Azad’s exit a big loss for Congress 

The departure of Azad will have lasting repercussions, which bodes ill for the Congress party and for democracy itself because it weakens the idea of a credible opposition.

Published: 16th September 2022 12:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th September 2022 12:58 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustrations))

Image used for representational purpose only. (Express Illustrations))

The exit of Ghulam Nabi Azad from the Congress party ending a 50-year-long association, and the reasons cited by him for his decision indicate that the nation’s oldest party, which was at the vanguard of the freedom movement, is now terminally ill. Azad has been and will continue to be the quintessential Congressman of the old school—sedate, sober, deliberative, democratic—who has had long and respectable innings in national politics. Only a party or organisation with a death wish would hound or make him so uncomfortable that he is compelled to call it quits.

The decline of the Congress has been noticeable over the last decade, and committed members of the party like Azad and his friends in the Group of 23, who mustered the courage to raise the red flag two years ago, tried in vain to reverse the party’s fortunes but with little success. But, far from listening to the sage counsel of party veterans, the Nehru-Gandhis, who own and control the party, unleashed vicious campaigns against G-23 members, forcing them to go into a sulk or head for the exit like Azad.          

It is now obvious to everyone that the central problem is the inability of the Congress party to escape from the stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhis, who seem to have run out of ideas but are unwilling to pass on the baton to other, more energetic politicians who can at least try to rejuvenate the party. After a brief lull in the post-Rajiv Gandhi phase, the family took over the reins after the party’s poor performance in the 1996 Lok Sabha election under the leadership of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.

In that election, the party secured 28.80% of the vote and 140 seats. This was considered a disaster, and Rao was soon dislodged as party president, and Sitaram Kesri stepped in. But family loyalists felt that the party could not recover ground unless it took charge. So, following a coup, Sonia Gandhi was appointed president of the party in 1998, within months of becoming a primary party member. She handed over the reins to her son Rahul Gandhi in 2017, who quit after a two-year stint and handed the baton back to his mother.

After Sonia Gandhi took charge in 1998, the party’s highest vote share was 28.55% in 2009, with which it bagged a phenomenal 211 seats in the Lok Sabha. This was primarily because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s failure to present a credible alternative. But, with the arrival of Narendra Modi on the national scene, the Congress party’s fortunes plunged. It registered its lowest vote share, 19.30% in 2014 and 19.46% in 2019.

It failed to get even 10% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, which is necessary for its leader to be recognised as Leader of the Opposition. Given current electoral trends, the party’s share of the national vote could dip even further. This is indeed a steep fall from the 42–45% vote share that the party commanded during the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi days and the 49.10% polled by the party in 1984 in the post-Indira Gandhi assassination election. These statistics establish that the family’s charisma has faded, and the party can no longer hook its fortunes to a single family.

Ghulam Nabi Azad joined the Congress party in the mid-1970s. He was a Union minister from 1982 in Congress governments headed by Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. During this political journey, he has held key positions in the party, conducted himself with dignity, and upheld the best traditions of Congress. Given his sobriety, one can imagine what could have driven him to the point of delivering such a harsh indictment of Rahul Gandhi. He says that unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi “demolished” the entire consultative mechanism and allowed a new coterie of “inexperienced sycophants” to run the party’s affairs. He accuses him of “childish behaviour” (tearing up a government ordinance in 2013), completely subverting the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at that time. 

Azad’s letter is a virtual charge sheet against Rahul Gandhi that lays bare the reasons for the tragic downslide of the party over the last eight years. He says that in August 2020, when he and 22 other senior colleagues, including former Union ministers and chief ministers wrote to Sonia Gandhi to flag the abysmal drift in the party, the coterie chose to unleash its sycophants on us “and got us attacked, vilified and humiliated in the crudest manner possible”. They even held a mock funeral procession of Azad in Jammu. Those who committed this indiscipline were feted in Delhi by the General Secretaries of the AICC and by Rahul Gandhi personally. Subsequently, the same coterie unleashed its goondas to attack the residence of Kapil Sibal physically, he says.

Since the 2019 elections, the party has lost the will and the ability to fight. Azad’s letter holds a mirror to the mother-son combine that runs the party and reminds them that between 2014 and 2022, the Congress party has lost 39 of the 49 assembly elections held in the country. All important decisions were being taken by Rahul Gandhi “or rather worse, his security guards and PAs”. His final diagnosis was: “The Congress Party has reached a point of no return …..(it) has been comprehensively destroyed …”.

 Many have come into Congress over the years, and many have gone. Still, the departure of Ghulam Nabi Azad will have deep and lasting repercussions, which bodes ill for the Congress party and for democracy itself because it weakens the idea of a credible opposition to the BJP at the national level. The BJP had declared many years ago that it would like to see a Congress-mukt Bharat. But it appears as if the BJP need not labour hard. Members of Congress are on the job, and as one can see, the party is imploding. A question that is often asked is, “Who will stem the rot?” but there are never any easy answers. Going by the internal dissensions in the party, one guess is that if the party’s leadership is Gandhi parivar-mukt, it may be able to stem the tide and prevent the BJP’s dream of the Congress-mukt Bharat from becoming a reality.

A Surya Prakash

Former Chairman of Prasar Bharati and scholar, Democracy Studies



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