Success measures capability; a crisis tests an individual’s or institution’s maturity and resilience. Congress was hit by an explosion in the 2014 general elections which ripped apart its crumbling ideological facade and exposed the termites that had eroded its structural foundations. It was a moment that demanded the emergence of a sagacious leader who could prescribe an elixir of renewal and the way forward through a tense and aspirational period in India’s history.
Instead, Congress continued to invest in its fatal flaw, dynasty at the expense of merit, sycophancy at the cost of introspection. With Rahul Gandhi in charge, the explosion was followed by a series of implosions triggered by political incomprehension, and temperamental management that exacerbated inner dispute into rift and fissure into split. The shambles in Uttarakhand is hardly unique. It is part of a pattern. Assam and Arunachal were earlier examples, although the Tarun Gogoi government survived the split. Regional leaders, who stayed with the party through the havoc of 2014, have realised the party is trapped in a tailspin. One common complaint is that Rahul Gandhi had little time for them; and if they did get a few minutes, he was not listening.
Last weekend, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an illuminating analysis of Republican floundering in America. Brooks applied Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, a Marxist-sounding phrase for dissection of democracy. Intellectual progress, goes the proposition, is not steady. It moves from the success model, when everything seems to be working, to the “model drift”, when contradictions and anomalies surface. This leads inevitably to a “model crisis”, when the paradigm collapses: “Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.”
Not a single Congress leader would have compromised the Congress commitment to nationalism in the manner that Rahul Gandhi did by showing warm approval of an upstart student activist who was stupid enough to endorse the outrageous suggestion that Indian soldiers in uniform were rapists and that the Indian Army was worse than Maoists. ahul Gandhi has become middle-aged without understanding what the Indian Army means to the people of India, and indeed to his own ancestors and predecessors.
Brooks suggests that the inexplicable behaviour of the Republican Party is due to the fact that it has been “psychologically defeated”, leading to policy dislocation and disorder, even if this is a “negation of its own history”.
During the five years between 2009 and 2014, Congress slid from success, endorsed by re-election, to model crisis. There is plenty of anguish but, because of a local variation, no one will admit it, let alone try and search for a prescription. Dynasties permit some leeway when successful and therefore secure, but shut minds when under threat.
We have recently witnessed a classic case of Congress negating its own history. I have studied the life of Jawaharlal Nehru and been an editor from the time Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister to the Dr Manmohan Singh decade. I can assert with confidence that not a single Congress leader would have compromised the Congress commitment to nationalism in the manner that Rahul Gandhi did by showing warm approval of an upstart student activist who was stupid enough to endorse the outrageous suggestion that Indian soldiers in uniform were rapists and that the Indian Army was worse than Maoists. Rahul Gandhi has become middle-aged without understanding what the Indian Army means to the people of India, and indeed to his own ancestors and predecessors.
Even as a tactical ploy this is counterproductive. Congress is not going to get many votes by standing alongside those who want the dismemberment of our nation.
In the past, Congress has dealt with its crises through a split. The most famous, and most productive, was the split engineered by Mrs Gandhi. It is important to note, however, that Congress was not immobilised by dynasty in 1969; this ailment only began in the mid-1970s. Today, senior and thoughtful minds within Congress will never admit in public what they express in private. To do so would be suicidal to their individual prospects.
That is the way dynasties end, as T.S. Eliot might have noted: not with a bang but a whimper.