The saga of Indian Congress

The Indian National Congress fought a tremendous battle against the British rule under the leadership of late Moti Lal Nehru, C R Das, MK Gandhi, Netaji Shuvas Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawhar Lal Nehru and other valiant freedom fighters of the Indian sub-continent. But, despite such illustrious past, the party has been facing serious debacle after experiencing a crushing defeat in the last national election.

 If we look back we see that with the emergence of Indira Gandhi as its leader after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965, the Indian Congress had taken a new and modern shape. With her magnetic persona and charm Indira Gandhi had built Congress as an indomitable political force in India. However, in the process, soon the political leaders of her father’s time became redundant. The real leaders and workers were being replaced by the Indira followers but with the sudden assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 31, 1984, Congress fell into real problem. Her son  Rajib Gandi took the leadership and thus the real leaders and supporters of Congress started to feel discomfort in the party.

 After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 2004, Congress was absolutely confined within the family periphery. In the face of tremendous opposition across the nation, Congress president Sonia Gandhi could not be made Prime Minister of India as she was an Italian born widow of Rajiv Gandhi.

 Because of long-standing dynastic rule, the Congress leadership lost its clout at the national level. Now the only hope is Pryanka Gandhi, widely regarded as a replica of Indian iconic leader Indira Gandhi. But she has not been given the leadership of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) as the family was in favor of pushing Rahul Gandhi without considering his leadership quality. 

 The lid has finally been put on the 39-day suspense over Rahul Gandhi’s continuance as the Congress chief. Having announced his decision to step down from the post of party President on May 25 in the wake of the party’s severe drubbing in parliamentary election, the question had been: will he or will he not reconsider his decision. The party rank and file repeatedly pleaded with him to continue to lead the Congress but Rahul did not budge. And on July 3, he signed off with an open letter to the party workers that he is no longer the Congress President and asked the party to find his successor. This indicates there is no scope for any rethink on Rahul's part. 

 This is likely to clear the decks for a lot of churnings within the Congress involving office-bearers and the Congress Working Committee, the party’s top decision-making forum and the choice of a new party chief. The uncertainty over Rahul leading the party did not do any good to Congress in the last five to six weeks.    

 Rahul’s four-page letter was more than just a medium for letting the party workers know that he is quitting. It is important on a number of counts: (1) it reflects the state of the party reeling under the electoral defeat (2) it gives a glimpse of Rahul’s equation and frustration with a large section of the party’s rest of the leadership (3) the way ahead for the Congress without a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as Congress President.

 Rahul’s letter calls for a “radical transformation” of the Congress and that numerous people in the party should also be held accountable for the poll debacle clearly brings out his frustration with some senior leaders who pressed party nomination for their sons in the election and appears to indicate the need for a sweeping organizational purge.  However, this did not trigger a barrage of resignation by other national level office-bearers of the party. In fact, not a single senior leader and office-bearer, including those hand-picked by Rahul, resigned taking moral responsibility for the electoral setback ever since Rahul announced his decision to quit on May 25. Even Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, made party General Secretary in January this year, did not step down.  

 Rahul also gave vent to his unhappiness that he often stood “completely alone” in the party in the fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS and in his sustained campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the issue of allegation of graft in the deal for purchase of Rafael fighter aircraft from France. Does it mean that a sizable section of the Congress leadership did not share his strident anti-Modi campaign which many within and outside Congress felt was too negative to impress the voters?

  With speculations over Rahul as party head having been set to rest, Congress circles are abuzz with the possibility of who his successor could be. The names of senior Dalit leaders like Sushil Kumar Shinde from Maharashtra, Mallikarjun Kharge from Karnataka, Mukul Wasnik and Meira Kumar are doing the rounds. All these people are Gandhi family loyalists. There is also intense speculation if the Congress Working Committee (CWC) would make an appeal to Priyanka Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi to head the party. But Rahul had in the previous CWC meeting on May 25 insisted that a non-Gandhi clan member should head the Congress. This has sparked speculations in Congress circles. Why does Rahul not want any other Gandhi family member to replace him as party President? Is he opposed to either Priyanka or Sonia as party chief?  If a non-Gandhi family member fails to successfully lead the Congress, the family can always turn around and drive home the necessity of a family member to be in the party top position.

  No doubt, Rahul’s resignation and his insistence on a non-Nehru-Gandhi clan should head the party have offered the Congress an opportunity to have someone from outside the family as party President. But will the party seize the opportunity? The names of senior leaders like Sushil Kumar Shinde, Mallikarjun Kharge, Meira Kumar and Mukul Wasnik are doing the rounds as Rahul’s successor. Having someone from outside the Nehru-Gandhi clan as Congress President is not new for the party. There are instances of P V Narasimha Rao who was both the Prime Minister and the party chief and later Sitaram Kesri in 1990s. But they did not last long because both Rao and Kesri had to grapple with finally wilt under relentless resistance from other Congress leaders professing allegiance to the Gandhi family.

 The question being asked is how stable and sustainable will be the leadership of a person from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family. This is where the role of the Gandhi family members—Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul will come into play. How strong will be their voice in choosing a new Congress President and running the party? It will not be easy to wish away the huge control Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul have over the party. Can a non-Gandhi family Congress head come out of the shadow of the trio? Sonia Gandhi is the Congress Parliamentary Party chief, Priyanka and Rahul have together acted as a parallel power centre when the Congress government was in power under Manmohan Singh as the PM between 2004 and 2014. 

 Will the Gandhi family be able to send a message about a hands-off approach in running the party and implement Rahul's call for a "radical transformation and organizational overhaul? A section of the Congress feels anyone from outside the Gandhi clan as party chief runs the risk of being in awe of the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka axis and may not have much of a free hand. But the Congress needs a break away from its status quo culture, now more than ever before. 

 In the near-term, the party faces the challenge of taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party in assembly elections in four states including Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana later this year before it plans for the long-term objective--revival before the next parliamentary poll in 2024.