If the Indian National Congress of today is assumed to be the same party that was founded in 1885 ignoring the splits it has faced over the years, its 88th (and eighty-sixth) President has now headed the party for longer than all the members of the family she married into put together.
When she took back the reins of the party from her son last year, Sonia Gandhi had been the party president for as long as Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi put together. Now, with the party announcing that her term as “interim” President will continue till such time a proper procedure is implemented in the “not too distant future” to “elect” a party chief, she has gone past all of them even as questions persist about leadership of the country’s oldest political party.
A Congress spokesperson said there was a procedure written in the party’s constitution for election of a President and that this would be followed.
The announcement came hours after Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, set the cat among the pigeons by saying it was unfair to expect Mrs Gandhi to continue as interim president indefinitely. But that is not all that Mr Tharoor said. He also spoke of the need to “arrest the growing public perception, fuelled by a dismissive media, that the party is adrift and rudderless, incapable of taking up the challenge of a credible national Opposition.”
If Mr Rahul Gandhi wanted to reclaim the presidency that he had resigned last year after being elected for five years, that would be a solution to the problem. “But, if he does not, we have to take action. My own personal view is that elections to the Congress Working Committee and for the post of president would certainly have beneficial outcomes for the party, Mr Tharoor said.
A “participatory democratic process” would also enhance the new leader’s credibility and legitimacy. The events of past years, besides confirming the drift and rudderlessness he speaks of, suggest that Mr Tharoor’s prescription for a participatory democratic process may be the last thing on the minds of those who run his party.
In August 2019, when Mrs Gandhi took over as interim President after much demurring as reported at the time, she was said to have insisted that the CWC resolution emphasise the point that she was taking over “pending the election of a regular President by the All India Congress Committee”, as she was concerned her return would allow opponents to allege that the family was unwilling to cede control of the country.
But for an entire year, more than half of which was before the virus-induced uncertainties, no move was made to conduct such an election or to meet the allegation that the family was unwilling to let go of the party. In this period, the party both broke up and lost power in Madhya Pradesh, and now faces a serious threat in Rajasthan. But in its headquarters, those events are apparently of lesser moment than the extension of an interim presidency.