NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition party is in turmoil after its leader on Monday asked to be replaced and “relieved” of her duties.
Sonia Gandhi, 73, took over as the interim president of Congress last year after her son Rahul resigned from the top post over the party's shabby performance in the 2019 general elections.
“A year has lapsed now,” she said in a meeting of the party’s highest body. “In the interest of the party, I ask the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to begin deliberations to put in place the process of transition to relieve me from my duties.”
Senior party figures had earlier called for a complete reorganization of Congress, demanding a “full-time and effective leadership” that was both “visible” and “active” in the field.
They called for “elections to the CWC and the urgent establishment of an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party’s revival,” and asked for the revival of Congress as a “national imperative fundamental to the health of democracy.”
There was heated debate at the Monday meeting about leadership and organizational decay in the party, with Gandhi ultimately being authorized to make decisions and stay on until someone else was elected to the role.
“The CWC authorises the Congress president to affect necessary organisational changes that she may deem appropriate to take on the challenges,” the party said after day-long deliberations.
Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said there would be an election for the post of president at the party’s next session.
Congress, which was founded in 1885, has dominated India’s political landscape since the early 20th century. It played a major part in the fight for independence, ruling for decades after 1947.
The Gandhi family has also dominated the party. Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister and, after his death in 1964, his daughter Indira led the party from 1968 until her death in 1984.
Her son Rajiv took over the party and ruled the country until 1989. After his death in 1991 the leadership went into the hands of non-Gandhi leaders until Sonia took over in 1998, with Congress being divided into several factions and groups. She remained party president until 2017, when she passed the baton to son Rahul.
Congress had fared well in previous elections, winning outright or forming a coalition, until the rise of the right-wing and nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Last year was the second time that Congress was thrashed by the BJP at the polls.
Rahul asked the party to find an outsider to lead, however a lack of consensus forced Congress to appoint his mother as interim president until an alternative was found.
“The Gandhi family is the asset and the liability for Congress,” Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies think tank, told Arab News. “The Gandhi family has provided the glue around which all the leaders are together. It is also a liability because the family has not been able to provide the leadership which it requires.”
The two consecutive electoral defeats were the party’s worst showing. Out of 545 parliamentary seats up for grabs in 2014 the party got just 44. In 2019 it got 55.
Senior leaders want the change in leadership in order to revive the party’s fortunes and take on the BJP.
“If Sonia Gandhi quits the question is who will replace her,” Prof. Zoya Hasan, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Arab News. “There’s no consensus on her successor from outside the Gandhi family. But drift and failure to confront the leadership crisis has harmed the party immensely. Congress needs to sort itself out and elect a full-time president. There’s been a huge delay in this process and postponing it will further damage the party. This is hurting the party and the opposition because no serious opposition is viable without Congress.”
Congress, which not long ago ruled India unchallenged for decades, is now gasping for breath. It now rules in just four out of 29 states in India.
“Congress is the only party at the moment which can challenge the might of the BJP, and that is why it is important for the party to revive and provide strong leadership at the national level,” Kumar added.