BENGALURU: It’s a party that seems to attract obituaries towards itself by a kind of magnetic force of history. Mahatma Gandhi himself had wished for it. There’s a considerable political and ideological distance between how he had mandated a demise for the Congress after Independence and how Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking about a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. But of all the various times the party had come close to fulfilling the predictions of sundry doomsayers, the summer of 2019 will rank as among the best attempts at suicide.
It would be harsh to deploy the word ‘suicide’. For, surely, it was not voluntary. The party, to be fair, had fought back from the brink and created a new, robust space for itself in public debates. Rahul Gandhi was even logging more retweets than Modi of late.
Since late 2017, it had even made a turn in its electoral fortunes. There was a new fighting spirit in evidence in the Gujarat Assembly elections, there was Karnataka, there were the stunning wins in the three Hindi heartland states. There was also NYAY, a new blueprint in collective policymaking.
The results, therefore, would be that much more soul-shattering. For all this sweat and blood, and social media braggadocio, the returns are less than meagre. The party added only eight more to its Lok Sabha tally.
So while 2019 is not its worst performance ever — the nadir of 2014’s 44 stays for now — this is even worse in terms of return on investment. In 2014, the party was listless and dispirited. The cumulative infamy of scams and the policy paralysis of UPA-II had weighed it down. And there was that man, Modi, in his first flush of raw energy and spectacle, selling a new dream. Now, it was the Congress making a charge on the fort, and it ended up looking pathetic.
The inevitable question of leadership must come up now. It’s not just a question of the party president’s post. That incumbency comes with a whole behaviour of elite entitlement. A sarcastic Whatsapp meme had it down pat: “Rajiv Gandhi’s son losing. Ashok Gehlot’s son losing. Madhavrao Scindia’s son losing. Ajit Pawar’s son losing. Murli Deora’s son losing. Tarun Gogoi’s son losing. H.D. Kumaraswamy’s son losing.”
The last name there proves dynasticism is not a trait exclusively applicable to Congress — even the BJP is not immune — but you get the drift. Before his press conference in the evening, the speculation already ranged around the question. Much was being made of ‘Rahul Gandhi offering to resign and Sonia Gandhi rejecting it’. It was a curious thought and the right question was asked about it: ‘She is no longer party president, how can she reject or accept a resignation, isn’t there a CWC?’ At his press briefing, Rahul set that right: “It’s between me and the CWC.” But the whiff of a closed group making decisions, the distance from the party workers or people, did not get erased. It goes without saying that, if the party represents an “ideology”, as Rahul keeps reiterating, it cannot become a family holding.
It has to bring back the Sharad Pawars, the Jagan Reddys and the Mamata Banerjees. In times when the party’s president cannot hold on to a family pocket borough like Amethi, it’s clear that they need a narrative that goes beyond anodyne lines about “spreading love” and following on Twitter. The emasculation that had begun setting in with Indira Gandhi - the distance from the real ground of India, the retreat into cabals of small-time rajas and feudal lords - the repair work has to start there. Unless they’re actively contemplating suicide.