The road to the general elections: What next for the Congress Party?

Roma Naqshbandi

After being decimated in the recent assembly elections in four states, the Congress Party has initiated corrective measures in order to stay competitive in the spring 2014 national election. Organizational revamp is one such measure.

The Congress campaigned for the recent state elections under the leadership of its vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is slowly taking complete charge of the 128-year-old party. His mother and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has taken a back seat following Rahul Gandhi’s anointment as the party’s number two in January 2013. She has considerably reduced her role in party affairs in recent months, signing off on all major decisions taken by her son on issues ranging from candidate selection to the appointment of key party functionaries.

However, Rahul Gandhi’s corporate-style candidate selection process, along with the appointment of jumbo-sized campaign committees and his adherence the party’s decades-old tradition of not naming a chief ministerial candidate, appear to have backfired in the state elections. A preliminary internal assessment pins blame for the losses on faulty ticket distribution, internal feuds and the lack of clarity on the prime ministerial candidate issue.

After the recent poll fiasco, Rahul Gandhi has, once again, promised to bring about systemic changes in the party organization. This is not the first time he has promised structural changes in the party, which detractors say have yet to be implemented. The electoral setback in four key states, however, appears to have prompted him to make the organizational revamp a priority. He has already replaced party heads in the states of Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Goa. In these three states, veterans have been asked to pass the baton to younger leaders. This changing of the guard, which will probably repeat itself in other states, will likely cause upheaval within the party and escalate the ongoing generational war. Ever since Rahul Gandhi took over as the party vice-president, tension between the Old Guard and Gen-Next is palpable, as old hands feel threatened by the rise of younger members.

Due to this dynamic, veterans of the party have started clamoring for Sonia Gandhi’s active and continued involvement in organizational affairs in a bid to thwart Rahul Gandhi’s promise of aggressive transformation of the party. The seniors hope that Sonia Gandhi’s presence at the helm of affairs will provide them with a safety net during the transition phase.

For her part, Sonia Gandhi – who turned 67 last month – does not seem to have any immediate retirement plans. She will continue to guide the party and, at the same time, provide a shield to Rahul Gandhi, until he consolidates his grip on the party. When this change will happen is unclear. Though Congress leaders maintain that Sonia Gandhi will play a key role in the party's poll strategy and campaigning for the next general elections scheduled this summer, another section in the Congress feels that in the coming days, India will see a different Rahul Gandhi – a far more aggressive and decisive one.

As part of the planned course correction, the Congress might announce its prime ministerial candidate ahead of the parliamentary elections. With Narendra Modi leading the show for the Bharatiya Janata Party as its prime ministerial candidate, the lack of clarity in the Congress presents a stark contrast. Sonia Gandhi recent declaration that a prime ministerial will be announced at an “opportune” time triggered a new round of speculation about possible candidates.

Two-time prime minister Manmohan Singh has ruled out a third term, and many in the Congress feel that formally announcing Rahul Gandhi’s name as the prime ministerial candidate will help the party face the national elections with a promise of change, rather than running on past performance. Some leaders say the ‘opportune’ time to announce a candidate will be when Rahul is ready. However, Rahul Gandhi has said on various occasions that becoming prime minister is not important to him, though he has not ruled out the possibility.

The idea behind facing the election with a clear prime ministerial candidate is to galvanize the cadres, which may prove impossible if the candidate is not Rahul Gandhi. Anyone other candidate would only signal further disintegration in the party. Names appearing in political gossip columns – including Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Nandan Nilekani, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Speaker of the Lower House Miera Kumar and Defence Minister AK Antony – are relevant only in a post-election scenario where the Congress is in a position to form the government and Rahul Gandhi refuses the position of prime minister.

However, declaring Rahul Gandhi as the candidate comes with significant risks for the party. Any candidate with be forced to duel directly with the BJP’s choice, Narendra Modi, who has proved a formidable opponent. One view in the Congress is that the damage is already beyond repair and the party and the Gandhi family must simply wait out the Modi surge.

In addition to announcing a candidate for prime minister, another potential corrective measure for the Congress is to revise its strategy vis-à-vis alliances. The party has decided to expedite its decision on firming up alliances in key states. A party panel, headed by Defense Minister AK Antony, is already looking at various alliance options. Regional parties, which are expected to play an instrumental role in power politics at the national level after the 2014 elections, could be key allies for the party.

The Congress has reason to hope that some of these regional forces will not join the BJP, given that Modi is a divisive and polarizing figure. Over the years, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has shrunk from 24 constituents to four. Given the BJP’s potential difficulties, the Congress is exploring various options. While its partnership with the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir could continue, the party is also considering an affiliation with the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav in a few states, including Bihar, which sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament.

In the politically-important state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the highest number of members – 80 out of the total 543 – to the House of the People, the Congress is trying to woo Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. If the two parties come together, their alliance could extend to other states as well. Manpreet Singh Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab and the All India United Democratic Front of Badruddin Ajmal in Assam are also possible allies. The Congress also hopes that its southern partner, the DMK, which had cut off its ties with the UPA on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, will eventually rejoin the grouping if it does well in the 2014 elections.

The views expressed by the author are her own.