Commentary: Can there be an Indian National Congress without Gandhi leadership?
A recent episode involving an attempt to reform the moribund Congress is yet another reminder of how the party cannot think beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family, says Dr Ronojoy Sen from NUS.
SINGAPORE: In August, 23 Indian National Congress leaders sent a letter to the party high command, raising the issue of the party’s steady decline since the 2014 general election.
But the move has had little or no real impact. The signatories to the letter included former chief ministers and central ministers, such as former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and current leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, former law minister Kapil Sibal, former commerce minister Anand Sharma and famed diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor.
Among the issues reportedly raised were the lack of inner-party democracy, the marginalisation of the party both at the national and state levels and erosion of the party’s vote among the country’s youth. The leaders suggested collective thinking and decision-making and transparent elections within the party as remedies to halt the Congress’ slide.
The letter also called for a change in party leadership, presumably taking aim at its interim president Sonia Gandhi – the wife of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, daughter-in-law of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the granddaughter-in-law of the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
However, the suggestions were dismissed as insubordination and even treachery with the party’s apex body, the Congress Working Committee, reposing its faith in the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi, who offered to resign, will continue as the party’s interim president – a post she has held since August 2019, taking over from her son Rahul Gandhi.
The only concession to the issues raised was an agreement on the election of a new president when the next All India Congress Committee (AICC) session takes place, which may happen as early as next January.
This latest episode involving an attempt to reform the moribund Congress is yet another reminder of how the party cannot think beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family. It also illustrates three characteristics of the Congress.
THE NEHRU-GANDHI DYNASTY
One, questioning or even ignoring the Nehru-Gandhi family within the Congress comes at great cost. There are numerous examples, including most famously that of former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who was declared persona non grata since he left office in 1996, for refusing to give Sonia enough respect.
The high command culture goes back to the days of Indira Gandhi when the so-called Congress “system”, famously described by political scientist Rajni Kothari as a party of consensus that functioned through an elaborate network of factions, broke down due to an overly-centralised leadership.
Over the past three decades, however, the organisation of the Congress has diminished along with the credibility of its central leadership. To be fair, hardly any party in India has meaningful internal democracy, but the difference is that in the Congress the Gandhis are immune to electoral failure within the party.
IF NOT THEM, THEN WHO?
Two, the Congress is incapable of looking beyond the Gandhis for leadership. The musical chairs between Sonia and Rahul would have been farcical if it were not about heading one of the world’s oldest political parties.
The only other name that seems to do the rounds is that of Rahul’s sister, Priyanka. Undeniably, a large section of the party’s leadership believes that the Nehru-Gandhi family is the glue that holds the party together.
Even when someone else is the face of the party, as was Manmohan Singh during his tenure as prime minister, the family pulled the strings. Dynasticism is of course, not peculiar to the Congress with many of the regional parties having been reduced to family firms.
However, the stranglehold of the Gandhis over the Congress, stretching more than 70 years, is unmatched in its duration and scope. Furthermore, it makes the Congress an easy object of ridicule for rival parties as well as voters.
REFORMS STIMIED BY DISUNITY
Three, there is no serious attempt to stem the drift within the party, which has been on a decline since it lost the general election, and government, in 2014.
While after every election debacle, party leaders talk about introspection, there has been no serious attempt at reform.
The constant tussle between family loyalists and those who have an independent following, on one hand, and the younger leaders and veterans, on the other, has stymied any attempt of reform.
It has also led to steady defections from the party, the latest being that of former central minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and his supporters in Madhya Pradesh who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Scindia’s defection led to the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
More recently Sachin Pilot’s exit, which could have led to the fall of the Congress government in Rajasthan – where he was deputy chief minister - was narrowly averted. There is, however, the likelihood of more defections in the future.
Come the next AICC meeting, there is likely to be a rising clamour for the return of Rahul, who had stepped down after the party’s disastrous showing in the 2019 general election, as president.
Following the election, party leaders had begged Rahul not to resign. We are likely to see a similar charade where party members will implore Rahul to return and replace his ailing mother as party president.
One is reminded of a caricature in the 1990s by RK Laxman, one of India’s best-known cartoonists, where a Congressman comes up with a solution that whoever takes over as party president must be “renamed Nehru or Gandhi.”
IS RAHUL THE SOLUTION?
Besides the structural problems, Rahul remains one of the obstacles for the Congress’ regeneration.
In 2013, historian Ramachandra Guha had called him a “well-intentioned dilettante”. Rahul has also developed a reputation for being a part-time politician, often disappearing from the political scene for several weeks.
That description, by and large, still holds true. Although he has had his moments in parliament and during election campaigning, he has failed to galvanise either his party or the voters. He could not even win from his family pocket borough of Amethi in 2019, losing to the BJP’s Smriti Irani.
Too often, Rahul has picked the wrong fights as when he personally attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 election campaign, calling him a “thief”.
Besides, Rahul is clearly no match for Modi during national elections, which has increasingly taken a presidential turn. Since 2014, Modi has successfully made the general elections a referendum on himself rather than his party, something which Rahul and the Congress have struggled to counter.
India needs a strong opposition to confront the government on critical issues, both domestic and external, and the Congress is the only real national alternative.
While regional parties have gained in strength from the 1990s, none of them have been successful in moving beyond their respective states.
Unfortunately, the Nehru-Gandhi family refuses to give up its control over the party and the majority of the party’s top leadership is unwilling to back an alternative or listen to sensible suggestions.
For the time being, the 135-year-old Congress party looks likely to lurch along from one debacle to another.
Ronojoy Sen is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme (SASP), at the National University of Singapore.