Who says the Congress doesn’t think out of the box? It definitely does. Expected to move ahead as an effective opposition, it has chosen reverse dynastic succession instead. In 2017 Sonia Gandhi handed over the party to son Rahul. Eighteen months later, he decided to return it to mama. This unprecedented retransfer of political power followed a series of collective consultations and copious consultations. But after toxic deliberations of distrust, the stakeholders concluded that only a Gandhi can keep the 130-year-old party alive, even if it is on the respirator.
The script was by Gandhi, by Gandhi of Gandhi. An extended meeting of the Gandhi-nominated Congress Working Committee unanimously requested Sonia to become the interim President. By voluntarily quitting, Rahul conceded that he is an unsuccessful successor, since a successful leader supposedly must find an equally successful successor. But in the Congress, nothing succeeds like failure. Ignoring the CWC’s emotional appeal, Rahul sacrificed himself in the name of accountability—a rare gesture for a Gandhi. The four-page letter read: “As president of the Congress party, I am responsible for the loss of the 2019 election.
Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party. It is for this reason that I have resigned as Congress president. Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party.” It took the GOP 77 days to complete its search for a replacement, which ultimately ended at the doormat of 10, Janpath, where an ailing Sonia has been living for the past 30 years.
The party’s experiment of betting on a young leader had become its worst nightmare. The Gandhi alternative was Rahul’s younger sibling Priyanka. But she failed to deliver even an extra seat in her allocated region which was supposed to have fallen to her charm and charisma. Party scuttlebutt was that Rahul had wanted many heads to roll. But necks stayed intact because the party was in the vice-like grip of a few doddering Congressmen and their Gen Next sidekicks.
No significant leader followed the Gandhi scion’s example of quitting their post and sharing the responsibility for the electoral debacle. The aftermath of Rahul’s resignation set a dangerous precedent which proved that the party is resigned to the lack of new leaders at the state and the national level who can bring in an alternate Acche Din in the near future. It also generated the ominous possibility that the only other national party after the BJP is facing an existential threat. Many senior Congress leaders were leaving the party. Others ran local units like their own personal fiefdoms. From Kanniyakumari to Kashmir, the Congress was evaporating faster than dew. Once the refuge of the poor, Dalits, famers, minorities, tribals and the middle class, the party was crumbling like a besieged fort under the weight of its contradictions and failed leadership. It is now left with a few leaders and fewer original followers.
Sonia’s return signals that a Congress sans Gandhis is like an old model political car running only on its losing reputation. Those who expressed their faith in Sonia had ignored the party. They failed to expand and retain the outfit’s core constituency under the leadership of the Gandhis during the past two decades. Though it was Sonia who brought the Congress back to power in 2004 using clever political management and forging alliances with personal opponents, she couldn’t engineer a grass-roots revival. Over a decade in government, the party lost its mass connectivity. The aggression and national fervour of Narendra Modi shook its very foundations to the core.
The Gandhis may be able to keep the shrinking Congress together but the current crop of Gandhis are poor successors to the original dynasty deities. The Congress won three consecutive elections under Jawaharlal Nehru. His successor Indira Gandhi ruled India for over 16 years. When she was ejected by the Syndicate, she created her own Congress and returned to power with a two-thirds majority. Even after her defeat in 1977, she toppled the Janata government using political manipulations. After her death, her successor Rajiv Gandhi won over 400 seats and almost every Assembly election. He created his own set of leaders. But even they couldn’t hold the party together.
Numerous Congressmen led by V P Singh left and engineered a Congress defeat. Rajiv was almost on a comeback trail until he was assassinated. Successor PMs like P V Narasimha Rao lacked the call and charisma to expand the party’s base. Since then, the Congress hasn’t won a majority of its own. Though Sonia ensured over 206 seats for the Congress in 2009, the party couldn’t cross the 44 mark in 2014.
Rahul, like his father, was projected not only as the party’s future but of the nation itself. He formally joined politics in 2004 after winning the Lok Sabha elections. During the past 15 years, he has been billed as a young leader in search of his own identity and ideology. He swore by the Congress and what it stood for. But he was also in confrontation with his own party. Failing to create an alternative political leadership like his grandmother or uncle Sanjay, he was uncomfortable with the Old Guard. Probably, his elitist upbringing and political isolation for a major part of his life doomed him as an incompatible companion in Congress politics.
He inherited the party from his mother, who got it from her predecessors. During the past two decades, both mother and son held total sway over the organisation. But they haven’t attracted fresh talent or devised a credible alternative agenda for governance. The resignation drama is a requiem for the original Congress of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira. During the past five years, the Gandhis have lost the mandate of the Indian electorate. They still enjoy the confidence of handful of Congress leaders. As the exodus from the Congress picks up if the party loses votes, the Gandhis may be left alone with handful of Bhaktas. The current generation of the Family must rediscover India and its politics as a transformative experience to create a new Congress and pitch the Gandhi brand as the leverage for desire and association.
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