Why Rahul Gandhi will see the extinction of Congress in his lifetime
The party vice-president has the Bhasmasura touch: anything he touches, burns to ashes.
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We don’t know the intent, spirit or tone behind Madras Congressman S Satyamurti’s characterisation of Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi respectively as “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” in 1920 although Frank Moraes’s biography of Nehru regards this characterisation as irreverent (page 4).
Whether he realised it or no, Satyamurti’s assessment was prescient in at least two crucial aspects: The Father’s keen, futuristic acumen of laying the foundations for his son’s political career which would eventually lead him to become the first prime minister of an independent India; two, the complete dominance over the Indian National Congress first by Gandhi and later, especially after Sardar Patel’s death by Nehru.Post Sardar Patel’s death, Nehru swiftly consolidated his hold both on the party and government.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the most astute of them all. Post Sardar Patel’s death, Nehru swiftly consolidated his hold both on the party and government by appointing courtiers to key positions instead of men and women of eminence. Those who didn’t tow the line — no matter their stature or contribution to the freedom struggle and national life — were either politically destroyed or sidelined. John Mathai and C Rajagopalachari come to mind immediately.
Needless, Mrs Gandhi carried forward this legacy with aplomb and remained mum even when her sycophants dragged it down to the nadir by equating India with Indira.
In hindsight, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to remark that Motilal’s far-sighted foundation is what later enabled Nehru-appointed historians to distort the history of the freedom struggle by claiming that it was only the Indian National Party—led only by Mohandas Gandhi—that got India her independence. An RC Majumdar who dared to tell the entire and truthful story of our freedom struggle was duly punished with academic and intellectual banishment.
Fast forward five generations, the blood has truly thinned.
One common and crucial observation has emerged from all quarters since the results for the Assembly elections for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and Assam were declared on May 16: call it the mood of the nation—more than the BJP winning Assam, or Jayalalithaa’s surprise sweep, there was a sense of jubilation at the Congress being wiped out in all the four states.
In an oblique manner, this could also be said to be a testimony to the then prime minister-designate Narendra Modi’s campaign slogan of a "Congress-mukt Bharat". Successive state elections since 2014 have only witnessed the near-total elimination of Congress irrespective of which party won.
It appears that the Congress under the stewardship of Rahul Gandhi has the Bhasmasura touch: anything it touches burns to ashes. Its alliance with the Left in West Bengal decimated both parties. In Tamil Nadu, it appears that allying with the Congress badly singed the DMK.
This is unsurprising given his record even when the UPA was at the height of its power. In the 2010 Bihar elections, he reduced the Congress to just three seats and his high-powered UP campaign in 2012 resulted in a similar fate.
But perhaps he truly revealed himself at the disastrous speech he made to the CII in 2013 patronisingly lecturing battle-hardened, smart and accomplished global business leaders as if they were school children.
When he followed this up with the now-legendary interview with Arnab Goswami, he truly detonated the dynamite that reduced the Congress to 44 seats. William Dalrymple characterised this historic interview quite aptly:
Rahul came across as conceited and dim, if not borderline messianic-delusional, as he talked about himself in the third person…When not praising his own profundity, he parroted the same pre-prepared answers, irrespective of the question he was asked.
What did he think about the Gujarat riots? “The real issue at hand here is empowering the women of this country.”
Why did his party protect corrupt MPs? “The issue at hand is bringing youngsters into the political system.”
In all, he mentioned empowerment 22 times and finding a way to mend the broken political system no fewer than 70 times in 45 minutes.
Rahul would appear to be the very bottom of the Nehru-Gandhi barrel, tongue-tied and uncharismatic on campaign, conceited and slow-witted in private: in short, the complete electoral prophylactic, as Congress must sadly now realise to its despair.
And yet, despite such an epic electoral drubbing, the Congress party seems to think that the antidote to Rahul-led successive defeats is a more aggressive projection of the same Rahul.
Little wonder that from 11 states that the Congress held in 2014, it has crashed down to just six of which only Karnataka is of any significance.
Rahul Gandhi eminently symbolises the larger phenomenon of the Congress facing the real prospect of extinction. He has in many ways, been an enabler of that extinction.
Let’s begin with its steady but sure slide on the national stage. The last time the Congress secured power on its own was when Narasimha Rao became PM. This is notable because he was the only non-Gandhi Congress PM to complete his term. Even earlier, after Rajiv Gandhi lost power in the 1989 elections, his party has had to play second fiddle in various ragtag coalitions.
Now, consider these facts at the state level:
1. After 1990, the Congress has never stood a chance in Bihar.
2. In Uttar Pradesh, the last time Congress demitted office was in 1989.
3. Madhya Pradesh has been out of Congress’ reach continuously since 2003 but losing elections to the BJP earlier.
4. Tamil Nadu showed the door to the Congress way back in 1967.
5. The Congress permanently lost West Bengal in 1977. Even worse, had it nurtured Mamata Banerjee, the Congress, and not the TMC would’ve been in power for a second consecutive term today.
6. Had it displayed the same wisdom, the Congress wouldn’t have permanently lost a post-YSR Andhra Pradesh. Today, it’s a non-entity in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
7. Narendra Modi had long ago decimated whatever was left of the Congress in Gujarat.
In other states of significance like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, the Congress’ fortunes have largely vacillated, a far cry from its banyan-tree like dominance in the first two decades since Independence. And like the banyan tree, it never allowed anything else to grow.
Equally, one of the fundamental reasons for the rise of regional parties is the Congress itself. By initially crushing eminent regional Congress leaders at the altar of the all-powerful Nehru dynasty, it sent out the message to other deserving hopefuls that they had no future in the party.
And so, some of them carved out their own fiefdoms through a combination of grassroots work and personal charisma. In doing so, they borrowed generously from the Congress script of divisiveness, and creating and pandering to various vote banks. Almost in all cases, these were former Congress vote banks.
And as it must, the wheel turned a full circle. Starting around two decades ago, it’s the Congress that has increasingly leaned on these regional leaders, not the other way round.
In 2014, the BJP for the first time since Independence had more number of legislators than the Congress: 1058:949. Now with the latest Assembly poll results, the number of BJP legislators has only shot up. Today, there is not a single state in India—except perhaps Rajasthan—where the Congress has a leader who can ensure a comprehensive victory for the party. But all is not rosy in the Rajasthan Congress unit, which is beset with factional wars between Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the said prospect of the Congress’ extinction than an interview to NDTV by BJP’s Himanta Biswas Sarma, widely perceived as a key driving force behind the party’s thumping victory in Assam. This former three-term Congress MLA and minister tore into Rahul Gandhi, characterising him as "arrogant", "plays with his dog during serious discussions," "treats party workers like his servants," and basically reeled out a whole litany of severely damaging indictments against him.
This would’ve been unthinkable just three years ago.
Indeed, the precedent was set by one TH Mustafa, a (suspended) Kerala Congress MLA who called Rahul Gandhi a "joker" as early as in May 2014.
The increasing murmurs that Prashant Kishor has boxed in Rahul Gandhi in his bid to project him as the chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh also hints at the severely diminished relevance of the first family itself. Incredibly, even here, Congress leaders seem to continue to pin their hopes on Rahul in these words: "Will that not be a demotion? How can that happen?" The delusion never seems to end.
Indeed, as it stands, the Congress as a national (?) party is caught in an existential dilemma: it cannot let go of the first family at the risk of splintering into pieces and neither can it hold on to it at the risk of wholesale extinction.