Leadership Crisis Rocks India’s Main Opposition Party

Leadership Crisis Rocks India’s Main Opposition Party

NEW DELHI—An explosive letter leaked by the Indian Express has set political circles in New Delhi’s power corridors abuzz about the fate of the Indian National Congress—India’s oldest party and the single largest opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As prominent senior leaders call for a complete restructuring of the party, a burgeoning split between older and younger members has been revealed.

The crisis has been brewing for the past five to six years, said Zoya Hasan, professor emerita at the Centre for Political Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“It is an unprecedented crisis in Congress’s history,” she said.

The party has been working without a full-time president since Rahul Gandhi resigned in July 2019, after Modi’s was reelected in a landslide for a second consecutive term three months earlier. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother who was the president of the party from 1998 to 2017, has been serving as interim president.

The party held a seven-hour meeting on Aug. 24 to try and resolve the leadership crisis. However, a day earlier, a letter was made public from 23 senior leaders, including former chief ministers and former cabinet members, to Sonia Gandhi seeking sweeping changes and acknowledging that the youth of the country had backed Modi.

Former Union minister Kapil Sibal and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, both of whom were reportedly among those who signed the letter, did not respond to questions sent by Zenger News.

 

“If 23 senior leaders send a letter to a party’s president asking for complete restructuring, that itself indicates a serious crisis,” said political scientist Sanjay Kumar, who heads the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based research institute.

Kumar said the letter laid bare the divide within the party.

“Younger leaders may still support Rahul Gandhi, some loyalists may also like him,” he said. “But events suggest there is a clear divide between the younger and older generations.”

The history of the party sheds some light on the situation it finds itself in today.

The Congress was founded in 1885 in Bombay (now Mumbai), comprising notable Indians and some Englishmen. Allan Octavian Hume, a retired English civil servant and one of the founding members, described it as a “safety valve” that would inform the colonial administration of the grievances of Indians.

Soon, however, the party became the principal organ of the independence movement and was transformed by Mahatma Gandhi into a formidable political force. After India gained independence from British rule in 1947, the Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, was elected to power and continued to rule without interruption until 1977, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother—was voted out of office.

She had declared a state of emergency in 1975, allowing her to rule by decree. During the 21-month period, the press was gagged and opposition leaders were jailed.

Indira Gandhi was returned to power in 1980 and served as prime minister until 1984, when she was assassinated by her bodyguards recruited by the Sikh separatist Khalistani movement. Her son (and Rahul Gandhi’s father), Rajiv Gandhi took office after his mother’s death until his assassination in 1991.

During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, some reforms were initiated in transforming the country from a Soviet-inspired closed economy to a more liberal one, but the complete liberalization agenda was taken up by Rajiv Gandhi’s successor, Congress party member P.V. Narasimha Rao, who served as prime minister from 1991-1996.

Rahul Gandhi, then-Vice President of the Indian National Congress party participates in a “Sadhbhawana Yatra” in Barpeta district, on December 12, 2015. (Courtesy: Biju Boro)

Rajiv’s wife, Sonia Gandhi, was elected president of the party in 1998, leading the party to electoral victory in 2004. The party remained in power, with economist Manmohan Singh as prime minister until  2014, when his tenure ended after a series of corruption scandals and the election of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since then, the Congress party has found it difficult to stage a comeback.

“The opposition has been weakened because the Congress is deeply enmeshed in a leadership crisis,” said Hasan, of the Centre for Political Leadership.

Many believe that the Congress is the only party that can challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hegemony at the national level. The party has an absolute majority of 303 among 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

“There can be no serious opposition to the BJP without the Congress,” said Hasan. “The regional parties cannot stand up to it.”

“This has long-term impacts on how democracy will function,” said Kumar.

While Rahul Gandhi’s performance as leader in elections has been patchy, many in the party still seem to support him and his family. At the Aug. 24 meeting of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s decision-making organ, it was decided that Sonia Gandhi would continue as interim president. It also authorized her to make organizational changes.

The election of a new party president is scheduled to take place in six months.

Priyanka Gandhi campaigning for Lok Sabha elections in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh on April 9, 2019 (Courtesy: Roshan Abbas Naqvi)

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other parties have often attacked the Congress for perpetuating family rule.

“The media wants a non-Gandhi (leader for the Congress), the BJP wants a non-Gandhi, but the Congress doesn’t want a non-Gandhi,” said Hasan.

The party may be headed to a split when it elects a new leader.

“Eventually, when the party comes to electing a president formally, I think that is the time when Congress would face a bigger crisis,” said Kumar.  “A split is imminent.”

Some of the parties born out of these splits have become regional behemoths.

