Bengaluru: At a time when there is job loss everywhere, there is one vacancy that has not been filled for long. Not because there are no suitable or qualified candidates, but because of a name. The post that has been vacant is that of the Congress president. 

With just an interim president who does nothing much except keep the chair warm for her reluctant and, at times, recalcitrant son, the Congress is not only headless, but clueless. The only qualification needed is that the person who occupies the chair should have a Gandhi in his or her name. The Gandhis - Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka - do not want to occupy the chair and will not allow a non-Gandhi to step in. Long ago, there was a cartoon by the irrepressible RK Laxman which showed one Congress man coming up with a solution - that the new president should change his name to either Gandhi or Nehru for him to fit into the president's chair. And it is this vacancy that has been troubling senior Congress leaders. 

With the party on a slippery slope due to once-upon-a-time prince-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi, 23 brave men in the Congress thought it was time to stand up and speak. They were courageous enough to call a spade a spade - something they should have done soon after the Congress fared poorly in last year's general elections. But it's never too late. The Congress has to pull up its socks now - well before the next general elections in 2024. The country needs a good and vibrant opposition to take on the BJP. Only then will democracy thrive. If Congress is serious about 2024, rebuilding cannot await another Rahul failure. The strange situation today is that Rahul does not want to become the president. 

Then why on earth did he oppose the idea of having a permanent chief who is visible and can lead the party? If you can't do the job, let someone else do it. The G-23 leaders have given key suggestions that include a full-time and effective leadership active in the field and visible and available at AICC and state headquarters, constitution of the Central Parliamentary Board for "collective thinking" and decision-making on organisational matters, policies and programmes; elections at all levels in a transparent manner and elections to choose  CWC members. Nothing wrong in the letter. But the drama over the letter played to a predictable script. 

Instead of looking into the contents in the letter, it was dismissed as insubordination and even treachery and the Congress Working Committee reposed its faith in the Nehru-Gandhi family. The demand for changes in the party organisation did not come from ordinary party workers. The signatories included that included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tiwari, Veerappa Moily, Shashi Tharoor and others. 

The letter was written long ago, but what did the Congress do? The Gandhis and the gang around them chose to sit on it, not willing to discuss or debate. It is this inaction and silence that led to one among the G-23 leaders leaking the letter to the media. That brave man has, in fact, done a great service to the Congress because now the Congress leadership has to now decide and end the uncertainty sooner than later. In all probability, the Gandhi gang may start hunting the leader who leaked the letter instead of looking at what is haunting the party. That is the level of obsession around the Gandhis today. Finally, the day-long Congress Working Committee meeting on August 24, ended on a predictable and farcical note with a resolution that Sonia Gandhi would continue as the interim President till a solution is found or an agreement is reached. That is at best a band-aid fix that can peel off any time. The G-23 leaders are upset because ever since Rahul resigned drowning in self-pity, he has been acting as a de facto party president. He either takes decision independently or on the advice of a few hangers-on whom he trusts. He has been consistently side-lining senior party leaders. Rahul is a clever man, he takes all major decisions from behind the screen, but does not take the attendant responsibility. 

Of course, he regularly took on the government through social media, but for some unknown reason, he always seemed alone. He focused only on firing at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but never presented a new agenda to India, especially the youth and middle class - the bulk of the electorate. Senior leaders cautioned him to change his strategy, but he wouldn't listen and looked more and more aloof. It is this aloofness which has cost the Congress in particular and Indian democracy in general. The charge made by Rahul loyalists and the coterie is that the G-23 leader are rebels without a heart and their effort is a revolt. Like many assessments of Rahul, this one too is wrong and unfair. These leaders have all been Nehru-Gandhi loyalists to the core. Their only intention was to wake up the leadership and make them smell the coffee. 

As Shashi Tharoor rightly put it quoting Jawaharlal Nehru that read, “Without passion and urge, there is a gradual oozing out of hope and vitality, a settling down on lower levels of existence, a slow merging into non-existence. We have become prisoners of the past and some part of its immobility sticks to us”. The time to act has come and today, the Congress has no leader of the stature of Nehru, Patel or Indira Gandhi to rescue them from this crisis. Of course, Sonia Gandhi has played her role in history by reviving the Congress when it was in a crisis. Just like today, in 1998, when she became the Congress president, the party was rapidly withering away. She led from the front, arrested its decline and helped the Congress to form the government in 2004.

 But now she is 73 and unwell. It is time for her to leave the battleground to either Rahul or some other leader who emerges as a consensus candidate. In many ways, it is Sonia Gandhi who is the biggest hindrance in the path of Rahul Gandhi. She must leave him alone. Instead, she listens to the advice of a few leaders and indulges in back seat driving. Today, Sonia is surrounded by a cackle of loyal courtiers who want to put her ahead of the party. And she has been a back-seat driver for long - ever since Manmohan Singh became the prime minister. And this backseat driving is taking the Congress to a disastrous destination. Sadly, the Congress is incapable of looking beyond the Gandhis for leadership. 

