Weekly Update: Congress Party’s Ceaseless Leadership Crisis; Vaccination Surge

The Congress party’s troubles never cease. The latest crisis that has hit it is the resignation of Captain Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab,one of just three states where the Congress is in the driver’s seat in terms of governance. Captain Singh’s tenure has been marked by feuds with the head of his party’s state unit, Mr.Navjot Singh Sidhu.

But this is not the only crisis that the beleaguered party finds itself in.The 136-year-old party, which, till not long ago,was India’s most resilient, widespread and dominant national political party, is now chronically ill. Some would even say terminally so. Popular support for what was once called the Grand Old Party has been ebbing and its performance in parliamentary elections has been abysmal. In 2014, it managed to win just 44 of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha; and, in the most recent elections, in 2019, it fared as badly, winning just 52 seats. It has now lost its prime position as India’s strongest national political party conceding that place to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the coalition that has been ruling in India for the past seven years.

Two years since Rahul Gandhi resigned as the president of the party, the Congress has not been able to appoint a full-time incumbent for that position. Mr Gandhi’s mother, Ms. Sonia Gandhi has been holding the fort as interim president. The Congress has also recently suffered other setbacks such as an exodus of some of its key young leaders who left the party to join the BJP.  Now,the party’s leadership troubles have percolated down to the state level. There are just three states where the Congress is in the driver’s seat with a party leader as chief minister: Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. In three other states, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, the Congress is a subordinate partner in alliance with regional parties that call the shots in the government.

Trouble is brewing in those three states where the Congress is in the driver’s seat with a party leader as chief minister. In Punjab, where Captain Amarinder Singh just resigned as chief minister, his bete noire was none other than his own party’s state president, former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu. Mr Sidhu has been sparring with Captain Singh and has been publicly embarrassing the chief minister at every opportunity he gets. And more than 30 MLAs of Congress’s 78 in the state owed allegiance to Mr Sidhu and had called for Captain Singh’s removal. A full-blown rift in the state unit of the party was imminent and Captain Singh’s resignation was its precipitation. Significantly, Mr Sidhu’s political career has been a chequered one: in 2004, he joined the BJP and won local elections before being nominated to the Rajya Sabha; but in 2017, he jumped ship and joined the Congress.

In Chattisgarh, where the Congress defeated the BJP, which had ruled the state for15 years, and came to power in 2018, the health minister of the state, Mr. T.S. Singh Deo has been restive and wants the party to honour a pre-poll proposal of having a rotational chief minister. In other words, he is staking a claim to unseat his party colleague, the incumbent chief minister, Mr Bhupendra Baghel. The latter has till now been unwilling to concede to those demands and both parties have met Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to sort out the issue. Till now, however, the matter remains unresolved and the state unit of the party is riven by acrimony.

In Rajasthan where the Congress has been in power, it is an old vs. young conflict. The chief minister, Mr. Ashok Gehlot, 70, and his deputy, Mr. Sachin Pilot, 44, don’t see eye-to-eye over many issues, notably the composition of the council of ministers in which Mr. Pilot ostensibly would like more of his nominees. The situation is in a stalemate at the moment with both sides (Mr. Pilot is believed to command the loyalty of more than a third of the 106 Congress MLAs in the state). 

The crises in the three states is likely a consequence of the lack of a strong leadership in the Congress party at the national level. It is a classic case of the emperor losing control of his feudal warlords. While the party’s state leaders and chief ministers need autonomy and independence, the central leadership has to ensure coherence if chaos of the sort that is prevailing in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajastahan is to be avoided. The genesis of the problem in the Congress party is not down the line at the state level. It starts from the top where there is clearly a vacuum in leadership and an inability to control its leaders even in the few states where it is in power.

Record Vaccination And Self-Promotion

Vaccination drive against Covid-19 is making deep strides into the rural swathes now. The cumulative score of doses administered has crossed the 80-crore mark. A commendable achievement made possible by a network of vaccine producers, cold-chain logistics and the health-workers.

What is not so commendable, however, is the way Team Narendra Modi has used this collective effort to push his image. As if the pictures on each Vaccine Certificate was not enough, they also flooded social media and government sites with his posters when India celebrated administering of 2.5 crore vaccines on a single day, Modi ji’s birthday.

Clearly they have learnt little. On January 16 this year, when the vaccination drive against Covid-19 began in India, the NDA Government was so immersed in self-praise and promotion that it launched Vaccine Maitri, a diplomatic initiative that gifted millions of vaccine vials to various nations, patting its back with the Vishwaguru theme-song as the background score.

By the first week of May, there was a shortage of vaccines and hospitals began turning away people due to dried up supply. In some cases, a different dose was administered, against any medical advisory.

Some quiet prevailed on the promotion front although Modi’s ministers, head buried into sand, denied any shortage whatsoever. A few months later, when the time came for a cabinet reshuffle, Health Minister’s head was the first to roll. Everyone knew why.

Luckily, the vial supplies have recovered. But no lesson has been learnt; self-promotion is back on Modi’s agenda as state elections draw near. But this time various social media handles are digging out what NCP leader Nawab Malik had to say about Modi’s promotional campaign. “The way PM Modi’s photo is put on vaccination certificates, we demand that his photo should also be put on Covid death certificates. If they are taking credit for vaccination, they have to take the blame for deaths too.”

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