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If Rahul Gandhi stays out, Congress must find an active, full-time leader: Shashi Tharoor

Congress is indispensable to India's future but needs to get its act together quickly.

If Rahul Gandhi stays out, Congress must find an active, full-time leader: Shashi Tharoor
File photo of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor | PTI

My recently renewed calls for the Indian National Congress to take steps to revive its leadership have stirred some disquiet. Well-meaning friends have told me that I am liable to be misunderstood; that by saying out loud what so many have been whispering privately, I would leave myself open to charges of disloyalty.

But it is out of the greatest loyalty to the ideals and values of the Congress party that I have spoken up. I am not a lifetime politician; I do not think like a careerist, anxious above all to avoid rocking the boat. I am in politics because I hold a set of convictions I believe are necessary for India to advance, and I support the Congress because its history, its experience, and the talent available to it make it the best vehicle to advance the inclusive values and pluralist principles I hold dear.

Yet, the recent results of the Delhi assembly election, where the Congress again drew a blank, undermine that claim. After placing fourth in Maharashtra, being accused of not trying hard enough in Haryana, and losing Karnataka so soon after forming a government there, Delhi offers the most recent case for the Congress to urgently address key concerns that are hampering our effectiveness as a pan-national political alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At a time when we should be consolidating ourselves as the obvious answer to the increasingly discredited BJP, to score 4 per cent of the vote in the national capital is worse than a defeat, it is an embarrassment. Worse, it feeds into the increased public perception, fuelled by a dismissive media, that the Congress is adrift and rudderless, incapable of taking up the challenge of a credible national opposition.

An endless limbo

As a student of the party’s proud history in the vanguard of the national movement, as an admirer of the great leaders it gave to the nation, and as a foot soldier of the party who has propagated its values in books, articles and speeches around the country, I do not want to see the Congress reduced to a term of derision. In my view, the Congress is indispensable to the future of India. It offers an alternative unifying vision to the divisive and exclusionary ideology of the current ruling dispensation that has fractured our society through their politics of polarisation and driven our economy to the ground. The Congress alone has the vision, the capability and the nationwide footprint to champion the dreams and aspirations of the people of India.

But for us to do that, we need to actively work to change the existing perception about the Congress. When, following the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi offered his resignation as the party’s president to take accountability for our stinging defeat, I was one of many who tried to talk him out of it. First, because the collective outcome demanded collective responsibility, but equally because of the firm belief among Congress workers that he has the capacity and vision to rally the party together and take it forward on an immediate process of revival. At the end of the day, he stuck to his decision and we must respect that. Many believe that the current sense of drift is because the party establishment is waiting indefinitely for him to change his mind. If true, is that fair — to him or to the party?

Of course, if Rahul does agree to reinstatement, then the sooner he does so the better, and the party will welcome it.But if he persists in his determination to decline the office, we need to find an active and full-time leadership so the party can move forward as the nation expects. As I said in my interview to the PTI Sunday, the Working Committee has for now found an excellent interim solution in the redoubtable Sonia Gandhi, but it is increasingly becoming clear that we cannot indefinitely keep depending on, and burdening, a president who had only just relinquished the job less than two years ago. It is not fair to her, and not fair to the voters.

Evolving with the times

The longer the Congress waits to get its act together, the greater the risk of a steady erosion of our traditional vote bank and their gravitation towards our political competitors. This is why I suggested that electing a new Congress president, as well as members of the Working Committee, is imperative. I have personally been an outspoken advocate for free and transparent elections within the party for these positions—because a leader elected by the party workers will have a great advantage in addressing organisational challenges as well as the process of rebuilding that is required to internally strengthen the rank and file of the party. A president appointed by the ‘high command’ would lack the same legitimacy.

As a democrat, I believe the value of a truly representative body within the Congress is immeasurable. To begin with, it would energise the workers and give them a sense that they are in control of the party’s political destiny. To those who claim it would divide the party, I respectfully argue that a participatory electoral process, channelling the wishes of the members of the AICC plus PCC delegates – some 10,000 workers in all – is an exercise in inner-party democracy that will strengthen the party. It will usher in a popular leadership team with a credible mandate to work dynamically to address the party’s organisational challenges. And ultimately, we need to recognise that the Congress needs to evolve with the times, and a process of revival also means a process of bringing in new ideas and fresh faces that can offer solutions to today’s challenges.

Building on some positives

The new leadership team would have the mandate to take tough decisions about whom to appoint (and to disappoint) as party office-bearers. It would be able to end the confusion about what we stand for and communicate it effectively and authoritatively. It would start the revival of the Congress in states, especially strengthening the grassroots structures, which have atrophied in many places. Where necessary, it would explore pragmatic coalitions so as not to divide the anti-government vote, including promoting the possibility of an opposition front in Parliament (which we need not be the convenors of, if a smaller party can do it more easily). Above all, it would articulate a vision for the future that embraces the aspirations of India’s majority — the young.

As I have repeatedly argued, obituaries for the Congress party remain premature. Let us not forget that we have managed to form successful alliances in both Maharashtra and Jharkhand and offered a strong challenge to the BJP in Haryana. We have effective governments in Puducherry, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh, all of which have a proven record of credible performance. In the previous Lok Sabha election, we secured 19 per cent of the vote share, which is no small number. We need to build on such positives. The time for a restart is now.

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