Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan: Congress infighting and the perils of leadership vacuum

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Updated: September 05, 2021 2:02 PM

What appears to be a bigger problem for the Congress is that in many such cases, the friction does not cease to end despite the intervention of the Gandhis. 

What appears to be a bigger problem for the Congress is that in many such cases, the friction does not cease to end despite the intervention of the Gandhis. 

In July 2019, Rahul Gandhi had announced quitting as the Congress president while taking responsibility for the party’s poll debacle in the Lok Sabha polls. Two years on, the grand old party continues to struggle with the leadership crisis as it is yet to appoint a full-time president. In fresh worry for the Congress, With elections in key states due next year, an unending wave of internal conflicts appears to have gripped the state units of the party where polls are due less than a year from now. What appears to be a bigger problem for the Congress is that in many such cases, the friction does not cease to end despite the intervention of the Gandhis. 

With its footprint shrinking since 2014, the year the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre, the Congress is now in power in six states, but has its chief ministers in only Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the party is just a junior partner. 

While in all the three states in crisis – Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – the reasons for the crisis and internal feud differ, there is one common thread that binds them together – the demand for a change in leadership. 

Captain Amarinder Singh vs Navjot Singh Sidhu

The crisis in Punjab began right since the Congress came to power and Captain Amarinder Singh was appointed as the chief minister for a second term. Ever since then, the Captain and former state minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is now the Punjab Congress chief, have been at loggerheads with the latter leaving no opportunity to publicly embarrass the chief minister.

While the battle appeared to have been resolved following the intervention of interim president Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the demand for a change in leadership resurfaced 

after Sidhu was cornered over his advisors’ remarks, suggesting Kashmir as a separate country and posting a caricature showing former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with a gun as she stood on a pile of human skulls. 

A faction of over 32 of the 78 MLAs from the Congress in the state, who are believed to be Sidhu loyalists, has demanded the party remove Captain as the chief minister. While they have not suggested a replacement for the top post, it is evident what they are aiming at. 

Bhupesh Baghel vs TS Singh Deo

In Chhattisgarh, where the Congress dislodged the BJP in 2018, drawing the curtains on the saffron party’s 15-year rule, differences between two factions in the party became open after Health Minister TS Singh Deo reminded the party high command of its promise of rotational chief minister ship soon after the government crossed the halfway mark into its five-year tenure. 

While Singh, the richest MLA in the state, is demanding what he was apparently ‘promised’, Baghel has made it clear that he will not give up the top position while refusing to have agreed to any rotational CM theory. 

As the so-called ‘promise’ was made by Rahul Gandhi, he recently met the two warring leaders of the state to end the stalemate. The meeting is believed to have ended inconclusively. 

Ashok Gehlot vs Sachin Pilot

In Rajasthan, a young turk is posing a challenge to the old guard. When the Congress came to power in the state in 2018, Ashok Gehlot thwarted all possible challenges from his deputy Sachin Pilot, who was then considered close to Rahul Gandhi. 

However, during the first wave of pandemic last year, Pilot revolted against the 70-year-old chief minister, claiming the support of over two dozen MLAs. This rebellion rang alarm bells for the party leadership as it came close to a similar revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia, another close friend of Rahul Gandhi, against Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh which eventually led to the state slipping out of the Congress’ hands. 

While a truce was called between the two after Priyanka Gandhi’s intervention, that did not seem to repair much damage. Speculations are rife that Pilot may be preparing for a fresh showdown if Gehlot does not accommodate his loyalists in the government.

Root cause lies in leadership vacuum

These troubles for the Congress come in the backdrop of seven states – including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat – going to the polls next year. In four of these states, the Grand Old Party is in direct contest with the BJP.

Most analysts have argued that the leadership vacuum at the top is the core cause of the crisis faced by the Congress in both, the state ruled by it, and also where the party is in the Opposition. 

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta observed that the leadership crisis at the top was a bigger problem for the Congress than the infighting at the state level.   

“There is infighting in every party, some more, some less. In the BJP too, there has been a lot of infighting but with an authoritative leader like Modi, the infighting and factionalism have not come out to the surface. In all the parties, there are factions, groups and ego clashes, it’s not new or unique to the Congress,” said Guha, who further suggests that an effective opposition against the Modi government will not be possible without the Congress. 

He also said that while Rahul Gandhi is not willing to lead the party, those outside the “family” don’t know how to lead it.  

Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, also blamed the leadership crisis for the unabated infighting in states. She suggested that the state leaders be given more decision-making powers and space.

“Congress, more than any other, has a history of disputes going back to the early years of Independence. The difference between then and now is that back then, the disputes were also ideological which are now principally factional and these have only accelerated because the party is out of power,” Hasan told FinancialExpress.com.

“The reason why the party hasn’t been able to resolve the issues is because it has been unable to resolve its leadership issue. They need to have a full-time President, which they have not done in two years,” she added. 

Meanwhile, retired JNU professor Anuradha Chenoy said that the Congress leadership was indecisive and unable to gain the confidence of its own regional bosses, adding that Rahul Gandhi does not trust his state leaders. 

The level of urgency needed to resolve the leadership crisis in the Congress is evident from the array of objections raised by the G-23 signatories, who are believed to be representing a much larger number of party seniors.  

While the formation of G-23 may have its roots in some thwarted personal ambitions of those who feel that they have been overlooked, the issues highlighted by the signatories, which prominently include wide-ranging changes in the party’s functioning and a full-time leadership, cannot be ignored.

A major section of political observers believe that a rudderless Congress is bad for itself, and it is also likely to hurt the prospects of the Opposition, which has sensed an opening in what it terms as the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic.

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