Dynasty stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back at the Congress party. The Nietzschean nightmare of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi is the GenNext vacuum of a credibly-nurtured state leadership, which can do battle under his standard in all the five states going to the polls from February to March. The hand has rocked no other family cradle to produce a young leader in Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttrakhand, Punjab and Goa, capable of keeping the Congress flag flying for the next decade or more. If the party performs well in a few states, the credit goes to the anti-incumbency factor or carefully crafted coalition calculus compatibility rather than the charisma of a local leader. Ever since Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the ranks of regional satraps in the Congress have thinned, either due to divine intervention or poaching by regional parties.
Tragically, its High Command has failed to create an alternative local leadership. Evidently, the Congress couldn’t field a leader formidable enough to strike a deal for seats with the 43-year-old Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. In the next two years, over a dozen states will go to the polls, where the narrative is the same. Though the ruling BJP lacks effective local commanders in many parts of the country, it always has Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fill the space. A look at the status of the Congress party as of now:
North: The Congress is but a marginal player. It rules only tiny Himachal Pradesh; that too, captained by a 82-year-old CM Virbhadra Singh. In Bihar, UP, Haryana, J&K, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party has been in exile for more than a decade due to the absence of a strong organisation and leadership. It made a marginal comeback in Bihar after striking an alliance with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. In both Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is yet to discover a challenger to the popular CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who looks set to win a fourth term in the Assembly. The Congress could have projected Jyotiraditya Scindia as a future CM by giving him the full freedom to strategise for future battles. But Rahul is unable to neutralise the influence of the older generation over the decision-making process. Even in Haryana, he is finding it difficult to contain cabals and let popular leaders, such as former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, to take on the ruling BJP.
It is only in Rajasthan where the Congress appears to be in a better position with former CM Ashok Gehlot and state party president Sachin Pilot working in tandem to revive the party from scratch. For the first time, it has reposed faith in the 39-year-old Pilot to challenge the mighty maharani, Vasundhara Raje. However, Rahul hasn’t paid much attention to UP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, which send over 125 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The stellar phalanx of cowbelt titans like V P Singh, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Kamalapati Tripathi, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, Satyendra Narayan Singh, Abdul Ghafoor, Bhagwat Jha Azad, Jagannath Mishra and Jagjivan Ram in the Congress has been reduced to mere gold dust. Rahul is wanting in dismantling the control of entrenched satraps over state organisations and replacing them with fresh new faces.
South: Barring Karnataka, the Congress is conspicuous by its absence in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala. From its ranks had risen a President, a Prime Minister and even party heads. Even when the rest of India decisively rejected the party in the face of the 1977 Janata Wave, the south saved the Congress from complete decimation. Indira Gandhi’s political rebirth was from Chikmagalur. Today, in Kerala, former CM Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala, former state Congress president, have the political potency to confront the Left Front. The Congress owes its ruling status in Karnataka to the popularity of CM Siddaramaiah, who joined it a few years ago and not to its homegrown leadership acumen.
In spite of the legacy of giants like Moopanar, the party has been out of power in Tamil Nadu for almost four decades and is unlikely to stage a comeback in the near future. In Andhra Pradesh, its morale is yet to recover from the shock of YSR’s passing. His son Jaganmohan Reddy has more acceptability than any Congress leader in the state. In Telangana, which owes its formation mainly to the Congress, the party is the main opposition; it is hardly seen as an alternative to the ruling TRS because none of its leaders have the stature to withstand CM K Chandrashekar Rao.
East: Till recently, like the sun, the fortunes of the Congress rose in the East. For many decades, it controlled five of the nine states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha and West Bengal. Now, barring Manipur, it has almost vanished from the rest. In Arunachal, the entire Congress legislature party turned saffron because the High Command refused to delegate full powers to the local leadership. Though there are dedicated party workers in most of the states, the Grand Old Party doesn’t have a leader with enough charm and chutzpah to mobilise them to battle the ruling parties.
The GOP has lost West Bengal and Odisha to regional parties forever. With the deaths of monolithic leaders like Siddhartha Shankar Ray, ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, Nandini Satpathy and more, the party has been orphaned in the East. Even Mamata Banerjee floated her own gig, the Trinamool Congress, and became the nemesis of her political parent. Even then, no state Congress leader has been groomed to pose even a marginal threat to her.
West: The Congress sun is about to set here. It is gasping for survival in Goa. Maharashtra and Gujarat have said adieu. The Congress was a powerful organisation in Maharashtra till a decade ago with credible state leaders at the helm. Now, the party lacks a young, upcoming commander who can rescue it from the muddy trenches. For example, the BJP has been ruling in Gujarat for over two decades. Narendra Modi made the Congress almost disappear with his aggressive development agenda and strong leadership. But the Congress top brass never envisaged creating a youthful leadership to fight a Modi-less state government. It has many young political inheritors but none of them have been projected as the party’s chief minister in 2017.
Even in Maharashtra, while the BJP and NCP have been able to define their leaders and order of succession, the Congress is busy dousing the bushfires of factional feuds. The Congress is still a party with a pan-Indian footprints. But during the past two decades, its acceptability and desirability have taken a massive beating because of absence of clean and promising faces. As Gandhi name got blunted as brand, many leaders with name and fame jumped what they thought was a sinking ship. Nevertheless, the Congress is still an idea, but it is collapsing as an ideologically-led institution. Unless Rahul Gandhi gets a team of political masons who can restore the rusted Congress edifice, the Congress will soon become an idea whose time has ended.
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