The pre-scripted theatrics and rhetoric along expected and familiar lines in the Congress Working Committee meeting over the issue of leadership succession in the grand old party resembles an observation of Karl Marx. Commenting on the farcical and self-staged coup by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte on 2 December 1851 in France in his long essay ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Marx commented, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice.
He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” With the benefit of hindsight, with respect to the Congress succession crisis, the tragedy was in the events between 1997-1999. Back then, within a year of becoming a primary member of the party, Sonia Gandhi was elected as its president—after the unceremonious removal of then chief Sitaram Kesari and subsequent expulsion of three senior leaders, Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar, for opposing her declaration as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections on the grounds of her foreign origin. The template of a Gandhi resigning in the face of criticism, which is followed by a chorus of emotional outbursts by the rank and file of the party and their twin demands—withdrawal of the resignation letter and strict punishment to the dissidents—was firmly entrenched.
The farce is in the repetition of the same template now after 21 years. Consider this: As per the party constitution, it is the members of the Pradesh Congress Committees who happen to be the delegates of the party with the votes to nominate a candidate for party president and elect him/her. Ironically, at present, most of the Pradesh Congress Committee members have been competing to show their unflinching faith in the Gandhis’ leadership, including the ones in Andhra Pradesh where the Congress is effectively reduced to the status of a signboard party.
The farce is that they are not even taking sides between the mother and son. Rather, the attempt is to harmonise their loyalty between the two. We find a standard resolution by them requesting Sonia Gandhi to continue as party president with the carefully worded qualification that in case she refuses to do so on health grounds, Rahul Gandhi should take over as the Congress chief. Where is the real choice? This farce of the ongoing CWC meeting is also problematic for its deliberate obliviousness to the popular societal perception, which is twofold.
One, the majority of the people do not accept the Gandhis as their leader and two, they aren’t even hopeful that the party could have an autonomous and grounded non-Gandhi as its president. In this backdrop, the drowning chorus by the leaders in reaction to the not-so-critical letter by the 23 senior leaders betrays the state of the party, which is exclusively concerned with the choices of the leaders and workers, without taking any cognisance of the electorates’ perception.
Further, the real crisis afflicting the party is not the unpopular status of the Gandhis. Rather, it’s the cliched argument offered by the family apologists that the party cannot afford to have a leadership from outside the family despite the substantial waning in the Gandhis’ popularity. This circularity of logic is the very malaise that has placed the Congress in a downward spiral since 2014.
That the party can’t entertain the very possibility of a non-Gandhi chief at a time when the Gandhis are perceived as baggage by the majority of people reveals its status-quoist mindset where winning elections—a necessary and sufficient condition for political relevance—seems to be a secondary matter. This also betrays a collective lack of passion for politics that only reinforces the image of the Congress as a lazy and non-serious party.
This crisis has serious implications for the state of parliamentary democracy in India on account of the Congress being the prime opposition party. The successive failure of the party, particularly its top leadership, to strike a popular chord with the people and organise them around the issues affecting the electorate in the last six years has meant that the ruling regime has been given a free pass. Therefore, it is high time that the party comes out of the suffocating clutches of the decadent Rajya Sabha-club leaders, who need the family more than the family needs them.
Their domineering presence has ensured that being aspirational in the party is an unpardonable sin, particularly in younger leaders. With notable exceptions, they are the unelected gatekeepers, the guardian council who owe their well-entrenched power and positions to their unflinching loyalty to the family rather than their popularity among the masses.
Faced with a legitimacy crisis, what the Congress needs now is a quantum leap of trust in an autonomous non-Gandhi leadership and freedom from the unfounded assumption that this would lead to the collapse of the party. Such a move may fail to revive the electoral fortunes of the party in the short run, but it would certainly lead to a change in the negative perception that the party is beholden to a family and therefore is colossally short on internal democracy. However, this seems to be wishful thinking. As of now, given the state of affairs, the farce of the succession debate in the Congress is set to continue and its most expected outcome would be this: The grand old party will end up convincing the people that the BJP is there for the long haul.
Political analyst with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation