Time for Hard Decisions

    For the Congress, things came to a head this week: on a single day, two senior Ministers in Assam and Maharashtra, States where it is in power, resigned; three of its MLAs in West Bengal defected to the Trinamool Congress, and an ex-MP in Jammu & Kashmir quit the party 24 hours after the Congress and the National Conference decided to contest elections separately even though they still rule J&K jointly. Simultaneously, speculation grew about the possibility of similar exits in Haryana.

    This came at the end of a month that witnessed demands from within the party for the removal of the Chief Ministers of Assam, Maharashtra and Haryana. The attempts to replace them failed eventually, but the delay in settling the issue further undermined the authority of the incumbents and tried the patience of the rebels. The message that the Congress high command will not act under pressure came too late; the fact that the Chief Ministers and the dissidents both had backers in Delhi helped even less, presenting the picture of a divided leadership.

    The fact that State Assembly elections are due later this year in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand, has increased the anxiety – and impatience – of party members in these States: they fear a repeat of the results of the recent general elections that saw the Congress touching an unprecedented low in terms of seats won. Taken together, these events are symptomatic of the deep crisis the Congress is going through. The party’s rank and file are not just looking for a major organizational overhaul and a big idea; it is actually thirsting for inspirational leadership and direction that can restore the fortunes of the Congress.

    But party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was expected to take over the organization’s reins after the Lok Sabha polls, continues to be reluctant to lead from the front, as is apparent from Karnataka veteran Mallikarjun Kharge’s appointment as the parliamentary party leader in the Lok Sabha. And party president Sonia Gandhi is clearly unable to persuade Mr. Gandhi to either accept the leader’s role fully or learn from his failed experiments at democratizing the party.

    Instead, thus far, a committee under senior leader A.K. Antony has been set up to make a diagnosis of, and suggest a cure for, the party’s ills. But while the committee’s sittings provided party members with a forum to vent their feelings, the report that will eventually emerge is not expected to change anything much: for, like similar post-debacle reports by Mr. Antony in the past, this one, too, is intended for Sonia Gandhi’s eyes only. The Congress is clearly not yet ready to look beyond the Gandhis, and it is therefore time now for Mr. Gandhi to take on the challenge or make way for someone else.

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