Sink-or-swim moment for India’s grand old Congress party

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India's Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi (L) listens to her son Rahul Gandhi (R), at a family function in New Delhi.  Photo/Reuters/Files

The resignation of top Congress party politician Shankersinh Vaghela has sent ripples through Indian politics.

The move, announced  hours after India’s opposition candidate Meira Kumar lost a presidential poll marred by cross-voting, is expected to dash the Congress party’s chances of winning state assembly polls scheduled for later this year.

Vaghela, who is said to have engineered the cross-voting of 11 Congress lawmakers from the state during the presidential election, could have helped the party to win at least 12 seats in northern Gujarat in the upcoming assembly polls.

While he is yet to decide whether to float a new party or join the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar, more Gujarat state leaders are likely to desert Congress to support him, political analysts say.

Congress had expected Vaghela’s resignation, which came as he was celebrating his 77th birthday on Friday. In recent months the party had turned down his requests to elevate him to state president, as it knew he was holding meetings with the president of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, who also hails from Gujarat.

Vaghela was a BJP leader before he joined Congress in 1996.

His exit from Congress means a likely cakewalk for BJP in the crucial Gujarat elections. It will come as a blow to the grand old party, which is hoping for a political comeback after decades of defeats to the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.

Downplaying Vaghela’s resignation, state Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki said it will not impact assembly polls as voters of Gujarat are “very smart.” Congress’ state unit may soon be heading for a split, but all seems to be well for Solanki.

Gujarat assembly elections will be the first biggest challenge for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is likely to be made national party president in September.

But Vaghela’s resignation raises a pressing political question: Is the Congress party headed toward disintegration ahead of crucial polls?

If recent election results are an indication, the answer is ‘yes’. The party won only seven of 403 seats in the assembly elections held in Uttar Pradesh (UP) earlier this year.

Despite the humiliating defeat, neither Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi nor its vice president Rahul expressed willingness to quit their respective posts. Nor did any party leader demand their resignations.

This, critics say, is the problem with Congress. Its members cannot imagine a leader outside of the Gandhi family, nor do they have the courage to question them. The problem is not confined to Congress: Many Indian political parties ignore democratic values and blindly follow their leaders.

That political culture, however, is arguably taking a disproportionate toll on Congress. Most senior Congress leaders are old or tainted. Pranab Mukherjee, who assumes the presidency on July 25, could be a strong leader to take on Modi, but whether he will return to active politics to lead Congress is a big question.

If Rahul is elevated to party chief, as expected, he will need to project people like Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia and Sachin Pilot as future leaders and give them a free hand in running the party at federal and state levels. Whether he willingly delegates such control to the party’s periphery will be a test of his political maturity.

That maturity is currently in question. Earlier this month Congress was cornered after he met Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui amid the standoff between India and China at Dhoklam tri-junction. His initial silence, a party spokesman’s denial and then later admission of the meeting sent mixed signals that Rahul might have questioned India’s stand on the border face-off.

Addressing a conference on Friday, Rahul off-the-cuff compared Modi to Hitler, leading his critics to remind that it was his grandmother and late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who silenced the nation by imposing harsh emergency rule.

Modi’s ‘Congress-free India’ campaign is likewise a wrong approach. A vibrant democracy like India needs a strong opposition for political counterbalance. Congress is a party with a long and storied history, and young leaders would give it needed new direction. But that likely won’t happen in time for the next round of crucial elections.

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