Future tense for Congress

Amidst all the back-room Machiavellian manoeuvring, the infantile core of the Congress stands exposed. A party that can’t decide on its leadership after two months and clings to one family for salvation does so at its peril.

 |  4-minute read |   26-07-2019
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Two months after Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president on May 25, the party remains headless. Technically, Gandhi continues to be party president because the Congress Working Committee (CWC) hasn’t accepted his resignation. The factions that have meanwhile sprung up within the party fall into three broad categories.

Factions at work                

The first wants an experienced senior leader to be working president along with several young vice-presidents. The idea is to run the Congress by committee. That will ensure no single leader poses a serious future challenge to the Gandhis’ ownership of the Congress. Led by Sonia Gandhi’s aide and party treasurer, Ahmed Patel, this faction seeks to nominate an ageing loyalist to be the working president on the strict understanding that his or her role is that of a night watchman till Rahul returns to reclaim his inheritance.

The second faction wants a “young” president who can energise the Congress’ demoralised cadre. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh set the cat among the pigeons with his tweet on why the party needs a young president. Within days, knuckles gently rapped by the Gandhis’ inner circle, Singh hastily clarified that by “young” he meant someone in his or her 60s.

The third faction has quietly floated the idea of Priyanka Gandhi taking over as party president despite Rahul ruling out that option on the day he resigned. Loyalists who comprise this faction are hoping that with the passage of time and no resolution in sight, Rahul would soften his Opposition to Priyanka taking over. Priyanka’s sit-in over the Sonbhadra massacre is cited as proof of her political instincts.

_inc6151_072619010645.jpgCan Congress survive without a Gandhi at the helm? (Photo: IANS)

Amidst all this back-room Machiavellian manoeuvring, the infantile core of the Congress stands exposed. A party that can’t decide on its leadership after two months and clings to one family for salvation does so at its peril. Lack of strong leadership after its stinging defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election has already lost Congress the key southern state of Karnataka. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh could be next.

The malaise that afflicts the Congress has deep roots. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a democrat but fallible. He had a galaxy of talented post-Independence leaders to choose from for senior appointments after the death of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950. Yet he sowed the seeds of feudal dependency on the Nehru- Gandhi family by appointing sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, in quick succession, as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, the US and the UN. She was also sent to Britain as High Commissioner. If that wasn’t enough familial nepotism, Nehru appointed his sister governor of Maharashtra in 1962.

Daughter Indira Gandhi wasn’t left behind. Though she had no administrative experience, the 42-year-old Mrs Gandhi was appointed the President of the Congress in 1959.

Roots of nepotism

Within weeks of Nehru’s death in May 1964, Mrs Gandhi moved smoothly into the Rajya Sabha and days later, on June 9, 1964, into Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Cabinet as Information and Broadcasting Minister. Whenever a non-Gandhi has had relative freedom to exercise power in the Congress, India has benefitted. Between 1947 and 1991, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was either Prime Minister or Congress president, except in 1964-65 when Shastri was PM and K Kamaraj party president. During those 44 years, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 3 per cent (erroneously called the Hindu rate of growth rather than what it was: a Nehruvian rate of growth).

Matters changed only following Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination in 1991 when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh liberated the then bankrupt economy under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The seven years between 1991 and 1998 marked the first time in three decades that a Nehru-Gandhi was neither PM nor party president.

Time to break away?

Sonia Gandhi slammed the door shut on that experiment in 1998 and family control was restored. The hoary fate that befell incumbent Congress president Sitaram Kesri has not been forgotten by Congress loyalists, young and old. Few in the party today will risk defying the family high command even when it has retreated modestly into the background.

So, where does Congress go from here? As the steady stream of defections of its legislators continues, the party faces a Hobson’s choice: Either select (not elect — in the Congress internal elections are abhorred) a lame-duck president till Rahul changes his mind and returns as president or allow Priyanka to take the job; or choose a strong president with ground support who can actually revive the party.

The first option will keep the Congress stunted and unable in future to hold on to its governments in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The second option will trigger vicious infighting amongst factions left out of the victorious leadership group. The party may split as it has done multiple times since Indira Gandhi broke the ‘Syndicate’ led by Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa in 1969. The Indira Congress not only survived that but thrived. The problem today is that neither Rahul nor Priyanka is Indira and, unlike the 1960s, there is a strong right-of-centre party, BJP, to contend with.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How to make a new Congress: A blueprint for a grand new opposition party

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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