This Article is From Dec 10, 2020

Why The Gandhis Must Go Now - by Ramachandra Guha

A recent headline in the Hindustan Times summed up all that is wrong with the Congress Party today, and why under its present leadership, the party cannot present an effective or credible alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The headline read: "Sonia Gandhi not to celebrate her birthday in view of farmers's protests, Covid-19". The vanity and self-regard in this public pronouncement was staggering, if entirely characteristic. Do the Gandhis think they are akin to royalty, so that the cancellation of one of their birthday parties becomes a mark of identification with their suffering subjects?

Consider these facts. The three most important individuals in the Bharatiya Janata Party are named Modi, Shah, and Nadda. They are unrelated to one another. They grew up and continue to live in three different households. None had a family member who was previously in state or national politics. In professional terms, Modi, Shah and Nadda are all wholly self-made. They have got to where they are through their own efforts.

The three most important individuals in the Congress Party are named Gandhi, Gandhi, and Gandhi. They are all part of the same nuclear family - one is the mother of the other two. For much or most of their lives they have lived under the same roof. All entered politics because another person in their family had occupied a position of power which was sought to be passed on to them. (The mother joined the Congress as the wife of a past Prime Minister, the children came into the Congress because both their parents had served as Party President). In professional terms, Gandhi, Gandhi and Gandhi are all entitled and privileged. They are where they are because of their surname.

Modi, Shah and Nadda are united by a shared political ideology, that of Hindutva. Their commitment to their party and ideology transcends personal or familial interest. It animates them to work hard, so as to win and consolidate power, so as to enable the construction of a theocratic state run in the interests of Hindus alone.

On the other hand, it is hard to see any sort of common ideological thread uniting the political careers of Gandhi, Gandhi and Gandhi. Sonia and Rahul claim to be principled secularists one day and promote soft Hindutva the next. They take credit for the free-market reforms promoted by past Congress governments one day but pour scorn on entrepreneurs the next. In her brief spell in politics, Priyanka has not revealed her views on major policy questions. Perhaps all that unites the family is their shared belief that they have a divine right to run the Congress Party (and India itself).

The top leadership of the BJP differs from the top leadership of the Congress in three fundamental ways. First, they are self-made. Second, they have an ideology beyond family privilege that animates them. Third, they work incredibly hard. Midway through the recent election campaign in Bihar, Rahul Gandhi left to take a holiday in Himachal Pradesh, prompting a senior leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal to remark, "Elections were in full swing here and Rahul Gandhi was having a picnic at Priyanka-ji's house in Shimla. Is the party run like that? Allegations can be levelled that the manner in which Congress party is being run, it is benefitting BJP". More recently, an even older ally of the Congress, Sharad Pawar of the NCP, has also called into question Rahul Gandhi's capacity for leadership.

After the NDA won the Bihar elections, rather than rest on his laurels, the BJP President, JP Nadda, immediately announced that he would undertake a hundred-day yatra to strengthen the party in areas where it was perceived to be weak. He thought that notwithstanding the BJP's control of the centre and of most states in the North and West, it had to increase its footprint in the South and East. However, while victory encouraged Nadda to take to the road and work even harder, defeat encouraged Rahul Gandhi to take refuge in his favoured and, for the most part, only theatre of political activity-namely, Twitter.

While this writer is a critic of the Congress in its present avatar, he is an even greater critic of the BJP. If he does owe allegiance to a political party, it is to the Congress of Mahatma Gandhi, a party to which the Congress of the faux Gandhis bears absolutely no resemblance. The original Congress led the freedom struggle, and after Independence, helped build the basis of a democratic and secular Republic. Hindutva as represented by Modi and Shah threatens to extinguish that Republic entirely. However, the costs of Hindutva will not be restricted to the social and political realm alone. For, apart from undermining independent institutions and persecuting minorities, the Modi Government has run the economy into the ground as well as lowered India's standing in the world.

And yet, despite all its manifest failures, the Modi-Shah regime shall be difficult to dislodge electorally, at least so long as the Gandhis lead the principal Opposition party. For, apart from being entitled and ideologically confused, the family that heads the Congress is incapable of working hard. Sonia Gandhi once was, but with age and ill-health, she has lost that capacity. Her children never had it in the first place. Their episodic search for photo-ops prompts extravagant praise by their supporters on social media, although these photo-ops are rarely followed through. When she was stopped on the road to Hathras, her fans immediately saw in Priyanka Gandhi a Chief Ministerial alternative to Adityanath, such talk subsiding after the Congress's pathetic show in the UP by-elections.

There is a final reason that the association of the Congress with this crop of Gandhis works to the advantage of the BJP. So long as descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi lead the principal Opposition party, the ruling regime can deflect criticisms of its policies in the present by pointing to the mistakes of Congress governments in the past. Thus, the Modi Government's attacks on the press and their subordination of the judiciary shall be answered with whatboutery about Indira's Emergency, their capitulation at the hands of the Chinese with whataboutery about Nehru and 1962. Altogether, it suits Modi, Shah, and Nadda very well indeed to have a Gandhi, another Gandhi, and yet another Gandhi as the three main leaders of the Congress Party.

Some students of Indian politics who are not themselves Modi bhakts have come to see the Prime Minister as unstoppable. I do not share their sense of resignation. Modi is not invincible, no more so than Indira Gandhi was in the high noon of her power in the early 1970s. Consider last month's Bihar elections. Despite the NDA's overwhelming superiority in terms of money and organization, their control of the media and of the apparatus of state power, the ruling alliance only narrowly squeaked through.

The vulnerability of the ruling regime lies in their incompetence as administrators. Masters in political propaganda and organization, they are nonetheless absolute novices at managing the economy. And while Modi may still be popular at home, he is disliked by our neighbours and distrusted by the world at large. The economy was in decline even before the pandemic hit; a full-blown recovery after it ends is impossible, precluded by the inwardness of the government's policies and its bending of rules to favour its favourite crony capitalists. How long will the regime succeed in diverting and distracting farmers, workers, artisans, the youth and the unemployed by stigmatizing Muslims and by bringing in laws prohibiting cow-slaughter and inter-faith marriages?

The future of our Republic may hang on the answer to this question. For, the incompetence and nepotism of the present leadership of the Congress has indubitably helped the BJP to further their grip on power. The persistence of the Gandhis at the head of India's principal opposition party makes it much easier for the ruling regime to divert public attention from the government's own errors and crimes. Had the Congress a more focused and energetic leadership, as well as a less entitled one, such distraction would become much harder.

There are still three years for the next general election, time enough for the Congress to rebuild themselves under a new leadership as well as forge alliances with other opposition parties. In the interests of their party, and of their country, the Gandhis should go now - go not merely from the top leadership of the Congress, but from the party entirely. For, if they stay, they shall represent an alternate centre of authority, serving only to fuel intrigues and dissension.

Whether or not Sonia Gandhi celebrates her birthday this year (or any other) will not affect the nation's future. The sacrifice she should make is to retreat from politics, and take her children with her. Their departure will increase our chances of rescuing what remains of the Republic from the ravages of Hindutva authoritarianism.

(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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