The musical chair between Sonia and Rahul has always been a farcical one. Undeniably, a large section of the party's leadership believes that the Nehru-Gandhi family is the glue that holds the party together. Even when someone else is the face of the party, as was Manmohan Singh during his tenure as PM, the family, more so Sonia, pulled the strings so hard that Singh, who was once hailed as a king during the tenure of Narasimha Rao, was reduced to a prisoner in his own chair. Dynasty, of course, exists in many regional parties. However, the Gandhis' stranglehold over Congress is unmatched in its duration and scope. In all probability, the CWC may once more fall at the feet of Rahul Gandhi pleading him to take over as the president of the party. If so, he, or anyone else, must do three things: Create and consolidate a new leadership. Two: Revive the ideologies of the Congress with youth in focus. Three: Cut the dead wood in the party and go for organisational purging. The starting point is that there should be only one leader at the top; which means either Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Sonia must step aside. There cannot be three centres of power in the Congress. If a non-Gandhi takes over, the Gandhis should not indulge in backseat driving or pull strings - just as Sonia Gandhi did to Manmohan Singh. Ideologically, the new party chief should re-invent the Congress by redefining many old concepts, abandon a few outdated ones and invent others to match young India. 

Finally, the new leader must go in for massive purging in the party. Like Narendra Modi, the new leader should retire the older ones and shunt out those refusing to change. There is also this argument that only a Gandhi can keep the fissiparous Congress together. But 2014 and 2019 proved this wrong. The Gandhis are now only holding a rump outfit in Delhi while regional chieftains have emerged - like Asok Gehlot, Amarinder Singh, Bhupesh Baghel and Siddaramaiah - DK Sivakumar combine whose voices will carry more weight. Since 2014, the Congress has dramatically reduced from 200 plus seats to a meagre 44 in the Lok Sabha. After that the Congress lost numerous elections, including the general election in 2019 when its tally went up by a mere eight seats, what happened? 

Its leaders, young and old were protective about the Gandhis and were content passing the blame to each other rather than honestly reckoning with their own failings. The root of the Congress crisis is that of a leadership and cadre that sees office as privilege and inheritance, instead of a prize for hard work and perseverance. At the August 24 meeting, young leaders close to Rahul Gandhi reportedly blamed the party's fall on those who were ministers in the UPA 2 government. They were right. One reason for the UPA's debacle in 2014 was the perceived corruption and mis-governance that plagued Manmohan Singh's second term as prime minister and his theory of 'coalition dharma'. But then, there was absolutely no accountability. The same failed and corrupt leaders continue to occupy party positions and a few have even been rewarded with berths in state governments and in Parliament. Young leaders felt left out and the more ambitious among them explored options outside the Congress rather than challenge the seniors within the party and force a change.

So, is this a show of dissent unprecedented in the Congress? No, the Congress party has seen turmoil and revolts earlier too, but at that time, there was a strong Gandhi at the helm. In 1969, Indira Gandhi was expelled from the party for challenging the old guards. She was young, strong, charismatic and formed a breakaway party that later went on to become the real Congress while the old guards like Kamaraj and Morarji Desai had to fade away. But between 1991 and 96, a powerful non-Gandhi emerged: PV Narasimha Rao. He, along with Manmohan Singh, boldly introduced a slew of economic reforms aimed at young India. Then, in early 1990s there was a revolt against this non-Gandhi because he failed to give adequate respect to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress high command hit back. Despite his achievements, Rao was just another Congressman. The
Gandhis were so nasty that the Congress refused to keep his body in the AICC office when he died on Dec 23, 2004 - just because he was a non-Gandhi. The Congress soon went into a decline. In an effort to revive the party's sagging fortunes, Sonia Gandhi joined the Congress Party as a primary member in the Calcutta Plenary Session in 1997.

That upset senior leaders like Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar who raised a banner of revolt and had to leave the Congress to start their regional outfits. Sonia Gandhi took over the presidentship of the Congress in dramatic circumstances. 

Loyalists locked up an aging Sitaram Kesari, the party president, in a room in the AICC office even as Sonia Gandhi took charge. But today, the situation is different. The difference this time is three fold: There is no strong Gandhi at the helm and, secondly, the party has now been out of power at the national level for more than six years - the second longest period in its history and third: the opponent, Narendra Modi and the BJP have emerged too strong for a challenge. But nothing is impossible in politics, especially in India. The Congress will also have to resolve the fight between the old guards and the young turks. 

Recently, when Rajasthan Congress was in turmoil, one comment of an angry Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot stood out. Sounding livid, Gehlot pounced on his 42-year-old erstwhile deputy Sachin Pilot saying: "Being merely good-looking, speaking English and giving sound bites is not everything in politics". That shows the problem and also reveals why the Congress has over the years sequestered itself from India's ambitious and crucial middle class. This has proved electorally disastrous for the party since 2009. But the irony is that the Great Indian Middle Class is a Congress construct. While the middle class and urban voters moved on to the BJP, rural voters opted for regional parties, leaving the Congress high and dry.

While the Congress moved left with schemes for the poor, it ignored the ideologically malleable, economically ambitious and socially mobile middle class. The 2019 campaign was consumed by the Nyuntam Aay Yojana which promised that the party, if voted to power, would enact a law under which it would distribute cash to the bottom 20 percent of India's families in terms of wealth, as a minimum guarantee programme. It was then hailed as a bold and unique move, but it made no sense to the middle class which gravitated towards Modi. Since 2014 Modi has charmed the WhatsApp and twitter fans. 

But all that can change if the Congress has the guts to fight it out with a strong president who can lead. Congress surely needs to reboot its political strategy. The starting point is the letter of the G-23 leaders. Discuss it openly, take decisions and have a president to lead the party.