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Sonia's 'bold' stance at CWC: Have the basic questions the G-23 posed gone away?

By Anand K Sahay*
Sonia Gandhi seems to have settled the question for now: she is a hands-on president of her party, no question. Her bold performance at the last meeting of the Congress Working Committee on October 16 can leave no room for doubt on that score, although leading issues still remain.
The impact of her forceful words on party ranks cannot but be positive. The continual degrading of all Indians on account of the Modi regime’s disastrous economic policies, the insecurity caused to the minorities and the Dalits, and the country’s humiliation at the hands of China in Ladakh were noteworthy reminders of what’s going badly wrong.
If the Congress performance is above par in the next round of Assembly elections, the party will doubtless retain its place of primacy in any national grouping of anti-BJP forces in the country in spite of its recent poll performances being dispiriting.
The immediate context of Sonia’s speech was framed by Priyanka Vadra’s recent strong showing in UP where she was in fighting mode as she met farmers after the Lakhimpur Kheri violence, and addressed an impressive rally in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
In contrast stands the G-23, the Congress’s ginger group whose urgings led to the calling of the CWC meet in the first place. It has no leg to stand on in terms of star power or the vote-catching quotient. Also, the caucus can never become a break-away group and chart its future as a group.
Its members present at the CWC did not find the voice to raise the sort of questions they frequently do in the media. They are quite clearly not in the mould of (the former Prime Minister) Chandra Shekhar and his Young Turks who, when in the Congress, had frequently challenged Indira Gandhi even when she was at the height of her power. The limits G-23 are therefore quite obvious.
The principal reason the G-23 don’t cut much ice with the party’s rank and file, although many of them are high-profile individuals with liberal values, is that their members were silent spectators and enjoyed the fruits of power dispensed by the Gandhis when the Congress held office. They did not then raise questions about democratizing the party or the importance of holding regular elections -- as they do now when the party is not in sight of power. Yet, has the fundamental question the G-23 pose gone away?
The plain answer is no. This is why the CWC deemed it fit to announce a schedule for internal election down to the lowest organizational level, and not just for Congress president. The pith and substance of the G-23 demand was not brushed under the carpet when it could easily have been since there is no challenge to Sonia from within.
The ginger group constituted itself and has been active in the past year. This is on account of the context -- the fact that the Congress has been losing elections, causing demoralization, even disenchantment -- in the party fold. If the Congress performs reasonably in the upcoming state Assembly elections in UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa early next year, and then in Gujarat, the party should be in a position to project optimism for the Lok Sabha poll of 2024. If the Congress misses the boat yet again, Banquo’s ghost will be back, one way or another, even if G-23 dissipates.
At the CWC, Sonia called herself a “full-time” and “hands-on” president. In doing so, she exculpated Rahul Gandhi, who has been blamed for the party’s election fadeouts, and for regrettable decisions such as privileging Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab, in the process destabilizing a Congress government and siding with a particular faction, which is historically alien to the Gandhis’ way of doing things. By keeping themselves above the fray, the Gandhis had grown into an automatic adjudicatory role, and kept Congress from being buffeted by factional pressures.
Although Rahul had resigned as Congress chief in 2019, bravely taking responsibility for the Lok Sabha defeat, he remained the prime mover in the party -- possibly because his mother’s health was a cause for concern. Now it is his mother who has sought to bail him out by stepping forward to take the rap for things that have gone wrong. It is hard to read Sonia’s self-description of being a full-time and hands-on party president differently.
No matter how unkind the circumstances, and how ferocious the persistent attacks of the establishment on the Gandhis, this is not the best way to run the Congress party, which has an organisational, political and ideological history as hallowed as any party in the democratic world, with the added richness of leading India to victory in prolonged anti-colonial combat. The Congress deserves different.
Rahul has taken the battle to the enemy camp winning admiration among an influential intellectual and political tradition
Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka have weathered the onslaught of the sectarian Far Right of the majority community (since this set is in power) as no other Congress leader before them, and of the three it is Rahul who has stood up to false and perverse personal attacks purveyed through social media day after day. The Gandhis have faced the salvos with elan, single-handed, with no support from other non-BJP quarters, who have singularly failed to appreciate that they will be next once the Gandhis go down. 
Rahul has indeed taken the battle to the enemy camp, ideologically, on a near daily basis, lately winning admiration among an influential intellectual and political tradition that had previously been dismissive of the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress. Nevertheless, if the Gandhis step back and encourage others to play the role of the party’s organisational pivot, they may be leading a historic turnaround of their party.
Whether imaginary or real, there has existed the apprehension that without the glue the Gandhi name provides, the Congress would tear itself apart. This a priori assumption has no firm basis, even allowing for the dismal Sitaram Kesri interregnum. But even if the Congress, as we have known it, capsizes, the set of values that make the party will remain a totem against the dynamics and processes of the Far Right in a very diverse country.
If Rahul Gandhi is a candidate for the Congress presidency next August, as per the announced schedule, those wishing to contest for the position are likely to hold back. In that case, the Congress will be back to where it is, with a Gandhi on top. The way out of the conundrum is for the CWC, for now, to name preferably two working presidents, letting Rahul Gandhi extricate himself from being the chief instrument of the Congress president in day-to-day. When it is time to elect the new president, Rahul could continue to keep out and back the newly emerged leader with the solidity of his experience.
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*Senior journalist based in Delhi. A version of this article first appeared in Delhi the Asian Age

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