Soon after the Congress was swept aside in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Jyotiraditya Scindia reportedly spoke up at a Congress Working Committee meeting, expressing the need for introspection and claiming that the party needed to become ‘future-ready’ to take on a 21st century political juggernaut like the BJP. Scindia’s concern was met with silence within the party’s highest decision making body. Nine months later, the silence has been broken: Scindia has walked out of the party and aligned with the BJP in what seems a well-planned move to topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
It would be easy to paint Scindia’s move as yet another example of the de-ideologised nature of contemporary politics where stout warriors against the BJP’s Hindutva agenda one day, turn saffron apologists the very next. We have already witnessed a peculiar power sharing arrangement in Maharashtra where the Congress and the Shiv Sena are now on the same side. Clearly, the red lines that were once drawn on ‘secular’ politics have now been totally blurred in the rush to seek greener pastures. There is also little doubt that the timing of Scindia’s decision to quit coincides with the Rajya Sabha election schedule and is partly driven by the ambitions of a 49 year old leader who found himself being slowly pushed to the margins of state and national politics. Having lost his Lok Sabha seat in 2019 and been edged out in the race for Madhya Pradesh chief ministership in 2018, the temptation to pitch his tent with the BJP in return for ministerial benefit may have been irresistible. The perquisites of power remain an enduring allurement in Lutyens Delhi’s charmed circle where VVIP privilege is determined by residential address and not by a moral quotient.
But can individual ambition alone explain the decision of a leading light of the Congress’s gen-next to switch sides so dramatically? Truth is, Scindia’s departure exemplifies the predicament of a party that is imploding from within. If the 2014 defeat was predictable, the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle signaled the complete decimation of the Congress as a political force of substance: of the 192 seats witnessing a direct BJP versus Congress fight, the former won as many as 175 by an average margin of 23 per cent. The recent Delhi elections where only three of the 66 Congress candidates managed to save their deposit is further evidence of the complete meltdown of the once dominant force.
And yet, there has been little attempt by the Congress to break with the status quo, project ideological clarity and discover new ideas and energies that can offer a robust challenge to the BJP. Not once since being ousted from power in 2014 has there been a serious attempt to overhaul the party organization or end the ‘nomination’ culture by which leaders are chosen on the basis of their proximity to the ruling elite. It is more than two decades now since the Congress held elections to the working committee. The result is a party that has no retirement age and breeds a sycophantic culture, one where even a 92 year old Motilal Vora can still aspire for a Rajya Sabha seat because of his feudal loyalty to the party leadership.
Frankly, it is the existing Congress leadership that is part of the problem. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress president in May 2019, either out of pique or fatigue, was hardly a solution since it only left the party rudderless and even more vulnerable to the byzantine manipulations of intra-party factionalism. Rahul maybe ‘out’ as party chief but he is still ‘in’ the core decision making team, a strange arrangement which only sends out confusing signals. Witness how Team Rahul was reluctant to empower former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda till just before the state elections, an indecision that probably cost the Congress a potential victory in a BJP-ruled state.
When Rahul was replaced by an ailing Sonia Gandhi in August 2019 as interim president, it only confirmed the unwillingness of the party’s well-entrenched cliques to risk looking at life beyond its First Family. The Family may well have held the party together in gentler times but in a more frenzied and competitive environment, it no longer wields either the political or moral authority to ensure the organization works as a cohesive unit. The result is a gradual atrophying of the party structure where the ubiquitous ‘high command’ is not only disconnected from its workers but also from its own leaders.
Madhya Pradesh is a good example. With Kamal Nath playing a dual role as chief minister and Madhya Pradesh Congress chief and with Digvijay Singh reinforcing his stature as a two time former chief minister, the Congress has chosen a path where the so-called ‘old guard’ has monopolized the power pyramid in the state. This left the likes of a Scindia feeling increasingly frustrated and disenchanted, especially as a weakened high command was no longer willing to intervene and accommodate their interests. Where Scindia might have hoped that his ‘friend’ Rahul would stand by him, the leadership vacuum has resulted in a complete mis-management of what should have been a relatively do-able task of working out a compromise solution. What is true of MP is equally relevant in neighbouring Rajasthan where again a ‘Gen-next’ leader like Sachin Pilot has been marginalized by a domineering Ashok Gehlot, another staunch representative of the Congress old order.
Both Scindia and Pilot may lack the political heft of the leaders of a previous generation who are seen as well-networked with a strong grassroot connect. It could even be argued that as entitled political dynasts, their vaulting personal ambitions have not always matched their vote catching abilities. Both were made union ministers at a very young age and have been given far more opportunities than most other leaders in their generation. Both Scindia and Pilot possess a valuable quality in contemporary politics: youthful, energetic leaders who are effective communicators and speak a language that a younger demographic might identify with. Only a constellation of such young charismatic leaders can give the Congress what it so desperately needs at the moment: a complete overhaul in style and focus to compete with the BJP’s battle-hardened election machine. A disillusioned Scindia may well have opted out of the struggle altogether by taking the soft option and joining hands with the BJP; the question that must now worry the Congress is, at this rate will there be anyone left soon to fight the good fight?
Post-script: For those interested in a slice of historical trivia, Vijaya Raje Scindia was in the Congress before she joined the Jan Sangh in 1967 and helped bring down the DP Mishra-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. 53 years later, history is repeating itself in the form of her grandson!