Congresspersons over the past 50 years have not looked beyond the Nehru-Gandhi household.
Sonia Gandhi’s biographer, Rasheed Kidwai, in his book 24, Akbar Road: A short history of the people behind the fall and rise of the Congress, mentioned that the famous historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun was once asked by Taimur the Conqueror about the fate of dynasties. Khaldun propounded that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation is inclined towards conquest, the second towards administration. The third generation, being free from the necessity to conquer or administer, is left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits. Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty has usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each royal house is embedded in the very process of its rising. According to Khaldun, it was a natural phenomenon and couldn’t be avoided.
The book appeared in 2011, prior to Rahul Gandhi’s anointment as party vice president in 2013 and the party’s first major debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll. The reference quoted above was somewhat prophetic. After losing his Amethi seat to Smriti Irani and leading his party to a second major debacle in 2019 it is said (at the time of writing) that Rahul Gandhi may offer to step down as Congress president, an office he inherited in 2017. A similar offer was made in the post-debacle meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in 2014 by the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi—but as soon as the meeting ended family loyalist, the late Makhan Lal Fotedar told the media that no such offer had been made and that the CWC had reposed its faith in the leadership of the Mother-Son duo. In 2019 both Fotedar and R.K. Dhawan, the twin firefighters of the Indira Gandhi era, are no more. It remains to be seen how the leadership’s failure is papered over by the present lot. It is unlikely that blame will be sought to be laid at the doorstep of the Sonia Gandhi household. A tweet by Salman Khursheed suggests so. After being defeated at Farukkhabad Khursheed tweeted: “There are moments in history when faith must prevail over atmospherics. When even intuition should not let you budge. This is one such moment for people who trust Rahul Gandhi. Enormity of struggle cannot undermine value of our allegiance. We shall overcome.”
Congresspersons over the past 50 years, since Indira Gandhi sidelined the party organisation in 1969, have not looked beyond the Nehru-Gandhi household. Attempts to find alternative leadership have failed. In her initial years post 1969 Indira Gandhi appointed Jagjivan Ram and D.K. Barooah as AICC presidents. Post the 1977 defeat she supported K. Bramhananda Reddi as the party chief. But post 1978, when she split the party once again, the presidentship of the party has remained chiefly within the family. The brief interlude of P.V. Narasimha Rao, who held the posts of party chief and Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, was brought to an abrupt end by the formation of pro-Sonia Gandhi Congress (Tiwari) and the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress of Madhavrao Scindia, who wanted Rao removed. He was humiliated and replaced by Sitaram Kesari, who also faced Rao’s fate as Arjun Singh-N.D. Tiwari-M.L. Fotedar-Sheila Dikshit-K. Natwar Singh, inter alia, wanted Sonia Gandhi at the helm. After showing initial reluctance she agreed and became the party chief in 1998 and held the position for 19 years and handed over the baton to her son in 2017. Today the party has her as the patron-saint, while her daughter Priyanka Vadra has also been pressed into service as a general secretary. As a result Congress today has three power centres, each not agreeing with the other in most issues and the resultant confusion has produced yet another electoral drubbing for India’s party of Freedom.
Congress insiders rue that the paid employees of Rahul Gandhi’s office ride roughshod over experienced political hands. The 2019 campaign was strategised by the data analytics chief, Praveen Chakravarty and overseen by technology whizkid Sam Pitroda. Jairam Ramesh, whose background was honed essentially as a Planning Commission advisor, was the other figurehead at the helm of the “war room” functioning from 15 Gurudwara Rakabganj Road—far from the AICC office, 24 Akbar Road. Here too, tiff between him and Anand Sharma created enough opportunity for Sam Pitroda (of “hua to hua” fame) to play the referee. Even when the party was in power, thanks to the likes of Jairam Ramesh, Sonia Gandhi gave precedence to the NGO-led civil society in the National Advisory Committee (NAC), which she headed and thus political inputs were given a secondary place. The decline of political thought, combined with the relegation of political leadership within the party led to the formulation of the campaign theme of 2019—Nyuntam Aay Yojana (abbreviated as NYAY—formulated by Priyanka Vadra). The campaign for this was spearheaded with “Ab hoga NYAY” being written in Roman script in the newspaper advertisements and billboards. The total disconnect with popular thinking was perhaps highlighted by the NYAY campaign—most thought it was a legal terminology. Moreover, while the Modi government was giving entitlement through direct debits the promise of a dole of Rs 72,000 did not go down well with the aspirational Indians who seek empowerment and entitlement, rather than be promised alms.
Can the Congress be wished away? The nation needs a national party to be the largest Opposition. Otherwise regional outfits, which have grown at the cost of Congress, will emerge as the only opposition for BJP. Last seven Lok Sabha elections have seen steady rise of BJP and consequential decline of Congress. Yet there is hope for Congress—in Delhi, for example, while BJP sniffed out AAP (Kejriwal’s party lost deposit in three seats) Congress finished second in all seven constituencies. Congress could win only four of the 137 seats in which it was in direct fight with BJP—thus it has gained at the cost of regional parties even in 2019. Its vote share remains above 18% nationally—half of the formidable BJP vote share. Party organisation has a nationwide footprint. A leadership is needed.
V.P. Singh won. The party lost the Tamil Nadu poll in early 1989. The editor of Navbharat Times, the late Rajendra Mathur, referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Zimbabwe around that time wrote an editorial punning on the Zimbabwe capital Harare: “Harare se harare, arey kabhi to jita re (one defeat after another, time for a win as well).” It’s time to tell the same to Rahul Gandhi—he has to reverse the trend of defeats if Congress has to remain relevant in national discourse. Till the 1930s, Britain’s Liberal Party was a major player in the UK—it has not produced a Prime Minister since. Liberal Party with its double digit numbers in the House of Commons is sought as a coalition partner when Labour or Conservatives fall short of numbers. A decade back Liberals had a Deputy PM in a Conservative government. If the present trend persists Congress, like the Liberal Party in UK, will become a soliloquy performer in Indian Parliament.