter from 23 party leaders sought internal changes including a "full-time and visible" leadership.

Congress has seen a leadership vacuum since Mr Rahul Gandhi resigned as president last year to take moral responsibility for the party's loss in the general election.

His mother Sonia Gandhi, who became interim president, is known to be in poor health and he has resisted calls over the past year to resume charge.

The meeting appeared to have put a lid on the crisis of leadership for now, with most Congress leaders rallying around the Gandhi family and expressing faith in their leadership. A CWC statement said "no one can be permitted to weaken the party".

The letter has been interpreted as a criticism of the Gandhi-Nehru family that has dominated Congress since India's independence in 1947 and given the country three prime ministers, even as its writers maintained it was to help revive the party.

Those who penned the letter included heavyweights such as Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mr Shashi Tharoor and Mr Kapil Sibal, who found themselves under attack from colleagues at the meeting yesterday.

Mr Gandhi criticised the timing of the letter, even as his mother, who had wanted to quit because of it, was persuaded during the meeting to continue for now.

He said it was unfortunate the letter came at a time when his mother was ailing and the party had just recovered from a crisis in Rajasthan.

He is understood to have said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would benefit from the current crisis.

Mrs Gandhi said in concluding remarks at the meeting that the party needed to be united and she did not hold any "ill will against anyone".

SINKING SHIP

Congress is already a ship which is sinking. Whatever is coming out from these meetings, it gives an indication to common people that the party, which should be working to win the confidence of the people, is not able to do so. It (the controversy) is only doing harm to the party.

PROFESSOR SANJAY KUMAR, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The trouble is not new to Congress, which has been struggling politically since 2014 when Prime Minister Modi swept to power on a landslide win and then returned last year with an even bigger mandate.

Congress won just 44 of 542 seats in the Lower House of Parliament last year, in contrast to the 303 seats won by the BJP.

Although Mr Gandhi resigned as Congress president after the loss, he has continued to be the face of the party and makes decisions.

Still, this style of functioning is seen to have rubbed some senior party leaders the wrong way amid concerns that Mr Gandhi resisted taking them into his confidence.

Analysts said the current crisis would only strengthen the perception that the 135-year-old party remained incapable of playing the crucial role of a strong opposition.

Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said: "Congress is already a ship which is sinking. Whatever is coming out from these meetings, it gives an indication to common people that the party, which should be working to win the confidence of the people, is not able to do so. It (the controversy) is only doing harm to the party."

Political commentator and columnist Neerja Chowdhury called it a "missed opportunity" for the party.

"You see from the way the whole thing has been handled... everybody has come to the rescue of the Gandhis and criticised those who wrote the letter. The result is that the Gandhis became the focal point of the exercise and not the issues raised by the 23 people about what needs to change and the need for a full-time president to end the drift. All that has been put on the back-burner."

The party has seen a number of crises in the past year.

In March, it suffered a political setback following the resignation of Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia, who toppled the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and helped the BJP to come back to power.

Last month, Congress staved off a political crisis in Rajasthan after state leader Sachin Pilot and a handful of Members of the Legislative Assembly revolted. But he was persuaded to return to the party fold.

Still, the criticism against those who wrote the letter is seen as a sign that a section of the party is not ready to give up on the dynasty.

Bengaluru-based political analyst Sandeep Shastri said: "I don't think the non-family leadership is ready to bite the bullet, partly because of the cabal around the (Gandhi) leadership. This cabal consists of leaders who haven't won direct elections for some time. They have no mass base of their own and if the First Family doesn't have its place, this cabal would lose its importance."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2020, with the headline 'India's opposition Congress in public crisis over leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe