On a day the Congress turned 136, Rahul Gandhi, tipped to be party chief again, courted controversy.

The Gandhi scion skipped the party’s foundation day ceremony on December 28 as he flew to Milan, Italy reportedly to visit his grandmother. But it provided his critics yet another opportunity to insinuate that he is a part-time politician and may not be suited to the 24×7 style of politics practiced by the BJP under PM Modi.

Party leaders though defended him saying there was a valid reason for Rahul’s sudden visit to Italy and that it was perfectly okay for a politician to take an occasional break, the Gandhi scion has a history of making such disappearances that left the party managers nonplussed.

Recently, he went holidaying in Himachal Pradesh in the midst of do-or-die Bihar assembly elections. Earlier, he missed a key Opposition meeting in January just months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In June the same year, Rahul went abroad for a month after resigning over the party’s poor performance in the Lok Sabha polls.

In 2016, he had taken a few days’ off to celebrate the New Year when ticket distribution for the Punjab polls was due. In December 2015, he had gone to Europe before the Assam polls in April 2016.

However, Rahul’s most talked about disappearance was from February to April 2015 at a time when the Congress had planned nationwide agitations against the controversial land acquisition ordinance brought in by the Modi government.

Rahul was elected party president in December 2017 replacing Sonia Gandhi who had provided leadership to the Congress since 1998 and was behind the United Progressive Alliance government from 2004 to 2014.

One-and-a-half years later, Rahul resigned as Congress president in May 2019 owning responsibility for the party’s Lok Sabha poll debacle and asked strategists to select a non-Gandhi to steer the party through difficult times. But after months of looking around for a suitable candidate, the party managers had to urge Sonia Gandhi to take over interim chief till a new full-time president was in place.

As 2020 came to a close, the buzz in the party was that Rahul may be back in the saddle in 2021 though the due process of internal party polls will be followed to make it seem like a democratic exercise. The prospect of Rahul’s return has been worrying many party veterans for a while and had even forced them to write a letter to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 demanding sweeping changes in the organization and a full-time visible president to take on the BJP juggernaut.

These veterans have reasons to be worried. The Congress has lost two consecutive national elections in 2014 and 2019 and has little or no presence across large states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In Delhi, the country’s capital, where the party ruled for three consecutive terms under former chief minister late Sheila Dikshit from 1998 to 2013, the party has no presence in the assembly. Over the past years the party has lost governments to the BJP in Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and has not been able to present itself as an effective
national counter to the saffron party since the historic defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. At present, the Congress rules only in Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry and shares power in Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

Fed up over the continuing drift in the grand old party, historian and author Ramachandra Guha recently expressed his anguish saying it was time the Gandhis quit not only the top post but the party itself.

The Congress of today is very different from the party that won the country independence from British rule in 1947, Guha said as he went on to add that Gandhis’ exit would create a churn which will throw up a new leader. Many party leaders share Guha’s sentiment but don’t have the courage to speak out in public or within party forums for fear of losing their positions.

As expected, Guha’s criticism riled the Gandhi family loyalists who charged that the historian had a personal axe to grind against the Congress first family. They pointed out that the Gandhi surname acts like a glue and keeps the party factions together and provides them an ideological rallying point.

These leaders also argue that a change of guard, where a Gandhi is not at the helm, may not work out well, lead to severe infighting and throw the party into a deeper mess at a time when the entire organization should be working together to take on the BJP.

Those opposed to the idea point out that though the Congress has shrunk, the party still has presence across the country and there is no dearth of talented, ideologically committed and energetic persons who can provide leadership and new vision to a worn-out organization.

This section of leaders also point out that a non-Gandhi as party chief may not be an effective mechanism as the person won’t be able to take decisions without first getting a nod from the Gandhis, whose presence would give way to two power centers within the party.

Explaining the oft-repeated charge that Rahul lacks seriousness and leadership skills, his supporters argue that this view is being propagated by the BJP which knows that the Gandhi scion is the only leader who consistently takes on PM Modi.

That may be true but Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, an ally of the Congress, also recently remarked that Rahul lacked consistency in politics. The Maharashtra leader however was equally critical of BJP and PM Modi.

In the past, names of young and dynamic Congress leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot had been discussed as potential party chief candidates.

But Scindia is now a BJP Rajya Sabha member while Pilot is still trying to figure out his political future after his revolt against Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot fizzled out in July 2020.

The Congress must resolve its leadership crisis soon and play the role of a strong national opposition needed in a parliamentary democracy.

Note: This article was modifed upon request from contributor on 16-01-2021.

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The opinion expressed in the article is of the writer. Writer is a freelance journalist/journalist based in Delhi

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