“They may not help the party win elections, but the Gandhi surname has kept the flock together,” said Kumar.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index released in January, India dropped 10 places, to 51st out of 165 independent states and two territories. The report cited “erosion of civil liberties” in the country as among the main reason for the downturn.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)



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Modi’s Plan to Compete With China: Coding in Schools

Modi’s Plan to Compete With China: Coding in Schools

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make India one of the world’s leaders in research.

And one way he wants to get there: more coding in schools.

India wants to take advantage of China’s trade war with the U.S. — exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis — to capture a bigger slice of the global IT market. Modi unveiled a new National Education Policy last month that, among a slew of new initiatives, would introduce computational thinking and coding for students grade six and above. 

Both the proposal’s supporters and critics appear believe the policy aims to provide a steady, trained workforce to India’s IT industry.

“If India is to become a leader in these disparate areas, and truly achieve the potential of its vast talent pool to again become a leading knowledge society in the coming years and decades, the nation will require a significant expansion of its research capabilities and output across disciplines,” according to the 66-page proposal.

Though India lags behind China in the IT services sector by $9 billion ($171 billion in China versus $180 billion in India), India’s revenues are largely export-driven with the U.S. a major client. To upstage China, chiefly, India would need a robust supply of skilled programmers.

“The country’s IT industry has long been outsource-driven, unlike China’s, which thrives on consumer technology,” said Sayan Bhattacharya, a senior full-stack engineer at RouteCap and an architect for B2B software applications. “School students have little idea about the enormous opportunities that computer education can provide.”

In recent months, India has taken advantage of the global anti-China sentiment to try to attract multinational tech corporations. Apple started manufacturing its iPhone 11 model in Chennai, a southern metropolis, in July. The Indian government also banned TikTok, WeChat and Helo—all Chinese-origin social-media platforms—after a border clash with China earlier this year. Instead, it’s pushing Indian-made alternatives.

Since then, Modi has focused on making India “aatmanirbhar,” meaning self-reliant, and India has canceled several trade deals with China. The country is also trying to build local industries in electronics, automobiles and food processing.

While many see the new education policy as critical to aatmanirbhar, others are unsure.

“Leaving a few handful of private schools in the districts, not many have the required infrastructure to teach students advanced computing skills,” said Krishna Murari, a science coordinator of Chandauli, a rural district in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The district has about 2,115 schools, of which 1,523 are run by the government. “Unavailability of equipment is a major blockade to the NEP’s coding classes agenda.”

Another major challenge is the diversity of languages in India. The Indian Constitution lists 22 languages in which official work can be carried out, but more than 122 are spoken by 1.3 billion people across the country, according to its 2011 Census.

For students whose schools primarily teach in local tongues, transitioning to English and coding languages, which are designed in English, is difficult.

The new policy would make regional language the medium of instruction until eighth grade. Murari said the plan will require students to learn computational thinking in English — and they might face difficulties switching.

However, not everyone sees language diversity as an impediment.

“Learning in their mother tongue will help students convey their ideas better and boost design thinking,” said Anurag Gupta, a STEM consultant and founder of STEMROBO Technologies, an ed-tech startup that trains students in design thinking, experiential learning, and digital technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

Gupta isn’t alone in seeing the introduction of coding is an effort to make Indian students future-ready.

“Coding isn’t limited to computers,” said Bindeshwar Khushwaha, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from the Banaras Hindu University and teaches at Sunbeam School, Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh. “Any approach that aims at finding a logical solution to a problem can be called coding.”

And students can start learning to code as early as 7 or 8, said T Srinivas Raju, principal of Poddar International School at Tirupati in  Andhra Pradesh. “Students in the elementary age group are curious and can easily pick up complex skills, if trained properly.”

Raju has also been training students in computer science for about 15 years.

“The internet revolution brought a quantum change to the job market in the country and rejigged our curricula,” he said. “Now, we will have 10-year-olds coding in Python and designing bots that solve problems.”

The new policy also calls for courses in artificial intelligence, or AI. Rishabh Roy, a data analyst at Mu Sigma Business, called it “a boon for kids.”

“Learning AI has become important in the current job market,” he said.

But not all are optimistic about the policy’s chances. Several of Modi’s previous statements about education and empowerment have failed.

In 2014, Modi adopted Jayapur, a village in his home constituency of Varanasi, and announced special facilities for girl students as part of a village development project. Today, Jayapur lacks a functional girls’ school or a coeducational school for grades five and above. The town’s anganwadi—a type of daycare school for young children—has broken windows and a tumbledown toilet. 

The girls’ school now serves as a workstation for weavers, and parents are forced to keep their girls away from textbooks.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Fern Siegel.)



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