Looking at the train wreck of India’s Grand Old Party after the Lok Sabha election nearly two years ago, we asked rhetorically, ‘Can the Congress Rise from the Ashes?’ More recently, in a cover story in August 2020, titled ‘What’s Wrong with the Congress’, we tried to determine whether it was time for the Gandhi family to step down. The question acquires renewed urgency as India’s largest opposition party continues to go down in a death spiral. It lost Madhya Pradesh in March 2020 and was ejected just last month from the only southern province it controlled — Puducherry. The INC is now in power on its own in just three states — Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — its smallest national footprint in over seven decades. It has been unable to replace backroom lieutenants like the late Ahmed Patel and has grossly underestimated the challenge posed by the departure of leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia.
India Today Magazine March 15, 2021 cover, The Loneliness of the Gandhis.
The Congress was absent in the nationwide farmers’ protests. In Gujarat’s recent local body polls, it was swamped by the ruling BJP and conceded ground to the Aam Aadmi Party. The party is the principal opposition in all the five states going to polls next month, but, strangely, isn’t tipped to benefit from the anti-incumbency in any of them. In West Bengal, it has teamed up with the CPI (M) for a tri-cornered contest against the ruling Trinamool Congress and the opposition BJP. In Kerala, where it is battling the formidable Pinarayi Vijayan-led ruling CPI (M), it is undermined by anaemic state leadership. In Assam, a state it once ruled for 15 years, the party has an uphill task against the ruling BJP. In Tamil Nadu, it is the junior partner in the DMK’s grab for power. The party, it would seem, has never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.
To compound its woes, seven Congress leaders, including two former CMs — Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Ghulam Nabi Azad — and former ministers like Raj Babbar, Manish Tewari and Anand Sharma, held a rally in Jammu last week, declaring the party was weakening and they had come together to strengthen it. These leaders are part of a group of 23 Congressmen, the so-called G23, who had sent Sonia Gandhi a letter on August 15 last year asking for organisational elections and a more 'active and available leadership’. In Jammu, Sharma even attacked the party for allying with the Indian Secular Front in West Bengal. Bit by bit, the party seems to be consuming itself.
There is a strange role reversal here. The Congress seems beset by a ruling party-like complacency even as the ruling BJP and the tenacious Modi-Amit Shah duo exhibit an opposition party’s untiring aggression. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cleverly appropriated all their planks, presenting himself as a great reformer and pro-poor leader, while pushing the Congress to prove its Hindu credentials. It is hard to tell what the Congress actually stands for today other than being a punching bag for the ruling party. The main battering ram against the government remains their former president Rahul Gandhi, 50, who holds no official post. He also has a penchant for picking up issues against Prime Minister Modi that either backfire on him or don’t catch on, be it his Modi Chor Hai slogan, Rafale corruption allegations or accusing the government of cowardice in the face of Chinese incursions. Sonia Gandhi has been interim president for almost two years now and is in frail health. Priyanka Gandhi is a party general secretary in charge of UP who spends most of her time outside the state.
The Congress party, or whatever remains of it, still believes their meal ticket lies with the Gandhis. As a result, the Gandhi siblings sporadically hit the campaign trail. Rahul Gandhi was recently seen trying to cultivate a man of the masses image by diving into the sea and joining students in push-up contests. Priyanka Gandhi hit the ground running in Assam with photo-ops of her picking tea, trying to make a dent on her party’s behalf. But it could be a case of too little, too late. The party is in disarray. It is bereft of cadre and leaders on the ground. Worse, Brand Gandhi, the glue that once held the party together, has lost its stickiness and its currency in the electoral marketplace. Ironically, this comes when the Congress has three family members active in politics for the first time in recent years. Instead of revitalising the party, however, the Gandhi trio seems to be presiding over an ever-widening gulf. Two of the party’s three chief ministers — Captain Amarinder Singh and Ashok Gehlot — are now independent satraps who have subtly signalled that they do not owe their political existence to the Gandhis.
Our cover story, ‘The Loneliness of the Gandhis’, written by Deputy Editor Kaushik Deka, focuses on the irony of the Congress first family finding itself more adrift and isolated than ever before. The party still has many talented and experienced individuals who could rebuild it if given a chance. After all, the BJP, for all its resounding electoral victories, still gets a maximum of only 37.6 per cent of the national vote. For a democracy to function in a healthy manner, it needs a vibrant Opposition. Ironically, for all its faults, the Congress is our only other national party, even if it is a pale shadow of itself. It is the country’s mother party, which has spawned at least nine active parties in the political landscape. It is time for Congressmen to stand up and reclaim their incredible legacy. It can’t be held hostage to one family.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘The Loneliness of the Gandhis’, for March 15, 2021)