Sunday, 26 March, 2023
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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.

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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.

Also read: From catch-all to catch-none party, it’s still not too late for Congress

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.

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi remains India’s third-most important politician

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. 

Also read: BJP & media’s continuing obsession with Rahul Gandhi only shows that he is still relevant

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.

Also read: What Manmohan Singh said about quitting after Rahul Gandhi’s Ordinance act: Montek Ahluwalia

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.

The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.

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  1. The background information on Shri Shashi Tharoor was the longest that I have seen for the author of any piece published in The Print. I wonder why.

  2. Even Shashi Tharoor has accepted that Congress is already part of political dustbin and history. To keep Rahul Gandhi as president is finishing the job faster.

  3. An extremely erudite person, he may have the interests of his party close to his heart. But if he cannot see how India is unfolding as a country in recent times and still wishes to be a boot licker of a dynasty his fears and hopes are misplaced. He will continue to bang against a walk.

  4. However hard you may try, the “loyalists” of Gandhi family are not going to like what you just said. Congress has never had internal democracy and never will. All presidents are appointed and not chosen. As Chanakya expounded 2000 years ago, “Nanda Vansh is not Patliputra and Patliputra is not Nanda Vansh. ” But who cared?

  5. Sycophancy is too strong a glue of the family brand to be undone by random voices of dissent. Beta RG, who appears to be a decent soul, hasn’t it in him to rebuild and reboot a dying dinosaur that the Congress has become. With the glue on, and with regional parties driving it provincially, the show may go on for some more time. Meanwhile, young rotting voices may find migration to other parties a far more refreshing option from a career perspective, than staying on.

  6. Congress should first have internal democracy ,and select a able leader who can lead the party from the front.

  7. I absolutely agree with the views expressed by Mr Tharoor, this stalemate cannot go on. Rahul Gandhi is very important to the party but if he is reluctant to take on the reins someone else must do so before it is too late. There are plenty of young leaders in the party as there are senior and experienced leaders. Today it is the youth that we must seek out so it is the young leaders who hold that appeal, young leaders come with new perspectives, ideas and thought which must be aired and studied objectively. I feel that “change” is the only thing that is constant in life and those who accept it progress. I am not for a moment suggesting that every new idea be accepted at face value, one has to think through every new idea before implenting it. There is plenty of talent in the party, fair elections at each level will throw up dependable leaders.
    The party must urgently start listening to regional leaders -they work on the ground and can feel the pulse of the people. They must be allowed to make choices of candidates etc.
    The Congress must not forget that a strong and reliable opposition is essential, this they owe it to the nation today. After all they built this Nation from scratch and made us proud to be it’s citizens.

  8. very sad. I wish congress would listen to him and get out of the quagmire it is in. As he says congress needs a thinking dynamic head like our Tejasvi Surya

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