Surely, Shashi Tharoor knows that no party remains rudderless by choice. As a rule, parties in turmoil look to tried and tested leaders to steer them through choppy waters. There must, therefore, be a logic to the inability of the grand old party to fill the vacuum at the top. What could it be? One thing is certain: the ambit of this dilemma is wider than the electoral devastation the Congress has suffered.
The present setback, despite being preceded by the party’s commendable performances in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, has a crushing effect largely because of the vilification campaign stigmatising the “Nehru-Gandhi parivar” peaking in the run up to the general elections. It is obvious that Rahul is deeply affected by it.
The flow of history, since the French Revolution (1789), has acquired an inexorable anti-aristocratic spirit. It is as if, writes Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), an irresistible ‘unknown force’ drives public sentiments against the aristocracy. The aftermath of this upsurge, Tocqueville points out, activates the base and the lumpen and, with that, a preference for despotism is born. ‘Nobility’ is not wholly a class matter, but also of higher norms and sentiments, such as were exemplified in the politics of Mahatma Gandhi. The masses respond to the supersession of the aristocracy with overwhelming enthusiasm because it is felt for the time being as liberating and empowering. In this heady ambience, ‘the old regime’ looks anaemic and illicit, and loses mass appeal almost completely. The Congress did bank heavily on the ‘aristocratic’ façade of doing politics and reap a rich harvest for a few decades. Times have changed. Yesterday’s merit is today’s stigma.
This awareness entails an intuitive, inchoate discomfiture for the Nehru-Gandhis. It envelops Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. Consequently, it is easy to demoralise them by caricaturing them as hindering intruders and aliens to PM Narendra Modi. Rahul’s fine sentiments and value-based advocacies, with which he sought to counter the Modi magic, proved woefully inadequate; somewhat like a rural grandfather commending his norms and ways to his urban grandchildren today. His strategy was nobly irrelevant. It would have paid dividends, say, a decade ago. Consider this. Not long ago, it was a badge of honour to be labelled an ‘intellectual’; today it is a stigma. Being born in a family of distinction, as Rahul has had the misfortune to do, was not an odious thing. Now the accident of being born thus is a pretentious impertinence. Nobility fades into insignificance in the meteoric rise of the neo-rich. It is great to be born as the offspring of a corporate giant; but an impudence to be born in a politically distinguished Congress family. The important thing to note is that this shift is so decisive because it is in consonance with the drift of history.
There is, however, a price to pay for it. Shared ideals and national sentiments give way to selfish, personal or party interests. Look at Karnataka or Goa, if you are still unconvinced. ‘People’s representatives’ lining up to sell themselves to the highest bidder would have been a scandal a few decades ago. Of course, defections did happen now and then in the past as well. But, when they did, they occasioned popular disappointment and public ridicule. Now it looks like a smart thing to do. The shift from the ‘aristocratic’ to the ‘pedestrian’, is distinguished, Tocqueville points out, by the ascendancy of money as the ultimate value.
The crisis confronting the Congress involves not merely the vacuum at the top, as Tharoor seems to think. That is a simpler and an ephemeral issue. The real crisis is the current of history that buffets it. The BJP, led by the Shah-Modi combine, has the advantage of history’s tailwind. The Congress is left pushing against its headwind. It takes extraordinary leadership skills—a political Napoleon—to rejuvenate the party’s geriatric body.
Punjab CM Amarinder Singh can say what he likes, but Priyanka stepping into Rahul’s shoes is simply not on the cards. What makes it all the more daunting and awkward for her even to consider such a prospect is Rahul’s exit. By throwing in the towel at this juncture, Rahul has validated the ‘anti-dynastic’ propaganda. That one man can single-handedly win or lose an election is a canard. And it is so, even in respect of Modi. Rahul has unwittingly walked into the trap laid by the BJP in construing the election in the presidential Modi vs. Rahul mode. It is not the discomfiture of an individual that should matter at this moment, but the destiny of the principal opposition party.
The assumption that members of a ‘dynasty’ are, ipso facto, devoid of merit too is a canard. A touch of class is not wholly a class matter. To me PM Modi, irrespective of his social background, has class. Amit Shah too, in respect of political strategies. Are his children to be banished from public life just because he is distinguished? Rahul has proved in a short span of time that he has the touch of class. Otherwise, why would the BJP strain its nerves to dislodge him from the political arena? So, the Congress is in a dilemma; more serious, perhaps, than its strategists realise. A change at the top alone would not suffice to equip the party to cope with the drift of history. In politics, as in nature, it happens that species that fail to adapt to the changing demands of time fade into oblivion. So, it is now or never for the party.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi