THE Indian National Congress suffered a terrible defeat in the recent election. The defeat was all the more demoralising for the fact that it had suffered a debacle in the 2014 polls too. All hopes of recovery were dashed. There was no silver lining to inspire hopes of a recovery as in 1989 when it lost to the National Front. It lost again to the BJP in 1998 and in 1999.
To her credit, Sonia Gandhi revived the Congress by securing the dismissal of P.V. Narasimha Rao and his successor from the office of party president. Rao’s tenure as prime minister (1991-96) was marked by corruption and all manner of skulduggery.
Sonia Gandhi reigned supreme as president of the Congress till ill health and defeat in the 2004 elections made her decide to give her son Rahul the office. Not long thereafter, The Economist’s astute New Delhi correspondent called him a dud. Time has proved him right. Rahul Gandhi’s abuse of Narendra Modi showed him as a petulant adolescent ready for a fight, and no more.
Adversity tests individuals as well as institutions.
All these years, there was clamour in the party for his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into active politics. She was never far from its workings. At long last she plunged into the 2019 election, and lost. Rahul and Sonia won. Adversity tests individuals as well as institutions. It found brother and sister hopelessly wanting. Rahul resigned as Congress’ president, with a show of firmness, as courtiers in the party begged him to stay put. But both Rahul and Priyanka furiously blamed the Congress cadres for the party’s defeat. Priyanka, long expected by some as one who could set the Ganga on fire, proved an absolute flop in her speeches. The impression is confirmed by her conduct after the party’s dismal performance. Of the two, hers was the more fiery and sustained denunciation of the cadres than Rahul’s. Sonia supports them, son and daughter, alike.
Together, these facts pose a question for the few senior courtiers with a backbone and the cadres. Why should they pledge their allegiance to leaders who, instead of bravely acknowledging their own shortcomings, blame the rank and file? Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka seek to follow in the footsteps of the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, but without her talent for political compromise. There is good reason to suspect that were it not for her assassination in 1984, she would have failed in that year’s polls. Hubris had overcome her, as it did her untalented son Rajiv. He did not know how to build the Congress. Sonia is more accomplished but she cannot discard the Indira legacy either. Her arrogance cost the Congress Assam. Her favourite ‘weapon’ is the snub, administered to opponents and party men alike. Rahul is no different.
Combined with this is the undermining of any who shows spine. Like Indira, her imitators take pride in undermining any state leader with a following and stature of his own. The ‘high command’ plants in its own man in the cabinet to keep the chief minister in check. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh is seen as a threat because he enjoys respect in his own right. His theatrical colleague, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who covets the latter’s post, cocks a snook at his chief, with the high command’s blessings.
Why would Amrinder Singh support leaders who behave thus for long? He is superior in stature to Rahul and Priyanka. In Punjab, he can give battle to Sonia. Therein lies the root of the Congress’ problem — the national leadership loses sleep at the very prospect of state leaderships with a mass following of their own — lest they pose a danger to the national leadership. Indira promoted Rajiv who proved a ‘dud’, as did Rahul and Priyanka and as Sonia has begun to show. In its hour dismal defeat, the Congress has no alternative leadership and a demoralised, much-abused cadre. This is a direct result of the appointment of ‘Delhi-made chief ministers’ since 1972.
A political party can flourish only when its leader commands wide respect, has colleagues who are able enough to be considered his successors, and, not least, has dedicated cadres able sweat it out for their party. Dynastic politics has succeeded at times because the heir who succeeds ‘the leader’ succeeds in commanding the support of seconds-in-command and the cadres. He loses power when crimes or blunders undermine these vital props.
It is too early to write off the Congress as a sinking ship. It can sail again. Its impressive structure of old has survived past crises. But it does seem to be in a state of decline and decay. That can be arrested provided some of its seniors put their shoulders to the wheel and agree to run the party, putting aside their ego conflicts. A tall order, this; as tall as getting the three Gandhis to stay put, while relinquishing their hold on the reins of power. India needs a powerful opposition. Need I add that it is also time for the two communist parties to unite? In both cases, an ideological rethink is absolutely necessary.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2019