Rahul Gandhi factor: Will India’s main opposition party get its act together?

Rahul Gandhi Amethi 201904010
Rahul Gandhi (File) Image Credit: PTI

Another one bites the dust. Jitin Prasada’s decision to leave the Congress party and join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is another sign of the deep problems that plague the grand old party, problems it is inexplicably refusing to address head on.

The Congress party and its supporters jeered when Jitin Prasada crossed over, calling out his “lack of ideological principles” and pointing out (correctly) that he was hardly a political “heavyweight” having lost the last three elections he had contested from his home state, Uttar Pradesh. All of this is true.

Political opportunism is being sought to be normalised by those who see hopping from one party to another as a perfectly legitimate exercise to further their own interests. In an ideal world, this must be and should be called out because it completely undermines ideology in politics.

Ideological U-turns

Politicians must be held accountable for doing ideological U-turns. The fact that Jitin Prasada has not had an election victory in years, that he doesn’t even have a pan UP influence and that he was in charge of the Congress’ campaign in Bengal, where they drew a blank, is another harsh truth. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the BJP which keeps attacking ‘dynasts’ in politics but embraces them warmly when they switch sides, like Prasada.

But politics is about perception and the optics of his exit do not play well for the Congress, only reinforcing that the party is in a state of complete disarray.

For one, Jitin Prasada was considered close to Rahul Gandhi, much like Jyotiraditya Scindia who migrated to the BJP last year. It is good PR for the BJP to pin this as Rahul Gandhi’s friends jumping ship, especially before the UP polls due early next year where the BJP is facing its own problems.

Secondly, while the Congress may pooh-pooh his political credentials, don’t forget that Jitin Prasada was a union minister in the UPA government. He may not be a “heavyweight” but he was not such a lightweight either. Thirdly, Jitin Prasada is among the group of 23 congress leaders who had written to Sonia Gandhi last year pleading for urgent reform and change in the party, which has been going adrift since 2014.

Though Jitin later withdrew from that letter (and was ‘rewarded’ with the charge of Bengal), nothing has moved in the party and Jitin finally quit. There are fresh rumblings in Rajasthan with reports that Sachin Pilot, who lead a rebellion last year, is getting restless again. Infighting in the Punjab unit of the Congress has made headlines over the last few weeks.

Why is the country’s principal opposition party unable to get its act together?

Are the Gandhis serious?

Since 2014, the Congress has steadily floundered with the exception of election victories in a few states (some of which the BJP snatched back through dirty tricks) like Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh. Two of these three big states are now facing serious infighting. The ‘will he, won’t he’ drama surrounding Rahul Gandhi and whether he will officially lead the Congress is frankly tiring. There is absolutely no indication that the Gandhis are serious about making drastic changes, including removing themselves from the equation, in order to save the party.

A senior Congress leader told the Indian Express about his dismay that Jitin Prasada left at a time when criticism against the Modi government has grown over COVID-19, saying “even at such a time, if Congressmen are seeing no hope in the party … what can we say? I can’t even say it is a wake-up call because how can you wake up the dead?”

The news paper quoted another leader as saying “Mr (Rahul) Gandhi acting as the president without holding the post … Madam Gandhi holding the post but not acting as one … there are many issues.” The Congress has seen the exit of several senior leaders since 2014 — from Himanta Biswa Sarma to S M Krishna to Narayan Rane, Shankersinh Vaghela, N Biren Singh and many more. Instead of doing something about it, the party is only sinking into a deeper hole.

The disarray in the Congress also has serious implications for opposition unity at the centre. Political strategist Prashant Kishor met Sharad Pawar for several hours in Mumbai this week, setting off speculation that they may be working on getting an opposition alliance in place for the 2024 elections. The weakest link in that possible alliance is ironically the only pan India opposition party — the Congress.

There are strong moves to make Pawar the face to lead an opposition alliance. But can this work without the Congress getting its act together? For now, the rumblings are only growing and the Congress may see more exits in the months ahead.

Nidhi Razdan


Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning journalist. She was the Executive Editor of NDTV. She has reported on Indian politics and diplomacy.