There is ambiguity in Congress leadership. It has an acting and not and active president.

On 15 January 1980, Indira Gandhi had shrugged off her humiliating defeat of 1977 and had returned to the office of the Prime Minister after a break of 33 months and 23 days. The ousted Prime Minister did not have to wait for five years, the Janata Party, a disparate outfit floated by her opponents whom she had imprisoned during the Emergency, could not hold together and the mid-term poll caused by the Janata collapse saw people of India forget and forgive the Emergency excesses and vote Indira Gandhi back to power. The fortieth anniversary of this Congress triumph saw the present leadership of the party struggling to project itself as the principal opposition to Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and stumbling face down as leading stars of the non-BJP dispensation, including Congress’ present allies, chose to stay away from the anti-CAA meet convened by Sonia Gandhi on 13 January.

BJP was not in existence when Indira Gandhi bounced back. The party was formed on 6 April 1980 by erstwhile Jan Sangh elements who came out of the truncated Janata Party along with non-Jan Sangh entities to pose a challenge to Congress rule. The past 40 years have seen the rise and rise of BJP. Congress fortunes have plummeted in direct proportion to the rise of BJP. Getting back to the mantle from where it was routed by the Modi hurricane in 2014 seems a far cry for Congress; its attempt to project itself as the natural leader of the anti-Modi dispensation too has been thwarted by powerful regional satraps—Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and even present allies of Congress—Stalin of DMK and the Thackerays of Shiv Sena who preferred, along with Arvind Kejriwal of AAP, to ignore the13 January jamboree.

Forty years back, Congress was the sole national party. CPI had a nationwide footprint but it was not reflected in its presence in the Parliament of India. The 1964 split in the Communist movement dissipated CPI and as years passed it became the junior partner of the CPI(M) in Left politics. Congress seems to be somewhat following the CPI trajectory. Its nationwide footprint notwithstanding, it is emerging as a bit player in state after state. NCP, which broke away from Congress in 1999, is now the elder brother in Maharashtra. Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, which broke away in 1998, now frowns at the presence of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) and in the anti-CAA movement has been critical of the national party’s joint action along with the Left parties in the state. In Jharkhand, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) prefers to see Congress as the junior partner in the ruling alliance. Mayawati of Bahjuan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party (SP) are not pleased by Priyanka Vadra’s forays into their turf in UP, where the AICC general secretary manages to hit the headlines and catch public imagination by her Indira-style antics. (There is a difference, though; Indira Gandhi rode an elephant in Bihar’s Belchhi in 1978; Priyanka’s defiance of the law was portrayed by riding on the pillion of a scooter in Lucknow last month.)

Mayawati has other reasons to be unhappy: in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Congress has poached its MLAs to bolster its feeble majority on the Vidhan Sabha floor to thwart BJP attempts to dislodge its governments in these states. (Infighting between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and between CM Kamal Nath and his detractors led by Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP could see these regimes skating on thin ice; BSP defections have provided fortification.) AAP is wary of letting Congress emerge as a national player on the eve of Delhi Assembly poll: a stronger Congress can only cut into the anti-BJP votes, which AAP monopolises. Maharashtra ally of Congress, Shiv Sena stayed away on 13 January, though two days later, Aaditya Thackeray met Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi and the two dynasts discussed “vision” for the future. This, while Saamna editor Sanjay Raut was recalling how Indira Gandhi used to meet underworld dons in Bombay (now Mumbai), perhaps as a follow-up to his diatribe on Rahul Gandhi’s “I am not Rahul Savarkar” remark made at a rally in Delhi a month back.

DMK has been an ally of Congress off and on. In the run-up to the next elections in Tamil Nadu, where the ruling AIADMK is not looking comfortable, Congress-DMK alliance has been hit by the acrimony between the state PCC chief, K.S. Alagiri (an acolyte of P. Chidambaram) and the DMK supremo, M. K. Stalin. DMK stayed away from New Delhi on 13 January as a result. Sources say that Stalin suspects that the Chidambaram-Alagiri faction is inclined to play ball with film star Rajinikanth in the next elections. DMK and CPI had sustained the government of India Gandhi when she lost majority following the 1969 Congress split—the Morarji Desai-Kamraj led Congress (O) took away 64 of the 283 Congress Lok Sabha members: 23 of CPI and 25 DMK helped Indira Gandhi cross the halfway mark, which then stood at 260 (Lok Sabha had 520 members then).

