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BRP Bhaskar: Collapse of an institution
April 05, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The Congress, which was pushed down to the second position by Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 parliamentary poll and is now facing a fresh electoral test in four states, suffered a major setback during weekend even before the first vote was cast.

In Kerala, one of the states going to the polls, the party’s central leadership collapsed in the face of the obduracy of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, a well-established faction leader.

Factionalism has been a bane of the Congress since before Independence and remains a serious problem as the party struggles for survival. In most states, there are rival leaders who are constantly involved in group warfare but are held together by their common allegiance to the Gandhi family.

Election time usually witnesses an aggravation of party feuds. The issues are settled by the central leadership, widely referred to as the High Command. Since Indira Gandhi crushed the powerful state party chiefs who had combined and posed a threat to her, the term has come to signify the dynastic leadership.

Of the four states going to the polls, it is in Assam alone that the BJP has high hopes. There the Congress is relying upon the personal popularity of Tarun Gogoi, who has been Chief Minister for 15 years. The High Command began efforts to contain factionalism months ago.

Among the factors the BJP is banking on are the anti-incumbency factor and the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh, which it has been playing up for long at the national level.

In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where regional parties are in power and the Congress has but a small presence, the High Command intervened directly to forge alliances with the more powerful opposition forces.

The main fight in Tamil Nadu is between Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. As the High Command’s emissary, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, flew to Chennai and made a deal with Karunanidhi.

The Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist reached an informal understanding in West Bengal to join hands against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

A former Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee broke away from the party and floated the Trinamool Congress in 1997. It soon replaced the parent body as the CPI-M’s main rival in the state. In the 2011 Assembly elections, she led her party to victory, bringing to an end more than three decades of unbroken rule by the CPI-M-led Left Front.

The Congress, a minor ally of the Trinamool Congress in 2011, is now the Left Front’s junior partner. The CPI-M’s central leadership gave the nod for the understanding with the Congress in the state, overruling the opposition of its Kerala unit, which was worried about its likely impact in Kerala.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front and the CPI-led Left Democratic Front have been alternating in power in Kerala for more than three decades. Even as the LDF is hoping to return to power benefiting by the scandals that has rocked the current UDF government, Oommen Chandy is making a daring bid for an unprecedented second successive term.

For decades, Congress politics in Kerala revolved around K Karunakaran and AK Antony, who pulled each other down when the UDF was in power. When Antony moved to the national arena Oommen Chandy inherited his “A” group. After Karunakaran’s death, Ramesh Chennithala, one of his former followers, revived his “I” group, named after Indira Gandhi.

Oommen Chandy as Chief Minister and Ramesh Chennithala, first as state Congress chief and then as Home Minister, established a diarchy in the party. When Ramesh Chennithala joined the Cabinet, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi picked VM Sudheeran, who had withdrawn from group politics, for the party post. The two faction leaders joined hands to preserve their domains.

Rahul Gandhi backed Sudheeran’s move to deny the party ticket to a few tainted leaders, including ministers, but Oommen Chandy threatened to pull out of the elections if anyone of them was axed. Fearing a split in the party, the High Command stepped back, causing immense damage to its own stature. It continued efforts to force some minor changes but it is too late to undo the damage.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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