Nothing but trouble for India's Congress

Sonia Gandhi's party is fighting the sacking of a state chief; 2 others face financial scandals

The Congress party, which has been trying to revive its political fortunes since its humiliation in the 2014 elections, is battling trouble on several fronts which could further erode its status in Indian politics.

The party is fighting the sacking of its state chief Nabam Tuki by the federal government in Arunachal Pradesh - a sensitive north-eastern border state that China claims as its own - and a corruption scandal involving another state chief, Oomen Chandy, in Kerala. The scandal in the southern state, which goes to the polls in three months, relates to alleged impropriety in solar power projects worth billions of rupees.

A third Congress chief, Virbhadra Singh in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, is fighting allegations of money laundering.

The Congress party won just 44 of 545 seats in the 2014 general election following a series of corruption scandals during its second term in federal power, including over the allotment of 2G spectrum licences.

Since then, the party, which has ruled India for most of its post-independence history, has been struggling to recover. It has lost a series of state-level elections, except in Bihar where it was part of an alliance with two powerful regional leaders.

A leadership transition from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, a member of the Gandhi Nehru clan, to her son Rahul Gandhi has been proceeding slowly.

Political analysts said the party was losing ground even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had mounted an aggressive campaign.

"For the Congress, the recovery from the general election defeat has not happened. There is an inability to develop a clear road map on where you want to go to recover," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"As an opposition, it needs to consolidate its base. When the BJP came up with the slogan 'Congress mukt bharat' (Congress-free India), many thought it was rhetorical. As things are proceeding, one gets the feeling the BJP is serious, even in the way it is appropriating Congress symbols like Gandhi."

The government, for example, launched its clean India mission on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday.

Still, it is the crisis in Arunachal Pradesh, which shares its borders with China, Bhutan and Myanmar, that looks set to hit the party hardest. The Congress has now filed a case in the Supreme Court which asked the federal BJP-led government to explain its hurry in sacking the chief minister.

The BJP has no presence in the north-east but it is hoping to make inroads through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, another Congress-ruled state. The Congress is in power in eight states, of which four are north-eastern states.

Elections in Assam are due in four months and Congress has been laid low by infighting in its state unit.

"In Assam and Arunachal, the Congress is hoping the BJP won't make it. There is an element of denial... a leadership failure to anticipate or take corrective steps," said journalist Rasheed Kidwai, who has written books on the Congress.

Dr Bhaskara Rao, of the Delhi- based Centre for Media Studies, said Congress lacked leadership and strategy and suffers from a "disconnect from the grassroots". "And the question is how far Rahul Gandhi can reverse this deterioration, that remains to be seen," he said.

Congress has blamed the BJP for its troubles in the states, threatening to disrupt the upcoming Budget session of Parliament.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Nothing but trouble for India's Congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe