It’s now a do-or-die situation for the Congress

Unless the party reinvents itself by setting aside its obsession with dynasty politics and returning to its ideological roots, its days are numbered

Updated - May 24, 2019 12:09 pm IST

Published - May 24, 2019 01:16 am IST

Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi, second right, with his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra arrive to pay homage to their father and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi, second right, with his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra arrive to pay homage to their father and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

The Congress party that led the freedom movement under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi and steered the state-making process under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru is on its last legs. The decline had started in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, but was temporarily reversed with unexpected victories in 2004 and 2009. The 2014 election clearly signalled that the Congress had become largely irrelevant to the future of India’s polity. This election has confirmed it. The reasons for this decline are the deep-rooted culture of sycophancy within the party and the lack of an ideological backbone.

Culture of sycophancy

The culture of sycophancy has been evident in the upper echelons of the party for decades. It was famously embodied in the slogan “India is Indira, Indira is India”, coined by Dev Kant Barooah, the president of the party during the Emergency. It was visible in the way Sanjay Gandhi acted as an extra-constitutional authority during the Emergency though he held no official position. The choice of Rajiv Gandhi, a political novice, as Prime Minister after the death of his mother in 1984 confirmed the fact that the sycophantic culture had become so deep-rooted within the Congress that it was impossible for its leaders to even consider appointing a person who did not belong to the Gandhi family as Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi was made president of the party in 2017 despite his lack of political experience and clear demonstrations of political ineptitude and projected as the prime ministerial alternative to Narendra Modi. Further, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was appointed general secretary of the party in 2019 in the vain hope that her likeness to her grandmother would attract votes.

The fact that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi did not see the writing on the wall after the 2014 debacle and relinquish the leadership of the party was less a reflection of their political naiveté than their desire to control the party at all cost for their benefit. Their refusal to step down also flew in the face of the time-honoured tradition in established parliamentary democracies, such as Britain and Australia, that leaders of parties who lose elections immediately relinquish their position. Now that the 2019 election has ratified the 2014 verdict, with Rahul Gandhi losing his Amethi seat, it is time that all members of the Gandhi family resign from their party positions for the greater good of the party.

‘Soft’ Hindutva

The second factor is the party’s decision to move away radically from its ideological moorings. Once again, this process had begun with Indira Gandhi, who unabashedly used the “Hindu card” to return to power in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi engaged in dual appeasement. First, in the Shah Bano case he got Parliament to pass legislation overriding the Supreme Court judgment in favour of a Muslim woman divorced by her husband who refused to pay her maintenance. He did so to appease the most obscurantist elements in the Muslim community. When criticised for this action and in order to balance it, he opened the gates of the Babri Masjid to allow Hindu religious rites to be performed in its premises in order to appease extremist Hindu sentiments.

In a final act of surrender to the most reactionary forces in Hindu society, the Congress government at the Centre remained a mute spectator when the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground in 1992 by a mob in the presence of leading BJP figures.

More recently, the primary lesson that the Congress learnt from the 2014 defeat was that Hindutva sells and that it if you cannot beat the Hindu nationalists, you should join them. Rahul Gandhi attempted to project himself as a janeudhari Brahmin and visited umpteen temples in the countdown to State and national elections in the past two years. Terms such as ‘secularism’, ‘minorities’ and ‘lynching’ disappeared totally from the Congress rhetoric in the run-up to the 2019 elections. This seemed to be a part of a deliberate strategy to project the image that the Congress was not a party of “Muslim appeasers”, but a party of faithful Hindus similar to the BJP. The Congress made a concerted effort to project an image of ‘soft’ Hindutva against the BJP’s ‘hard’ Hindutva. It seems that Rahul Gandhi and his advisers did not realise that the Indian electorate was not so naïve as to support the Congress’s pale imitation of the BJP’s genuine article. All the Congress ended up doing was to further legitimise the Hindutva discourse propagated by the Sangh Parivar by helping to conflate Hindu nationalism with Indian nationalism.

The only way the Congress can try to rejuvenate itself is by discarding its sycophantic culture, ditching the ‘dynasty’ for good, re-instituting inner-party democracy, and returning without reservation to its original inclusive creed as espoused by the Mahatma and Nehru. If it does not do this, it will find itself relegated to the dustbin of history.

Mohammed Ayoob is Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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