This Article is From Jun 11, 2021

Opinion: The Congress Party's Death Wish - by Ramachandra Guha

The commentary on the departure of Jitin Prasada from the Congress has tended to club him with two previous defectors, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Like them, he left the party because he felt that his personal growth prospects were better in the BJP.

I'll return to this trio later, but let me first draw attention to two women politicians whose contrasting careers are equally illustrative of the death wish that the Indian National Congress is apparently possessed with.

The first is Mahua Moitra. Raised in a middle-class, Bengali-speaking home in Assam, Moitra studied mathematics and economics at one of the best women's colleges in the United States. On graduating, she joined JP Morgan Chase, where she worked for a decade in New York and London. She could have lived on in a great Western city, rising up the corporate ladder. However, at the age of 35, she gave up a lucrative job overseas to enter public life in India by joining the Congress. Perhaps sensing that the party was going nowhere, she moved to the Trinamool Congress (TMC), where she has since done extremely well, her rise enabled by her own intelligence, commitment, and oratory.

After joining the TMC, Moitra patiently worked her way up the political hierarchy. Rather than lobby for a Rajya Sabha seat - the preferred pathway for well-educated professionals who join politics - she first fought, and won, an Assembly seat, before fighting, and winning, a Lok Sabha seat. In the few opportunities she got to speak in parliament, she made a considerable impression, as she did in her interviews to the press. In the recent Assembly elections in West Bengal, Moitra assiduously campaigned in many constituencies, playing her part in the TMC's resounding victory.

To know how and why the Congress finds itself in the sorry state it is, one need only contrast Mahua Moitra's political journey with that of Priyanka Gandhi's. For many years focused on her family and children, it was only in March 2019 that Priyanka formally joined the Congress, in the elevated post of General Secretary. She owed this spectacular high-level entry to her family name. As the sister of the incumbent Congress President and with both her parents having been Congress Presidents too, there was no question - the Congress being what it is - of Priyanka Gandhi ever having to prove herself as an ordinary party worker before being assigned wider responsibilities. In fact, she has had no reason to prove herself after becoming General Secretary either. 

In the two years Priyanka Gandhi has been in charge of Uttar Pradesh, there has been no perceptible change in the Congress's political fortunes in that state.

That fifth-generation dynasts control the Congress Party is repugnant to many people, including this now elderly historian of Indian nationalism, who has spent much of his career researching how the party of the freedom struggle nurtured the idea of an independent, democratic, and non-sectarian Republic. However, one could suppress one's distaste if these dynasts had a decent track record at winning elections, and could thus effectively thwart the ongoing dismantling of the Republic by Modi, Shah, and the Sangh Parivar. It is because they are so manifestly incompetent at retaining or regaining political power that so many people, appalled at the recent trajectory of Indian democracy, despair of the destructive stranglehold that Sonia Gandhi and her children have over the country's oldest political party.

The political incompetence of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi was reflected in the recent Assembly elections. The Congress was wiped out in West Bengal, where they forged an alliance with the Left, rather than swallow their pride and fight - as they did in Tamil Nadu - as a junior partner of a popular regional party. (Afterwards, one prominent West Bengal Congressman commented that elections are not won on Twitter.) In Assam, the Congress lost for the second successive time. The most shocking result, however, was in Kerala - where, despite Rahul Gandhi himself being an MP from the state, for the first time in half-a-century, power did not alternate between the Communists and the Congress.

The departure of Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jyotiraditya Scindia (less so Jitin Prasada) is another manifestation of the political incompetence of the Gandhi family. Denied a shot at the Chief Ministership of Assam, the ambitious Sarma moved over to a party he had attacked all his life, eventually being rewarded with the post he had so desperately wanted. Denied a Rajya Sabha seat by the Congress (which went to the old family loyalist Digvijaya Singh instead), Scindia moved over to the BJP too. I hold no brief for either politician, and view with dismay their overnight conversion to Hindutva, but the fact remains that the Congress lost Assam to the BJP in good part because they could not keep Sarma, and lost MP to the BJP largely because they could not keep Scindia.

In May 2012, by which time it was blindingly evident that Rahul Gandhi was an indifferent politician, I wrote a column in the Financial Times entitled 'Congress Party Must Get Over the Gandhis'. I noted here that the 'country's greatest political party is in steady decline', and that this was 'connected to the declining charisma of its first family'. With two years to go before the next general election, I wrote that 'the prospects for the Congress appear dismal. Presently, Indians of talent and ambition are inhibited from joining or even voting for the Congress owing to its prevailing culture of deference and sycophancy.'

Back in May 2012, I argued that in order to facilitate a revival, the party should replace the ageing and weak Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, 'with a younger, more focused Congress leader whose surname is not Gandhi'. This person could then lead the Congress into the general election, sending a message 'that competence is valued above genes or loyalty.' I continued: 'Realists or cynics will say the measure I propose is too radical for Ms [Sonia] Gandhi to contemplate. Yet it may be the only way to rescue India's oldest party from irrelevance ....'

I was, as it were, whistling in the dark, and Sonia Gandhi chose her son to front the 2014 campaign, to disastrous effect. Five years later, now as Congress President, and with his General Secretary sister alongside him, Sonia Gandhi's son led his party to another humiliating defeat. To his credit, Rahul Gandhi chose to resign, but the effect of that honourable decision was immediately nullified by his mother taking over as 'acting' President, a position she retains 22 months later, passively watching as her party loses a series of elections and leaders to other parties too.

Sonia Gandhi seems totally committed to family control of the Congress, and in this regard must be regarded as more culpable than her son. Some blame also accrues to her senior-most sycophants. When the 'G-23' letter briefly provoked an inner-party debate, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to defend the family, putting personal loyalty over the long-term interests of the party. On Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary, former Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid tweeted a photo of Rajiv and Rahul with the caption: 'Our once and future King', a gesture in extreme bad taste (a Republic does not have hereditary monarchs, as a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court should know), but entirely reflective of the culture of Congress chamchagiri. This culture endures in the coterie that protects and 'advises' Rahul Gandhi, composed of cheerleaders with no political base or political credibility of their own, and apparently little political intelligence either.

The continuing decline of the Congress under the Nehru-Gandhis should matter to every Indian who stands against the hateful and divisive politics of Hindutva, and who seeks a restoration of the social, economic and institutional fabric of the Republic, which have been so ravaged by the Modi regime. Compared to the men who now rule us, Rahul Gandhi comes across as someone with at least a modicum of civility. It is his lack of political focus and political judgment, his inability to speak Hindi fluently after three terms as an MP from UP, and the debilitating baggage he carries as a fifth-generation dynast, that are the problem.

Those who wish for a change of government in 2024 must surely recognize that the Congress is at present by far the weakest link in the Opposition. The TMC, the DMK, the CPI(M), the RJD, have an energy and political ambition that the Congress under its present leadership so evidently lacks. And even if popular among sections of the Anglophone Twitterati, Rahul is a proven failure at the hustings, and commands little respect among the leaders of those regional parties whose support shall be vital to the success of any Federal or United Front.

The Modi Government's mismanagement of the economy and their disastrous mishandling of the pandemic has caused deep distress across the country. The suffering has been so acute that the Supreme Court and even sections of the Hindi media have belatedly begun holding the government to account. Given their contempt for expertise, it is very unlikely that the Modi regime can set right the economy and adequately restore livelihoods and incomes. As 2024 approaches, the cards they are likely to play are Hindutva and more Hindutva, and the promotion of a Presidential contest. Nothing would suit the ruling party better than if, for the third time in a row, Rahul Gandhi is offered as the presumed alternative to Narendra Modi. That would be a juxtaposition that all those who oppose the BJP should seek to avoid.

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)

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