NEW DELHI: With the Congress leaders all set for marathon brainstorming session at the three-day Chintan Shivir to be held on 13 May at Udaipur (Rajasthan), there are challenges galore for the grand old party, with the biggest one being ‘who will lead the party’ to challenge the ruling dispensation at the Centre in the next parliamentary elections in 2024. What the party is struggling to deal with is the “existential crisis” that it has landed in following massive electoral defeats. So, zeroing in on a ‘face’ that could salvage the party from existing mess is a big question that the Chintan Shivir needs to look into. It is in this backdrop that the upcoming Udaipur Shivir assumes significance.
This will be the fourth such brainstorming session since Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party. None of such ‘Shivirs’ except the one held in 2003 came to the rescue of the Congress. Another big challenge is the BJP emerging as a much stronger political rival after its resounding victory in four states including Uttar Pradesh. Undeniably, the Hindutva agenda has added to the saffron party’s strength. The much-touted ‘bulldozer and louder-speaker’ issues are also there for the BJP to use as a political weapon. At the same time, Congress-ruled state Rajasthan has seen bids to engineer communal riots. With the political challenges growing day by day like this, the Congress during the brainstorming is supposed to explore ways to counter the politics of polarization.
The Gehlot government in Rajasthan is likely to use its schemes for farmers, employees and common man to counter the communal card. BJP is already under pressure due to revival of the old pension scheme in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress is also raising the similar demand in Madhya Pradesh. Urban employment guarantee, health scheme, loan waiver for farmers, are also some of the steps that the Gehlot government is showcasing to woo common men.
Observers believe that Congress may gain electoral advantage if it pushes its governments’ schemes instead of focusing on attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there should be a suitable leadership that could take the strategy forward. There are indications that the Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan will finally choose a face this time. A large section of the party will appeal to Rahul Gandhi to accept the president post. The disgruntled leaders will also join the chorus. However, Rahul Gandhi can get the party president post whenever he wants.
Sources say that if Rahul Gandhi does not accept the post, then there will be two possibilities. One, there are efforts aimed at making Sonia Gandhi a full-time president again, with appointment of some vice presidents. There will be no objection to this proposal as well. Many believe that her image creates a positive impression among women voters. Moreover, under her leadership, factionalism will come to an end in the party. Second possibility is to give the party’s top post to a non-Gandhi leader. The debate over assigning this responsibility to a leader outside the Gandhi family dates back to 2019 when Rahul Gandhi had resigned as party president. That time, Ahmed Patel, who was advisor to Sonia, had convinced all the leaders to accept Mukul Wasnik for the post.
As per the party’s constitution, the longest serving General Secretary could be given the interim president post. And Wasnik was fit for the top post by virtue of being general secretary for over two decades. Moreover, his Dalit background also stood him in a good stead. But the leaders close to Rahul Gandhi made a wrong move and at their advice the Gandhi scion pushed the name of a non-Hindi leader K.C. Venugopal from Kerala for the president post. This led to internal tussles with the result that Sonia had to be the interim president. But Sonia did not intervene in the party’s internal affairs too much, as a result of which the Congress could not win even a single state after 2019. Now she has started leading from the front.
If Sonia Gandhi approves a non-Gandhi name for the president post, then there will be the least possibility of team Rahul putting up any resistance. In this case, an office-bearer of the party may be given the top post. However, the Gandhis have to decide. A large section, however, wants someone from the Gandhi family to shoulder the organizational responsibility. If a name could not be finalised, then Sonia will continue to lead like this till 2024. The Chintan Shivir is going to be held for the first time without a full-time president.
After taking over the charge of the party in 1998, Sonia Gandhi had chalked out a strategy to revive the party during the Pachmarhi Chintan Shivir in 1999. There were so many stalwarts with the Congress then and the party was strong in several states. This was followed by the Shimla Chintan Shivir in 2003 where it was decided that the Congress will be open for alliance like the NDA. After this, Congress formed the UPA government in 2004 which lasted ten years. But there was a negative aspect to this as well. Congress-led alliance’s partners faced corruption allegations.
The grand old party had to pay a political cost for that. The BJP and the AAP made corruption a big issue against Congress, which still haunts it. The public anger cost Congress its governments at Centre as well as Delhi. Senior leader Janardan Dwivedi had advised Congress to shun alliance politics during the UPA II. But it was not heeded.