India's Congress party runs into another crisis with internal discord

Congress politician Sachin Pilot has been sacked as deputy chief minister of Rajasthan.
Congress politician Sachin Pilot has been sacked as deputy chief minister of Rajasthan.

India's Congress party faces fresh turmoil after an internal mutiny threatened its hold on power in the central state of Rajasthan. It is the latest bout of trouble to hit the 135-year-old party, which has continued to struggle to reverse its declining political fortunes.

Mr Sachin Pilot, 42, a well-known face of the party and a key second-rung leader, was sacked yesterday as deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief after going against senior leader Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan chief minister, potentially threatening the state government.

At least 16 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) left with him, weakening the state government. It is unclear whether Mr Pilot has the support of more MLAs, which would be needed to topple the government.

The Congress is the main opposition party of the country but under India's federal system - where every state has a government - it is in power in five out of 29 states and the union territory of Puducherry.

Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of fomenting trouble.

"I regret that Sachin Pilot and some of his associates have been swayed by BJP's plot and are now conspiring to topple the Congress government... It is unacceptable," Mr Surjewala told journalists.

The trouble in Rajasthan is just the latest in a string of problems for the Congress party, which has been struggling for political relevance since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi first swept to power on a landslide win.

Mr Modi returned to office with an even bigger mandate in the 2019 general election.

Congress won just 52 out of 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament last year, in contrast to 303 seats won by Mr Modi's BJP.

Mr Rahul Gandhi, taking responsibility for the party's poor showing, quit as Congress president shortly after the election results last year, leaving his mother, Sonia, 73, to return as president.

A weakened central leadership has resulted in infighting, particularly among state leaders, and a widening rift between senior and younger leaders.

In March, the party suffered a political setback after Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia resigned, together with his loyalists, and joined the BJP, leading to the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

Now, analysts are waiting to see if Mr Pilot will follow the same path.

The Congress leader, whose father Rajesh Pilot was a leading politician in the party before dying in a car crash in 2000, has denied that he is joining the BJP.

Mr Pilot, who was unhappy over not being made chief minister, has gained much from the party, as many pointed out on social media when his political moves made headline news.

He became an MP at 26, a federal minister at 32 and deputy chief minister at 40.

But the latest developments have triggered more disquiet within the Congress. And even loyalists have been left wondering whether the party would continue on a downward spiral.

"Worried for our party, will we wake up after all the horses have bolted from the stable," tweeted senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal.

Still, the revolt comes at a time when Mr Gandhi has been seeking political relevance, questioning Prime Minister Modi over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the country's border troubles with China, and India's economic troubles which have been deepened by a stringent lockdown, since lifted.

Mr Gandhi has also garnered attention with his series of interviews on Covid-19's impact on the Indian economy with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, Indian economist Raghuram Rajan and corporate honcho Rahul Bajaj. In the latest interview, he announced that he would be sharing video messages on social media.

Mr Modi's hold on power remains absolute, but many have seen an opportunity for the Congress to chart a course for political revival. Mr Modi is facing the toughest period of his leadership with a health crisis triggered by the pandemic and slowing economic growth.

But political analysts said Mr Gandhi has to first address the leadership crisis within his party.

The party has long depended on the Nehru Gandhi family, a political dynasty that has led the Congress to numerous electoral wins and given India three prime ministers. Within the party, many believe the dynasty is crucial for unity.

"I think there is a need for some clarity within the Congress. The party requires a long-term strategy. And the first point in this strategy is the whole point of leadership. Is Congress moving towards a post-dynasty leadership or does the party believe it needs the dynasty to keep the party together and maintain unity of party?" said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and pro vice-chancellor at Jain University.

"Whatever you see happening is the symptom. It's not the disease. When you search for the cause, it's the leadership. Unless leadership is clarified, you can't take anything forward."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2020, with the headline India's Congress party runs into another crisis with internal discord. Subscribe