For a party where access and the good graces of the leader is everything, two leaders speaking critically and out of turn in the same month is more than just unusual.
First it was Salman Khurshid’s much denied critique of Rahul Gandhi’s halfhearted attempts at reviving the Congress and then came Shankersinh Vaghela’s sudden distress about indecision in ticket distribution for Gujarat and his musings on defecting back to the BJP or even the NCP.
Much of this is about individual power equations but however one spins it with clever wordplay something is churning within the Congress. When internal rumblings start coming out into the open, especially in the byzantine world of the Congress, it is a sure sign of more than normal levels of discontent.
The case of Shankersinh Vaghela and Gujarat is symptomatic of the party’s wider malaise. The Kshatriya leader has been the face of two successive losing campaigns by the party in Vidhan Sabha elections and lost from the Panchmahals Lok Sabha constituency in 2009 but remains a force to reckon with in the factional interplay of the state Congress.
In amoribund system with little incentives for new home-grown talent to prosper, the Gujarat Congress has largely remained dispirited and hostage to the past: to leaders who defected from other parties, to sons of former chief ministers and most of all to leaders with access in New Delhi.
Vaghela’s conversion from the saffron of the BJP to the tricoloured hand of the Congress was always a difficult one for some of the party’s old guard to swallow.
As one of the original bricklayers of the BJP’s rise with Keshubhai Patel and the mastermind of the infamous Khajuria- Hajuria split in the BJP in the late-1990s, he also knows a thing or two about realpolitik.
His statement now about not understanding why party tickets are still not being finalised may have something to do with internal jockeying but by indicating as state election committee chairman that his party’s ticket distribution is in a mess Vaghela has also touched upon a deeper problem of organisational disarray, incoherence and a leadership vacuum at the heart of his party.
This organisational repose at the state level is at least part of the reason why there has been such a dissonance between Congress performances in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections.
Narendra Modi swept the stakes in the 2002 and 2007 state assembly elections with 127 and 117 seats respectively in the 182 member assembly but in Lok Sabha elections Congress won a relatively respectable 12 out of 26 seats in 2004 and 11 in 2009.
Narendra Modi’s unique combination of muscular charisma, developmentalism and razor-sharp political instincts has proved invincible for over a decade now in Gujarat but the Congress’s failure to get its act together made his job even easier. The lack of a credible face at the state level also hit the party in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year when a surprisingly significant proportion of Samajwadi Party voters told post-election surveyors from CSDS that they would probably have voted differently and for the Congress in aLok Sabha election.
What turned them away from the Congress in the assembly election was the fact that there was just no state leadership and organisation they could rely on. It is this curious lethargy that lost the party an election it should have won in Punjab earlier this year and the spectre of infighting is one of its biggest worries in the upcoming Himachal election as well.
Gujarat has always been a marquee state in the wider electoral chess board and if the Congress fails to put up at least a respectable show of resistance here even after a decade and a half of incumbency it would be a sad comment indeed on its current state.
Rahul Gandhi’s unfathomable formula of being permanently-in-waiting has long passed its use-by date and unless a reset happens soon the increasingly vocal rumblings within the party’s inner circles will only grow louder.