Monday, 30 January, 2023
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Punjab results an indictment of Gandhis, but their grip on Congress unlikely to loosen

Decisions by Gandhi siblings contributed to the Congress’s loss and their shrinking space across states, but senior leaders believe this won’t affect their hold over the party.

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New Delhi: The results of the assembly elections in five states has left the Congress with a lot to introspect about, with the party staring at a rout in three of the four states in which it was a major contender.

Its performance in Punjab, especially, will likely have the leadership looking at a strategic overhaul in the two assembly elections — Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — scheduled for the end of the year as well as for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

In Punjab, where the Congress was in power, it lost to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) after a campaign season that was marred by internal strife. The dissent within the state unit of the party began with the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, backing Navjot Singh Sidhu over former chief minister Amarinder Singh.

While Sidhu was made the Congress Punjab unit chief at the time, the high command chose a relatively unknown Charanjit Singh Channi to replace Amarinder as CM. But Channi’s growing popularity in the state after that put Sidhu at odds with him too.

The decisions of the party high command will likely come under the scrutiny of senior members who had opposed them at the time, Congress leaders told ThePrint. However, the hold of the Gandhi siblings over the party and its decision-making is unlikely to be affected, they added.

The assembly election results have also come at a time when the Congress is reportedly dwelling over the return of Rahul Gandhi as party president, following his departure from the position after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which marked a second successive debacle for the party at the national level.

Analysts say if the Congress wants a serious shot at defeating the BJP in 2024, it must address the question of who will front the party in 2024, especially since regional players are also now vying for the position of principal Opposition.

This will be significant, as in the states where it fails at the assembly level, the Congress also fails to emerge as an alternative in national elections.

“It is a shrinking space for the Congress. Where it doesn’t have state presence, it also does not have national presence,” political analyst Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, told ThePrint.

Also Read: Punjab Congress battle isn’t about Navjot Sidhu or Amarinder Singh. It’s about Gandhis

Possible fallout in Punjab & the road ahead for other states

With its loss in Punjab, the Congress is now in power on its own in only two states — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — and an alliance partner in three governments: Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Jharkhand.

After the Punjab loss, leaders within the party who disapproved of the high command’s choice of Sidhu over Amarinder are expected to express their dissent both within and outside the party, party leaders said.

Before the elections took place, senior party leaders like Manish Tewari, also an MP from Punjab, had voiced their differences with the high command over how the Punjab situation was handled. After the elections, Tewari also questioned why the Congress’s Punjab leaders were not helping students from the state in Ukraine.

ThePrint reached Congress leaders Manish Tewari and spokesperson Pawan Khera, in Punjab now, for a comment on the party’s loss. However, there was no response until the publishing of this report.

In February, Sunil Jakhar, who Sidhu replaced as Congress state president, said he was quitting electoral politics, though not the party. However, he heaped praises on Rahul Gandhi and his choice of Channi over Sidhu as the party’s CM face.

“The G-23 (a group of Congress ‘reformers’), or what’s left of it, will definitely speak out once again… It may hold off Rahul’s reinstatement as president for a while because these (G-23) leaders will once again ask for elections and for the CWC (Congress Working Committee) to be reconstituted,” a Congress leader said. “But that is unlikely to have an impact on the decision-making of the party.”

“A decision will also be taken on what Priyanka’s role in the party will be in the days to come,” the Congress leader added.

The Gandhis’ decision in favour of Sidhu was first hinted at when the Punjab leader tweeted a picture of Priyanka Gandhi standing with him.

Meanwhile, the party seems to have already begun work for its campaign in Gujarat, which goes to polls later this year, with Rahul Gandhi participating in a “chintan shivir (brainstorming session)” with Gujarat Congress leaders in Dwarka last month.

Congress prospects for 2024

The Congress’s poor showing in Punjab and other states means two things about the party’s future, according to political analyst Neelanjan Sircar.

The first is that this sizable loss may mean that the party may soon not even be the principal opposition in Punjab. The second is that that the space for the Congress in states across the country is shrinking, which will benefit regional Opposition leaders in the long-term, even if not in 2024.

“The question for the Congress is beyond winning or losing the election in Punjab. It is about whether or not they collapse in Punjab. Historically, in states where the Congress has collapsed, it has never come back. The Congress may soon cede space to other parties in Punjab, like the Akalis, even as principal Opposition,” Sircar said.

According to him, regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and now even Arvind Kejriwal are poised to emerge as the principal faces of the Opposition in 2024.

“Both Kejriwal and Mamata are playing a longer game. It is not just for 2024. It is part of a longer non-Congress Opposition that is likely to play out even beyond that,” Sircar said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Time to save Congress is now. Modi knows that, Gandhis don’t


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