A Congress without a Gandhi - Nehru?

It can't be easy being Rahul Gandhi: he isn't just a dynast but he is a fifth generation dynast at that. It is exactly a century since Motilal Nehru took over as Congress president and much water has flown under the Anand Bhavan since then. No previous dynasty, with the possible exception of the Mughals, has presided over sustained dominance over so many generations. But now, a creaking political empire has been handed over to a man who may not have the same burning desire to perpetuate a family legacy. And yet, when Rahul Gandhi, democratically and appropriately, offers to resign by taking accountability for a rout at the polls, the Congress party instead of gracefully accepting his decision has chosen to stage a familiar 'we can't do without a Nehru Gandhi' charade.

There will be those who might object to comparing a political party with royal dynasties of a previous era. But let's be honest: the Congress party, once the leading force of the freedom movement, has over the last 50 years become a prisoner of 'family raj', albeit a dynasty sanctified through the electoral process. The 1970s when Indira Gandhi first projected son Sanjay and then later literally pushed a reluctant Rajiv into politics almost ensured that the Congress was umbilically tied to one family.

So can the Congress really not do without a Gandhi-Nehru at the helm as many argue? The two periods in the last 50 years when the party's fortunes were presided over by someone other than a Nehru-Gandhi family member were periods of uncertainty and, at times, chaos. Narasimha Rao may have run a successful minority government between 1991 and 1996, but while his government survived, the party declined and even split apart when a group of senior leaders including Arjun Singh and ND Tewari parted ways: ironically, the alleged mistreatment of the Gandhis was cited as one reason for the break.

The other period of non Gandhi-Nehru helmsmanship of the Congress was the one that followed Mr Rao's leadership when an old family retainer Sitaram Kesri was pitched into the top job. Kesri was never more than a stop-gap arrangement although the manner in which he was shunted out almost overnight was little short of a bloodless coup, lacking civility and dignity.

Then followed the Sonia reign by the end of which Mrs Gandhi had become the longest serving Congress president. But did the 19 years of Sonia Gandhi really transform Congress fortunes? Yes, she can be credited with pushing the Congress into an era of astute coalition building, of crafting alliances even with those like Sharad Pawar who had objected to her foreign origins, of ensuring a measure of stability and continuity at the top. Mrs Gandhi's strength lies in realising her limitations as a mass leader and vote catcher and then working around them.

But did she make the Congress an electorally successful fighting machine? Well, not quite. From getting just 114 seats in 1999 when she first led the Congress into a Lok Sabha election as party chief to eventually a dismal 44 seats in 2014, Mrs Gandhi wasn't able to arrest the steady decline in Congress fortunes. The one exception is 2009 and even here the Congress benefitted from a flawed BJP strategy of projecting an ageing LK Advani as leader even while Dr Manmohan Singh got a bounce from the firmness displayed over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Truth is, the Congress has been in a gradual state of decline for over three decades now. It is even possible that had Indira Gandhi not been tragically assassinated in 1984, the party would have lost ground in the mid-1980s itself. An ideological corrosion, a status quoist leadership, a lack of organisational cohesiveness, the disconnect between an imperious high command culture and an unethused cadre have all contributed to the Congress's downfall. That this falling-off has coincided with the rise of the BJP as first, under Vajpayee-Advani as a powerful Hindutva countervailing force, and now under Modi-Shah as a formidable election machine, has only precipitated the decay.

Could Rahul Gandhi really have been able to lift the party from the demolition of 2014 in five years, or is he, as an entitled dynast, part of the problem ? After all, Rahul's presence as Congress president allows the Modi propaganda machine to play the 'kaamdar' Vs 'naamdar' narrative to perfection. One image from the 2019 campaign stands out in this context: Rahul Gandhi going to file his nomination in Amethi in a motorcade accompanied by sister Priyanka, brother in law Robert Vadra and their children. Could there have been a more graphic illustration of how the party of the freedom movement is now a party that revolves around one family?

And yet, the fact is, the Congress predicament goes beyond individuals; the party suffers from a deeper identity crisis which it has been unwilling to confront for a while now: what does the Congress really stand for? The Congress remains a powerful brand with high name recall but every brand needs timely re-invention. The Congress brand has suffered because it has simply failed to change its feudal style of its politics and evolve from a natural party of power and patronage into a more robust and democratic organisation, one that creates space for merit over lineage, and encourages greater worker participation in mass agitations.

Yes, it is possible that without a Gandhi-Nehru at the helm, the Congress may atrophy further and that will remain a cause for concern for the party managers. But let's not forget that this process of internal haemorrhaging has already long been underway. From Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and now a Jagan Reddy in Andhra, the list of regional Congress leaders who have survived and even flourished after opting out of the 'mother brand' is a long one.

Which is why Rahul Gandhi choosing to resign at this stage may not be such a bad thing after all. It may give both Rahul and the Congress a chance to re-invent themselves: he as a more progressive dynast who is willing to sacrifice a cushy post for a determined push at becoming a mass politician outside the comfort zone of privilege while the Congress itself could try and experiment with identifying and empowering potential leaders in key regions.

Maybe they should start the experiment with Maharashtra, once a Congress fortress but now increasingly coloured by a sea of saffron. Unlike UP, the Congress decline in Maharashtra is a more recent phenomenon and the Congress-NCP still has more than 30 per cent of the vote share. The state goes to assembly elections in October with the spectre of drought looming over several parts of Maharastra. Why doesn't Rahul Gandhi undertake a 100 day padyatra across the state to identify himself fully with the critical issue of agrarian distress instead of being cooped up in Lutyens Delhi? Remember, it was a 3500 km padyatra that has dramatically transformed Jagan Reddy's political career. Can Rahul do a Jagan and take up the challenge of revival or will he end up almost as a tragic Shakespearean hero, unsure of what he really wants to do, thereby only further aggravating the Congress crisis?

Post-script: The day after the Congress defeat, a senior Congress leader admitted in private conversation that Rahul had failed to measure upto the Modi challenge which required a more well planned election strategy. The next day, the leader was among the first in the queue calling for Rahul not to resign!

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