Congress reshuffling an empty deck?

April 26, 2012

The clock is ticking for the ruling Congress party. Ever since the national auditor’s report blew the lid off the 2G spectrum scandal, the second term of the UPA government has been clouded by incessant talk of premature general elections or who will lead India in 2014.

As rumours do the rounds of a possible reshuffle of the Congress party after the Budget session, one gets the sense that India’s grand old party is starting to prepare for national elections, even if they are two years away. And rightly so, especially after its disastrous performance in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the largest number of lawmakers to parliament. While no political party is likely to secure majority if national elections were to be held today, regional parties could hold sway.

The Congress’ present situation is a throwback to the 1960s when the party was trying to revitalise its functioning in the face of declining popularity and vote share. Indira Gandhi ruled India for eleven consecutive years, followed by another term later that was cut short by her assassination. After her son Rajiv came to power and his destiny followed his mother’s, the Congress returned to power for only one term until the UPA government came to power in 2004.

This time it is unlikely the reshuffle will actually revive the party — with a generation of leaders close to retirement and a severe shortage of mid-level talent, Congress has few obvious options. There is still little clarity about succession.

It is also unlikely Manmohan Singh will be the prime ministerial candidate again. There is uncertainty over whether party president Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul can run both the party and a government, if required. Nor does the party nurture its leaders to lead from the front. And with no other option in sight, Sonia Gandhi ailing and unwilling to lead, and the current PM conspicuously inert, the Congress party is increasingly faceless.

The Congress’ leadership vacuum could boost the fortunes of regional political parties, their rising power evident in the recently concluded assembly elections. As for the BJP, which has its eyes on New Delhi ever since its 2004 India Shining campaign bombed, there could be two scenarios — elections could cost the party dear if it doesn’t put its own house in order; or the unpredictable Indian voter might just have a typical mood swing and decide to elect the pro-Hindu party once again.

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