In its dying days, the once mighty Mughal Empire resembled the Congress of today. The problems of incompetent royal leadership, a self-obsessed faction-ridden nobility and uncontrollable provincial leaders combined with callous disregard for the instinct for self-preservation among the rulers pushed it into a bottomless pit from which recovery was impossible. The developments in Madhya Pradesh suggest that the Grand Old Party’s journey into the abyss is well on course.
When the end finally came for the empire, it didn’t need the might of British to collapse; the latter only helped it to death. The BJP may have precipitated the crisis, as Congress leaders in the state would claim, but even without its helping hand the rickety government in Madhya Pradesh would have crumbled anyway — if not now, then later. This goes for the Congress as a national entity as well. It is so far down the suicide path that the BJP can afford to only wait and watch.
With powerful factions in perennial sniping mode and none ready to backing off on selfish agendas, the crisis in the state was foretold. The signs were visible a year ago when Jyotiraditya Scindia gunned for the Pradesh Congress chief job after failing to grab the Chief Minister’s chair, which went to Kamal Nath. His ambition was thwarted by the combined force of Nath and senior leader Digvijaya Singh. The ego clash among the leaders has been festering ever since. Minor skirmishes in the form of show of strength kept happening all through. It came to the flashpoint over the Rajya Sabha seat. Curiously, there was no visible effort from the top leadership to defuse the tension.
This situation is not unique to this particular state. It exists in Rajasthan, Odisha, Assam and, in fact, in every part of the country where the party exists. Like in the case of the Mughals, groups away from the power centre created their own fiefdoms, built their own network among factions in the royal court and enjoyed virtually autonomous existence. The fiefs were the bargaining chips in their dealings with the leadership. The satraps owed their allegiance to their backers, not to the bigger entity which they belonged to. If the Congress’ rank and file and its lower rung leaders vouch by their leaders, and not the party itself, it is not difficult to see why. The rot has gone deep over the decades.
Now to the question of leadership. Do the Gandhis control the Congress? The situation now is not unlike the successors of Aurangzeb being made to believe by the echo chamber around that their greatness is intact and their authority is under no threat. It is possible the royals knew the truth but were too powerless or incompetent to address the problems that threatened their very survival. Ultimately, others called the shots in their name and enjoyed the real power. This could be the case with the Gandhis.
The election of 2014 revealed that the party was in existential crisis and it required drastic action to revive. The leadership knew clearly the factors pulling the party down: factionalism, alienation of the grassroots worker, party’s inability to connect to the masses, ideological fuzziness, pervading culture of sycophancy, lack of ideas and absence of next gen leaders to take the party forward. When Rahul Gandhi took over as party president, a blueprint for revival appeared in place. He wanted to strengthen the state and central units with a new bunch of leaders, break fiefdoms by connecting the lay party worker to the top leadership, holding transparent organisational elections so on.
However, the old order, fearing loss of relevance, struck back swiftly. The network of patronage and loyalty was set in motion in every state to resist change. It was a ruthless operation. The new leaders, yet to find their feet in politics, were no match. Rahul fought the 2019 election virtually alone with no help from the Congress veterans. He made clear as much at a meeting of the CWC to take stock of the massive defeat. He relinquished the post, throwing a challenge to the party seniors to find a president. Mother Sonia preferred to be stopgap, steadfastly not committing herself to the leadership role. Like the later Mughals, the Gandhis seem to have realised that given the odds they cannot do much. It is easier to fight the BJP than the enemy within.
After the recent futile chorus from senior leaders such as Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh, Ajay Maken and many others for a leader, it is apparent now that the family prefers to be a disinterested bystander to the proceedings in the party than active participants in any process of change. Possibly, they are sending out a message: we are not the only stakeholders in the party. If you want the Congress to survive and think long term, you must mend your ways. Otherwise, let the inevitable follow.In case of the powerless Mughal royalty, the mending of ways did not happen, and the inevitable followed. This can be the consequence for the Congress too.