Thus, Trinamool Congress, SP, BSP, AAP, DMK and Shiv Sena—each a major regional party and each standing opposite BJP on the present citizenship law imbroglio—have not accepted Sonia Gandhi and her party as the natural leader of the anti-Modi dispensation. Apart from NCP and JMM, which responded to the Congress invite on 13 January the other 17 participants—CPI(M), CPI, Forward Bloc, RSP, Indian Union Muslim League, RJD, AIUDF, National Conference, PDP, JDS, LJD, Swabhimani Paksha, VCK, RLSP, RLD, HAM, Kerala Congress(Mani)—are essentially bit players in the national and regional scenarios. A wary senior Congressman lamented that perhaps the party leadership wanted to follow the style adopted in eating hot khichhdi: in order not to burn fingers, the periphery is tackled first. The core is left to cool down and attempted last.

The unrest centring around citizenship laws is not being largely guided by any organised political party—only Mamata’s Trinamool is in the forefront in West Bengal. Congress may pass resolutions in its working committee and convene 13 January-type meetings, but its presence on the ground is minimal. Ditto for most of the 13 January “warriors”. Eminent author M.J. Akbar has noted in his latest book, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam: “Political battle is fought in the court of public opinion. Public emotion does not necessarily seek reason over emotion” (effective lines, relevant to present times). Congress under Sonia Gandhi has not been able to fight its battles in the court of public opinion. Previously, Rahul Gandhi’s “chowkidar chor hai” campaign could not stir up emotion or affect public opinion, as refleted in the 2019 Lok Sabha verdict. BJP is trying to counter the negative campaign on citizenship imbroglio through a door-to-door outreach, though the juggernaut of RSS has not been effectively obtrusive so far. The feeble sabre-rattling from Lutyens Delhi meeting rooms has not provided sinews to the Opposition campaign. The 1967 and 1974 unrests had thrown up alternative leadership. In 1967, Congress was uprooted from all states in the Indo-Gangetic plane; it was said you could drive on the GT Road from Amritsar to Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known) without passing through a Congress-ruled state. 1974 threw up Jayaprakash Narayan as the mentor and young leaders like Arun Jaitley, Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Ravishankar Prasad, Sushil Modi etcetera emerged on the Opposition horizon. The present unrest, though noticeable nationwide, has not thrown up any leaders. Even an Anna Hazare or a Kejriwal has not been sited.

The first challenge to Indira Gandhi’s leadership post her consolidation over the party in 1969 emerged in Shimla when elections were held for the Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB). Chandrashekhar contested against the panel put up by her and won. CPB finds mention in almost every second paragraph of the Congress party’s Constitution. No elections either for CPB or CWC have been held ever since Sonia Gandhi took over the reins in 1998. Rahul Gandhi too did not think about CPB and continued with nominated CWC. This while neither mother nor son faced any prominent dissident leader within the party. Indira Gandhi had tackled dissidence and split the party in 1969 and in 1978 to consolidate her position. Rajiv Gandhi initially got pinpricks from Pranab Mukherjee and from Kamlapati Tripathi. He was vanquished by the machinations of his estranged cousin, Arun Nehru, who goaded Vishwanath Pratap Singh to lead a revolt, which ultimately resulted in the Bofors disaster and the defeat in 1989. P.V. Narasimha Rao had to face M.L. Fotedar, N.D. Tiwari and the Arjun Singh-led revolt (which had Sonia Gandhi’s covert support): Congress (Tiwari) and a breakaway party of Madhavrao Scindia put paid to Congress fortunes in 1996, despite Narasimha Rao having led a full five-year minority regime, which ushered in reform and a new paradigm in India. Sonia Gandhi’s opponent of 1999, Sharad Pawar is her trusted ally now—of his two comrades, Tariq Anwar has joined Congress; Purno Agitok Sangma’s family is now running the NDA-allied regime in Meghalaya.

There is ambiguity in Congress leadership. It has an acting and not and active president. There is no CPB. Rahul Gandhi quit after the Lok Sabha debacle but is still perceived to be waiting in the wings. His more visible sibling, Priyanka Vadra, is active in UP. She is liked by a large cross-section in the party, but in the Private Limited Company that the present Indian National Congress is, rules of succession are determined by the Mother, who clearly favours the return of her son. Given this ambiguity, can Congress emerge as a leader of any coalition?