If you believe India's liberal intelligentsia, the only thing that's holding back the Congress party is the Gandhi family. If they pack their bags and move to the hills - or Italy - the Congress will find fresh blood to lead it. This new non-Gandhi face - preferably a young leader - will be able to galvanise the party organisation, sweep up all the anti-Modi votes and provide a credible alternative in 2024.
What the liberals fail to explain is why the Congress party didn't produce such a leader when Rahul Gandhi quit as president last year. Why did Congress leaders fall back on his mother to fill the vacuum? Who stopped the Sachin Pilots or Jyotiraditya Scindias from throwing their hats in the ring? After all, the history of the Congress party is full of such power struggles. First after Nehru's death, and then between 1991 and 1998 - from the time Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated till Sonia Gandhi taking over as party president.
That is because the Congress is not really a political party. It is a private company. This might sound sacrilegious to some. It is the party of the Mahatma and Nehru, they'll say. It gave us our freedom. They'll be wrong. The Congress of Gandhi is dead and gone. So is the Congress of Nehru. The true heirs of that party were leaders like Morarji Desai, K Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, who ran the party till the late 1960s. They were powerful regional satraps, who mostly tilted to the right and wanted the Congress to be controlled by its strong organisation.
This had been a persistent problem in the Congress party since independence. Those in the organisation, representing various regional and group interests, wanted the government to implement the party's programme. Those who were in government saw the nation top down, from the point-of-view of the state. It took years for the government to establish its suzerainty over society. That is why Nehru found it difficult to control the Congress as PM, even though he was by far the party's most popular leader.
By the late 60s, the government's reach had increased significantly. So when the 'syndicate' of top Congress leaders placed Indira Gandhi in the PM's chair, they were already fighting against the tide. They wanted a puppet PM, they got their nemesis. Indira's ideological ambivalence allowed her to make a left turn, something that her main rival Morarji Desai could never have done. Indira was thrown out of the Congress and fashioned her own party on a left-populist platform.
It is important to remember that the Election Commission refused to give her the original party symbol, even though she had nearly two-thirds of AICC members backing her. Clearly, at that moment of crisis, the elite felt Indira's Congress wasn't going to last. Her victory in 1971 came as a surprise to many who had failed to read the political situation correctly.
This was also the final victory of the governmental wing of the Congress over its organisation. In fact, from 1978, the distinction between party and government disappeared, when the PM candidate became the party president. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Congress was synonymous with Indira Gandhi in public imagination. In fact, it continued to be known as Congress-I, even after the EC officially stopped calling it by that name in 1984.
Since the 1970s, the presence of the government in people's every day life increased significantly. This both created a pan-national icon of the Prime Minister and also increasingly 'governmentalised' the party. Indira Gandhi used this to cement the Gandhi brand. She tried to pass it on to her son Sanjay, who might well have succeeded her had he not died in 1980. It is no surprise, therefore, that Indira's assassination was to catapult Rajiv Gandhi into the PM's chair at the young age of 40.
In some senses, it is liberalisation that killed the Congress, because it reduced the government's presence within society. That is one reason why Narasimha Rao could not cement his place as a national leader. Neither were any of the Congress party's other regional leaders - Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh, Narayan Datt Tiwari, Sharad Pawar - able to fill the spot vacated by Rajiv. Finally, in 1998, the party had to fall back on Sonia Gandhi, even when it was clear that her Italian origin would be a handicap.
That is because this is a paradox of national-level politics in India. A person is only considered worthy of being a Prime Minister if they have already been PM. In other words, they need to represent the central government to the people for the people to send them to represent them at the centre. That is why, every Prime Minister from 1989 to 2014 has been a minority PM. Even Vajpayee, the tallest leader amongst them, could not get a majority.
The only exception - Narendra Modi - was actively built as a potential PM, first by captains of industry, then the national media. A big part of Modi's popularity depended on the so-called Gujarat model, which was held up as a proxy for the ideal central government. It took years to create this image, and it is important to note that Modi himself focused entirely on providing a 'Modi sarkar' instead of the identity politics of Hindutva. Once he came to power, he effectively reversed what had happened since the 1990s. By being the PM of a 'maximum' government, Modi has cemented his place as a national leader.
The Gandhis - Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka - have a similar position in India's polity. They have acquired 'Prime Ministerial' qualities through osmosis, by belonging to Indira and Rajiv's family and being their heirs. This makes them national leaders by default, not because of any innate skill or merit. Voters want a Prime Minister to lead them. They don't want a leader to be their Prime Minister. That is why Rahul Gandhi is the only one who can lead the Congress - because he is imbued with the aura of Prime Minister-ship.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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