Why does Shashi Tharoor need to meet Congress President Sonia Gandhi? As a party worker and MP, he is entitled to meet the President, but as reported in the papers, he informed her of his intent to contest the post of President and seek her neutrality. So then, it is important for us to ask, "Was this really needed?" If there are open elections - then why does he, or for that matter anyone - need permission to contest elections from the incumbent President? And it is here that the farcical nature of the "G-23" stands exposed.
Shashi Tharoor is a member of "G-23" which was created by a group of Congress leaders who were worried about the drift in the Congress and wanted the leadership to take drastic steps to arrest the party's decline. Election in the party from the top post to the ground level was of the demands of the group. But in reality, the group was more aggrieved by the functioning of the Nehru-Gandhi family. "G23" believed that Rahul Gandhi was not good enough to lead the party, and Sonia Gandhi was not courageous enough to find an alternative. There was an acknowledgment in the group of Sonia Gandhi's historical role in arresting the drift in the party after the lackadaisical leadership of Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. She was credited with bringing the Congress back to power in 2004 but after the dramatic defeat of 2014, it was believed in the group that Sonia Gandhi's over-dependence on Rahul Gandhi was the main cause for the humiliating defeat in 2019. In "G-23"'s opinion, that is how Sonia Gandhi had failed in her duty as the top leader of the party.
Elections should be conducted freely, and not guided from the top. Shashi Tharoor therefore has done no justice to the integrity of the elections. In fact, these elections are a golden opportunity to show the world that the Congress is not just another name for the Nehru-Gandhi family. It is time to prove the BJP and its supporters wrong when they say that the Congress is built on and thrives on dynasty. The Congress has forgotten that in the past, the top leaders' support was not often needed to be elected to any position in the party. Against the wishes of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, people were elected to the post of President and became members of the Congress Working Committee too. When Subhas Chandra Bose wanted to contest in 1939, he was not Gandhi's preferred choice; Pattabhi Sitaramayya was Gandhi's candidate. Subhas was young and dynamic, a popular leader. He became the party President, defeating Gandhi's candidate. He polled 1,580 votes and Sitaramayya polled only 1,375. Gandhi did not hide his displeasure. He said, "I was instrumental in inducing Dr Pattabhi not to withdraw his name when Maulana Saheb (Abul Kalam Azad) withdrew, his defeat is more mine than his ... it is plain to me that the delegates do not approve of the principles and policy which I stand for. I rejoice in this defeat."
Similarly, in 1950, Purushottam Das Tandon defeated Acharya Kripalani who was then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's candidate. Sardar Patel was alive, and the contest was considered a proxy war between Patel and Nehru. Nehru at the time was not only the PM, but also the most popular leader in the country. He was considered a world statesman, but in his own party he could not carry his wish through. When Tandon expressed his intent to contest elections, Nehru wrote a letter, accusing him of an approach that bordered on communalism. He wrote, "Unfortunately, you have become, to a large numbers of people in India, some kind of symbol of this communalism and revivalist outlook." Nehru had in fact gone to the extent of threatening that he would resign as Prime Minister if Tandon were elected President. Nehru's threat did not have much impact. Tandon won with 1,306 votes against Kripalani's 1,092 votes. It's another story that neither Bose not Tandon could complete their terms and had to resign due to the non-cooperation of CWC members.
There are other examples. In the 1990s, after the demise of Rajiv Gandhi, Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar were elected to the Congress Working Committee against the wishes of the Congress President or the top leader of the party. Once, during Narasimha Rao's time and later when Sitaram Kesri was the top boss.
Today, the Congress is in shambles, it is losing elections one after another, its major opponent, the BJP, has acquired disproportionate power at the centre and also in the states. Big leaders are exiting the party at a frenetic pace. The argument is that the Congress was powerful earlier because it had resilient inner party democracy. There was place for all kinds of ideas. The Gandhi-Bose tussle was not about power, but a contest between two ideas. Gandhi was a little conservative in his approach towards the freedom struggle, but Bose was in a hurry and had a radical agenda. He did not mind using violence to overthrow the British. The battle between Tandon and Nehru was about how to deal with the minority issues and the role of the majority in a democratic set-up. As the struggle between the ideas took a backseat, the Congress became the battleground for a power struggle. Ambition became paramount and took precedence over idea and ideology.
Today, the Congress looks weak because it does not have a cohesive ideology. Rahul Gandhi, through the Bharat Jodo Yatra, wants to invent one, but others are not convinced. The "G-23" did try to act like a 'ginger' group akin to that of ex-Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in the 1960s, but has no alternate perspective or roadmap to take the party forward. There is no newness in their thought process. When the party needs major surgery, the group has suggested a few cosmetic changes. No wonder, it always comes back to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.