Internal dissent, BJP juggernaut: Why upcoming polls are the biggest litmus test for Congress and Rahul Gandhi

If Congress manages to put up a decent show, then it will not only silence dissident voices but also give Rahul Gandhi room to manoeuvre and endorse his decisions.

UPDATED: March 4, 2021 09:29 IST

Ahead of the crucial Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory, the Congress is looking at an unprecedented situation. As it takes on the BJP juggernaut, sides with the Left in Bengal and against it in Kerala, faces dissidence from G-23 members, the question is whether Rahul Gandhi’s attempts at renewing the political ground of the party in the south will bail out the Congress this time. Is the Grand Old Party looking towards a split or is it just rabble rousing by a faction?

PM Modi hits a nerve by praising Ghulam Nabi Azad

The question might not have arisen had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not hit a nerve of the Congress during the Parliament session. The emotional farewell to the outgoing Rajya Sabha Leader of the Opposition Gulam Nabi Azad acted as a catalyst to stir up the internal rebellion. Ironically, a few weeks ago, Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi had hosted a tea party at her residence in an attempt to rein in the rebellion.

Upbeat after the ‘melodramatic’ farewell he received from leaders across the political spectrum, Azad might be eyeing for a bigger role than just a comeback in Rajya Sabha. No wonder he chose to head back to his hometown in J&K to showcase his connect on the ground. The show was accentuated by the presence of some other members of the G-23, the group of dissenting leaders who had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi last year demanding an overhaul of the Congress.

Spotlight on Rahul Gandhi

The events have put the spotlight back on Rahul Gandhi as he leads the Congress campaign in the south, where the stakes are higher since he is an MP from Kerala. From lending a hand in cooking biryani in Tamil Nadu to diving into the sea with fishermen or taking a push-up challenge, Rahul Gandhi has given plenty of photo opportunities to the shutterbugs.

However, party leaders are divided over Rahul Gandhi’s style of campaigning. “Rahul could be the prime minister of the country one day. Does it behove him to do push-ups like this ? If I get the chance to speak to him, I will tell him that he needs a more intense and serious role and his campaign managers have just got it wrong,” a senior leader said.

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Another leader, a Gandhi family loyalist, said Rahul’s new avatar was more in tune with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. “Why should Rahul copy Modi? Rahul’s new avatar is more in tune with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi who had been photographed in different garbs and styles during election season,” the leader said.

Litmus test for Gandhi scion

The underlying factor is that the elections is turning out to be the biggest litmus test for the Gandhi scion in recent times. If Congress manages to put up a decent show, and probably bag Assam and Kerala, then that will not only silence dissident voices but also give Rahul room to manoeuvre and endorse his decisions. While Rahul has several times indicated his reluctance for the Congress top job, a good show in the elctions could see his preffered candidate take over from Sonia Gandhi.

If the results spell doom for the Congress, then Rahul Gandhi could face more severe dissent, with support for G-23 swelling by the day.

Action against rebels?

A senior Congress leader, who is also part of the G-23, did not rule out that the party could well be heading towards a split. “Though it’s too early but if the Congress party faces another defeat, then nothing can stop a split in the party. There are many others who could join…it’s either this way or that way,” the leader said on condition of anonymity.

However, with Azad’s Jammu show of strength and Anand Sharma’s outburst just days ahead of the elctions, the chorus to act against G-23 leaders is also growing louder. Some feel party rules should be applied uniformly and anti-party activities call for strict action.

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“If the party doesn’t take disciplinary action against Azad and Anand Sharma, then a wrong message will go out. When a party worker does anything, it amounts to anti-party activity. Now, if a leader like Gulam Nabi Azad says something against the party, then why should he be not face action. He should be expelled from the party,” said Umesh Pandit.

In 2018, Pandit was sent a notice by the party’s disciplinary committee for allegedly misbehaving with Priyanka Chaturvedi — a charge he denied. Chaturvedi switched to the Shiv Sena a few days later.

The Congress high command might have just given the dissenters a long rope and they know that a long-drawn battle might not yield results. “I might agree with them but the issue is the timing of it all…there is a forum within the party to red flag an issue but by raisng it time and again, you want to bleed them with a thousand cuts. They forgot that they are the ones who made you what you are today. Still, you chose to desert them when they are the weakest,” said a spokesperson.

The recent appointments of old hands JP Agrawal, Prithviraj Chauhan and Digvijaya Singh as screening committee chairmans of various poll-bound states are being seen as a knee-jerk move to reign in rebellion and pacify different factions.


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