The drama over the letter by 23 Congress leaders to the party high command played to a predictable script. The demand for changes in the party organisation raised by the letter writers, which included former chief ministers and central ministers, was dismissed as insubordination and even treachery and the Congress Working Committee reposed its faith in the Nehru-Gandhi family. While Sonia Gandhi, who offered to resign, will continue as the party’s interim president, the only concession was on the election of a new president when the next All India Congress Committee (AICC) session takes place.
The latest episode, involving an attempt to reform the moribund Congress, is yet another reminder of some truisms about the party. One, questioning or even ignoring the Nehru-Gandhi family within the Congress comes at great cost. There are numerous examples, including most famously that of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, who was declared persona non grata after he refused to give Sonia enough respect.
The high command culture goes back to the days of Indira Gandhi when the so-called Congress ‘system’, theorised by political scientist Rajni Kothari as a “party of consensus” that functioned through an elaborate network of factions, broke down due to an overly centralised leadership. Over the past three decades, however, the organisation of the Congress has shrunk along with the credibility of its central leadership. To be fair, hardly any party in India has meaningful internal democracy, but the difference is that in Congress the Gandhis are immune to electoral failure.
Two, Congress is incapable of looking beyond the Gandhis for leadership. The musical chairs between Sonia and Rahul would have been farcical if it were not about heading one of the world’s oldest political parties. The only other name that seems to do the rounds is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. 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 pulled the strings. Dynasty, of course, isn’t peculiar to Congress with many regional parties reduced to family firms. However, the Gandhis’ stranglehold over Congress is unmatched in its duration and scope. Furthermore, it makes the Congress an easy object of ridicule for rival parties as well as voters.
Three, there is no serious attempt to stem the drift within the party, which has been on a decline since 2014. While after every election debacle, party leaders talk about introspection, there is a farcical ring to that word. The constant tussle between family loyalists and those who have an independent following on one hand and the younger leaders and veterans on the other has stymied any attempt of reform. It has also led to steady defections from the party, the latest being that of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporters. Sachin Pilot’s exit was narrowly averted, but who knows for how long.
Come the next AICC session, there will be a rising clamour for the return of Rahul, who had stepped down after the party’s disastrous showing in the 2019 general election, as president. Following the election, party leaders had begged Rahul not to resign. We are likely to see a similar charade where party members will implore Rahul to return and replace his ailing mother as party president. One is reminded of a 1990s RK Laxman cartoon, where a Congressman comes up with the solution that whoever takes over as party president must be “renamed Nehru or Gandhi”.
Besides the structural problems, Rahul remains one of the obstacles for Congress’s regeneration. In 2013, Ramachandra Guha had called him a “well-intentioned dilettante”. That description, by and large, still holds true. Although he has had his moments in Parliament and during election campaigning, he has failed to galvanise either his party or the voters. He could not even win from his family pocket borough in 2019. Too often, he has picked the wrong fights. Besides, he is no match for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India needs a strong opposition to confront the government on critical issues, both domestic and external, and Congress is the only real national alternative. Unfortunately, the Nehru-Gandhi clan is not the best option right now to lead the grand old party.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.