The voices of disagreement within the Congress over decisions by the Gandhi family are getting louder. The latest storm has been caused just before Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls on October 21 by Congress leaders like Salman Khurshid and Jyotiraditya Scindia by questioning the escapist mindset that has gripped the Grand Old Party - a reference to Rahul Gandhi's decision to walk away from the party President's post after the Lok Sabha debacle.
The bickering within the Congress is showing little signs of an early end at a time when the party seems to be passing through difficult times with one of its key leader like Rahul Gandhi first taking a break from the party president's post and now showing reluctance to slug it out for five years as an Opposition leader. The sudden exit of Rahul from the top post after the Lok Sabha poll debacle and lack of discussion within the party over its performance has given enough reason to some Congress leaders like Salman Khurshid and Jyotiraditya Scindia to question the escapist mindset that has gripped the Grand Old Party.
At the core of the thorny questions being raised by the two leaders is an increasing feeling among Congressmen that the party must start looking beyond the Gandhis to get back on rails. Or, at least try a new non-Gandhi chief to test the experiment's impact on the party's sinking electoral fortunes.
The observations from the two former Union ministers – one from the political crucial state of UP and the other a former Royal from Gwalior in MP – just before the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections exemplify the simmering discontent within the party even after Sonia Gandhi filled the void left in the party after Rahul's “break” from the top post.
While voices of dissent against the Gandhi family have been coming from several regional party leaders, Khurshid and Scindia's insistence on an internal party analysis of the Lok Sabha election performance further amplifies notes of challenge to the hegemony of the party's first family.
Amid his allegation of a “leadership vacuum” in the party, Khurshid has even hinted at another whitewash of the party in the forthcoming Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra on October 21, while justifying his demand for analysing the real reasons for the repeated failure of the Congress in electoral outings.
Rahul's confidant Scindia, too, has stuck to his suggestion of introspection over the poor performance of the Congress in the May parliamentary election in which the party only managed to win 52 out of the 543 seats.
The distress signals being openly sent out by the two leaders from the Hindi belt point towards a new dangerous trend in the Congress in which even the presence of a Gandhi family member at the top has failed to deter party leaders from voicing their discomfort over thorny party issues in public.
When Sonia recently arrived at the helm of the party, after four months of suspense of Rahul's yes-no exit, there were expectations that the Congress shall gradually regain its cohesive face - something that Sonia had successfully achieved when she first became the party president in the late1990s and invested in a team, led by the likes of Ahmed Patel, that infused the fighting spirit in the organisation shaken by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This, however, has not been the case so far in her second innings in the top post.
Apart from a virtual revolt within the party over its stand against the Narendra Modi government's decision to abrogate of Article 370, the past six months have also seen disagreement within the party over the strategy to counter the BJP in the LS polls. A section of leaders have questioned why the Congress resorted to excessive demonising of Modi and another set of party men faulted the decision to promise in its manifesto a watered down Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
While Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi were among those who challenged the party’s strategy in Lok Sabha polls of personally attacking Modi, Khurshid and Scindia are insisting on narrowing down on the causes behind the drubbing in May. Khurshid was categorical in pointing out that Rahul should not have “walked away”in a huff and continued in the post after the defeat in Lok Sabha elections.
In the post-Lok Sabha poll period that has seen a diminishing sway of the Gandhis over the Congress, some other young leaders including Jitin Prasada in Uttar Pradesh, Milind Deora in Maharashtra and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan have disagreed with the anti-government stand of the party on an emotive issue like Article 370. Rahul's remarks on “people dying in the Valley” and Pakistan's decision to cite him in its petition at the UN also embarrassed many Congress leaders who avoided defending his remarks.
The underlying message being sent out by Congressmen, who are questioning actions of Rahul Gandhi, is to forget about the party's past record and reinvent the party, even if it requires dumping the model that sees Gandhis as central to all party campaigns and top decisions. This they believes is the only solution to counter the aggressive victory machine of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. The digital spread and contemporary nationalist overtones of BJP campaigns have paled the Congress party's old, dynastic outlook to win elections.
In addition to the worrisome squabbling and self-criticism by Congressmen, the growing stature and clout of the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah has been steadily pushing the Congress towards a soft disintegration, despite the presence of the Gandhi family that has served as the binding gel for the over 100-year-old party.
Khurshid and Scindia's views on party governance have opened a Pandora's box just before assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana and that, too, at a time when Rahul took a quick, short break in the middle of the campaign to fly to Cambodia for a “mediation” session.
While Rahul has now rushed back to the country and started campaigning in Maharashtra, there are signs of party leaders doubting his ability to sit out in the Opposition and slug it out against the BJP government till 2024 Lok Sabha polls before taking another shot at the Modi-Shah combine.
At this time, a faction-ridden Congress is staring at an uphill task of dislodging BJP governments in Haryana and Maharashtra with disagreements among leaders coming into the open against party high command's choice of candidates and CM faces in the two states.
The virtual challenge to interim chief Sonia Gandhi's decision on ticket distribution in the two states has come from a cross-section of leaders, including those perceived to be close to Rahul Gandhi, and shows the pervading disillusionment among a section of Congressmen who seem worried about a their own future in the decaying party.
Faced with an existential crisis like the current one, the Congress needs to take a fresh look at the vote catching capability of the Gandhi family beyond the few pockets in the Hindi belt and in the South. When Rahul suggested a non-Gandhi head of the party for rebooting the Congress, it was seen by many Gandhi family loyalists as a death knell for them. But it seems the Congress' fight for survival has shown little sign of urgency and is tilting the balance heavily in favour of Modi-led BJP that seems to be succeeding in its “Congress-mukt Bharat” mission to give India a new genre of selfless and nationalist leadership.