Have you wondered why there's such a national fixation over Rahul Gandhi? The man has been written off at least a dozen times by pundits across the political spectrum. Yet it is Rahul who is targeted by the BJP every time the government needs to counter attacks by the opposition. Government-friendly news anchors continue to keep him in the headlines albeit as their pet bete noire. And news editors believe that where the MP from Wayanad eats chaat is worthy of reportage.
The reason for this Rahul-obsession is simple. He is a 'Gandhi' and that is still the single biggest political brand in India. While others, including Narendra Modi, had to put in years of hard-work and loads of money to build their political persona, Rahul was born with brand equity.
Without the Nehru-Gandhis, the post-independence Congress has had no cache in the national political arena. It began right from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru prevailed, even though the party organisation tried to cut him down to size. Early on, in 1950, Nehru's nominee lost the elections for party president, and Purushottam Das Tandon. who won, was completely opposed to his liberal, modern and secular values. But, after Sardar Patel's death, Nehru managed to get Tandon to quit and have a friendly president leading the Congress.
Rahul's grandmother, too, inherited the charisma of Brand Nehru. And the party leadership was keenly aware of Indira Gandhi's popularity. So when Nehru had a stroke in January 1964, top leaders urged Indira to take over as Deputy PM. The same year, she was voted the third most popular Congress leader in an opinion poll, behind Lal Bahadur Shastri and K Kamaraj, but ahead of the ambitious Morarji Desai. While the other three were ministers, Indira Gandhi wasn't even an MP at the time.
That's because her father wasn't keen on her joining parliamentary politics. Nehru had discouraged her from contesting the 1962 Lok Sabha elections; when Indira agreed to be interviewed by CBS's India bureau chief Welles Hangen for his book, After Nehru Who?, India's first Prime Minister wasn't pleased.
Whatever Nehru may have wanted, the Congress party's top leaders and regional satraps sensed that Indira had a wider national appeal than anyone else. So when Nehru died, Shastri visited a grieving Indira and told her "ab aap mulk ko sambhaal lijiye." It was a token offer, but it symbolised the recognition that Pandit-ji the man had been bigger than Nehru the Congressman.
This was an inherent contradiction in the Congress party, which was an umbrella organisation of various interest groups who often had opposing claims to power. When Nehru died, Congress party leaders saw an opportunity for the 'organisation' to take charge of the government. A bigger window opened up after Shastri's death. Top leaders believed they would be able to control the 'Gungi Gudiya' (dumb doll), but Indira proved to be much smarter.
Indira sensed the tide of history was against the old guard. It was the time of radicalism across the world, especially in developing countries, actively encouraged by the Soviet Union. Indira Gandhi's left-turn in the late 1960s was a calculated move that brought the younger radicals in the party to her side against the conservatives who formed the 'syndicate' in the Congress party.
Indira's chief target was Morarji Desai, who had fought bitterly to become PM after Shastri's death, and had forced himself into the Indira Cabinet as Deputy PM and Finance Minister. Her proposal to nationalise banks was vehemently opposed by Desai and the 'syndicate'. The party leaders were learning, to their chagrin, that Indira had a mind of her own, a very strong one at that.
The struggle between Indira and the 'syndicate' came out in the open after the sudden death of President Zakir Hussain. The old-guard wanted Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy to be the Congress party's presidential nominee. Indira feared, perhaps rightly, that this was a plot to remove her and elevate Morarji as Prime Minister. Although she reluctantly signed Reddy's nomination papers, she called for a "vote of conscience". This was a clear signal to her party MPs and MLAs to vote for the other candidate, Vice President VV Giri.
On August 20, 1969, VV Giri became President of India. But only one in three Congress MPs and one in four party MLAs voted for Giri. Indira's candidate had made it because of support from opposition parties. Indira's defiance enraged the syndicate, and on November 12 in the same year, after a few months of failed negotiation, the Prime Minister of India was expelled by her own party.
Although most Congress MPs had sided with the syndicate in the presidential elections, this time, they understood the popular mood was in Indira's favour. When the old Congress, now known as Congress (Organisation) moved a no-confidence vote against Indira in parliament, it was soundly defeated. Most sitting Congress MPs had switched over to Indira's party, now called Congress (Requisitionist).
Yet, two years later, it was the old Congress, which was recognised by the Election Commission as the official party and given the Congress party's original symbol. Indira's landslide victory in the 1971 elections established her Congress as the real party; Congress (O) virtually disappeared.
Indira Gandhi inherited the popularity of Jawaharlal Nehru, and she turned that into a personality cult of 'the Gandhi family'. Although Nehru had his own problems with the party organisation, he never actively weakened it. Indira, on the other hand, destroyed the party structure. She established a 'high-command' culture, turning the Congress into an over-centralised darbaar of sycophants.
What was useful for Indira became an unmalleable prison for her successors. Rajiv Gandhi sensed this when he tried, in vain, to clean up the system. After Rajiv's assassination, the Congress party imploded and lost its national character. The absence of a 'Nehru-Gandhi' at the top for seven years turned the Congress into a conglomeration of regional satraps.
Sonia Gandhi's triumph in 2004 was, in some ways, an illusion. It wouldn't have been possible without a stellar performance by independent Congress leaders like Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana, Shankersinh Vaghela in Gujarat, and Tarun Gogoi in Assam.
Despite the big win in 2009, the 'Gandhis' actually lost control over the party during the Sonia years. Even after being in power for a decade, it had no central funds to fight the 2014 elections: the 'treasury' had been de-centralized.
This lack of funds has resulted in a peculiar situation for the Congress party. On the face of it, it is still a party run by the 'high command', in reality, the centre cannot control the states any more. So despite Rahul's attempts to replace the old guard in state after state, he had to capitulate to the new party structure ahead of each assembly election. Rahul's resignation as party president after the ignominious defeat of 2019 was partly out of a sense of frustration that he couldn't control the leaders in the key states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi has shown that he has some powerful 'socialist' ideas, such as NYAY, devolution of power, creating jobs, encouraging small entrepreneurship. Across the world, similar ideas are finding significant popular support, whether it is Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK or Trudeau in Canada.
These are powerful ideas of a powerful pan-Indian brand that are stuck inside the moribund body of a somnolent and venal political party. It is time for Rahul to split the Congress and walk out, just like his grandmother did. Of course Indira was better placed because she was in power, and Rahul is at the nadir of his political career.
So he will have to work harder. Rahul will need to take a leaf out of VP Singh's book and begin a yatra across India, perhaps beginning symbolically on the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. It is a strategic move to claim ownership over another 'Gandhi' brand, the one that successfully became the bridge to unite peasant struggles and elite politics,within the overall national movement.
It is not Rahul Gandhi who is a liability for the Congress, it is the Congress party which is a liability for Rahul.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.