New Delhi: The spectre of the Congress being suspended or disqualified looms large, unless it can provide a satisfactory explanation to the Election Commission as to why it has not been able to elect a permanent president following Rahul Gandhi’s resignation last year. Sonia Gandhi was installed as the interim president by the Congress Working Committee and on Monday would complete one year in office. The party has been maintaining that the process of electing a new chief has been deferred on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it shall comply with the provisions of the EC as soon as a semblance of normalcy was restored.

Normally, the Election Commission is soft on internal party issues, but if it chooses to, it can take overriding action against any political party that has not observed the laid down norms. The measures can include freezing the election symbol under the Symbol Order, which is an Executive decision, deployed so far only once, while dealing with the regional party headed by former Lok Sabha Speaker, P.A. Sangma.

The political parties are governed by Section 29 (A), sub clause (V) of the Representation of People’s Act, which was introduced in 1989 to bring them under its ambit. Every party, including the Congress, had to re-register itself, after furnishing an undertaking that it owed allegiance to the Constitution of India and would also go in for periodic elections. While there is no rule that stipulates the procedure for ensuring compliance, there is nothing that prevents the Commission, at any stage, from taking a call on the matter, if and when, it deems appropriate. To begin with, the EC would examine if the INC Constitution has a specific provision regarding the election of a new president within a specified period after the incumbent vacates the post. It can order the party to hold the internal elections within this stipulated time frame.

The crisis within the party is likely to further deepen if Sonia Gandhi—who had recently been admitted to the Ganga Ram hospital, following some health complications—decides to go abroad for her annual medical check-up. With Rahul Gandhi reluctant to take charge, the party would have to appoint someone post-haste in order to carry forward the search for a new Congress president, who can be elected only by the All India Congress Committee. The grassroots workers of the party have been demanding that the AICC should be convened at the earliest, so that the key organisational position can be filled up. They have also been asking for the re-instatement of the Congress Parliamentary Board, with a duly elected Working Committee, to provide representation to leaders who have a connect with the workers.

Deeply concerned with the current weak state of the organisation, where multiple power centres have emerged, thereby making the Congress highly vulnerable and susceptible to the machinations of the BJP, senior leaders have been consulting each other, to find ways and means to pre-empt any unforeseeable development. The Rajasthan government is in acute difficulty, and there is already a prevalent threat to the coalition government in Jharkhand that could, in all likelihood, shortly collapse. The BJP has been closely following the unfolding drama within the Congress, and would not, even for a minute, hesitate to take advantage of the unfurling situation. Its aim is to have a Congress Mukt Bharat.

The issues that need to be immediately addressed and resolved include the paradoxical stand taken by Rahul Gandhi, who on one hand, has made it categorically clear that he does not wish to return as the party chief, yet on the other hand, prefers to remain silent when his close associates continue to make ad nauseam repeated demands for his reinstatement. It would give greater clarity to the rank and file of the party, if those wanting him to be back in saddle, stop doing so.

Sonia Gandhi’s health does not permit her to be pro-active as the president, and she needs to be, at the earliest, relieved of her many responsibilities in the larger interest of the organisation. The substantial problem within the Congress has been that all through her prolonged tenure, she has centralised the decision-making process. Every ruling is made by her making the process of consultation minimal. This is in sharp variance with the earlier practice when decisions were taken after factoring in the views of senior leaders, and prior to that, by the Congress Parliamentary Board.

The CPB was an all-powerful body and each Rajya Sabha seat or that of the Legislative Council required its clearance. While the Congress has done away with the CPB, the BJP imbibed the practice, which enables the Parliamentary Board of the party to collectively arrive at pertinent and significant decisions.

Throughout Sonia Gandhi’s tenure, she has been the supreme leader in every sense of the word. Apart from being the party president, she was leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, the chairperson of the UPA and the head of the Election Committee and the Working Committee. As the convener of the National Advisory Council, during the UPA regime, she was also virtually the de-facto Prime Minister. This concentration of authority and power has, in fact, led to the decline of the party. In addition, her proclivity of favouring Dalits-Muslims over others fragmented and weakened the party.

The views taking shape, after consultations amongst senior leaders within the Congress, are that once Rahul’s final decision is known, the party should go ahead with the organisational elections and elect a non-Gandhi. In the interim, there could be either an arrangement of collective leadership, or a leader with proven abilities and logistical skills—such as Kamal Nath or Bhupinder Singh Hooda—could be handed over the reins. The younger leaders surely could participate in the elections and therefore would discover their actual standing within the party. Those who cross this election hurdle, can be thus shortlisted as future leaders.

In the current political scenario, where the BJP has been pushing for the Hindutva agenda, leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has the longest operational cum strategic experience, and Ahmed Patel, who has run the party for Sonia Gandhi, may find themselves ruled out due to compulsions of pragmatic and real politics. The Congress has to take this call, as soon as possible.