Exactly a century after his great-grandfather Motilal Nehru took over the reins of the Congress party, it’s ironic that Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation leader of the Gandhi-Nehru family, has stepped down as the president of the Grand Old Party.
Being Rahul isn’t enviable and being in his boots in 2019 is something most, even inside the Congress party, would wish to avoid. However, the 49-year-old leader’s move to step down from the top party post is symptomatic of the rot that ails the Congress.
Just like his father, Rajiv Gandhi, and Italy-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, power was thrust on Rahul — a heavy cross the Nehru-Gandhi family needs to carry to keep the party run by the Gandhi family from sinking.
It was when the Congress hit rock-bottom under the leadership of the party’s longest serving president, Sonia, in 2014 — when it won just 44 Lok Sabha seats — that Rahul took over the reins of the party. He took over when the country was at the cusp of a tectonic political shift spearheaded by the Modi-Shah combine backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Rahul’s stay at the party’s helm for two years was a mix of some appalling defeats and a few thumping wins. Congress’ drubbing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Meghalaya was followed by some narrow wins in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. If it was a masterstroke by Rahul to stitch an alliance with the Janata Dal (United) to form a government in Karnataka, it was a blunder to not join hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), which lead to their drubbing in Uttar Pradesh in the latest Lok Sabha elections.
What comes across the 2019 election is that it was an election for the Prime Minister’s post and voters went with Modi.
Politics of entitlement
The 2014 and 2019 election campaigns and the subsequent landslide for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were dotted with pointed personal attacks against Rahul. Political rivals mocked him as ‘pappu’, ‘namdaar’ and ‘shehzada’. The taunts seem to have propelled him to take on the barb-spewing BJP head on. The election campaign was by far in recent times the most vitriolic campaign where personal attacks became a norm. “The Congress’ defeat is a mandate against the politics of entitlement. Modi’s campaign had managed to get across this idea of namdaar versus kaamdaar during the campaign,” says political analyst Neeraja Choudhary.
Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the entire saffron machinery ran a vicious campaign blaming Rahul, his father, mother, grandmother and great-grandfather as those who led India into, what they called, the “darkest days” of the country. The RSS machinery left no stone unturned in undoing the institutions and political ideals of its bête noire Jawaharlal Nehru. It was only natural that their hate for one of the founding fathers of the country found a soft target in Rahul.
Strategic time out
What raises concerns of the deeper malaise in Congress’ drubbing is the fact that 23 of the 52 MPs hail from two states — Kerala (15) and Punjab (8). The Congress has been unable to open its accounts in as many as 18 states. This includes states where it has its own state governments.
The figures are a clear indication that real issues like inflation, unemployment and a stagnant economy raised by Rahul didn’t stand a chance against the aggressive nationalism pitched by the saffron party in almost all rallies addressed by Modi and Shah.
C Lakshmanan, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, says that Rahul quitting as a party president is just a move to deflect more criticism which will come his way if the party again fails in the forthcoming Assembly elections in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Delhi.
“Rahul’s resignation is a well thought out strategic move by the Congress. The forthcoming Assembly elections will be a nightmare for Rahul. He will be the fall guy for the impending defeats. He will wait for around eight months and operate the party without showing his face. The coming years aren’t going to be easy for the party. The BJP is clearly orchestrating a campaign where they are turning anti-BJP feeling into an anti-Congress narrative. Rahul’s blunder is that he too is in search of Ram. His outreach to the forward castes isn’t earning him anything. The Lok Sabha election result is a clear indicator of the acceptance of the politics propagated by the Shah-Modi combine as much as it is a sign of Rahul Gandhi’s failure to understand social reality,” says Lakshmanan.
Gandhis are to Congress what RSS is to BJP
Rahul’s resignation letter also brings to the fore the deep-rooted rot of how self-serving power centres in the party are willing to sacrifice the party’s growth for their own personal gain, a scourge that Rahul’s father had spoken about but failed to resolve. However, the attempt by Rahul to hit reboot button and take moral responsibility for the loss, hasn’t scratched the surface of these so called “self-serving leaders” to follow suit. The way forward for the Grand Old Party seems to rest in its own hands. What seems to be the way forward is for the party to go to its constitution. Democratisation and scouting for talent connected to the grassroots seems to be the only way forward. New energy can be ushered in only if they hold elections for state and national level leaders. “The symbiotic relationship between the Gandhi family and the Congress is similar to the relationship between the RSS and the BJP. One cannot do without the other,” says Choudhary.
“The Congress has become a very moribund party. It will have to find a way out. It has been stagnant in two general elections. It managed to win in some states because it didn’t have to take on someone like Narendra Modi there.”
Rahul shows the way
“It’s phenomenal that Rahul Gandhi took responsibility for the party’s loss and it’s truly amazing that he resigned as the Congress president. The issue of dynastic politics is a campaign by the RSS and BJP. Whose son will inherit the Reliance industry? Who is Sunny Deol the son of? There are more dynasties in the BJP than in the Congress. In a civilised and developed society like the US, they use the term family and family tradition. This is a new beginning for the Congress and Rahul is showing the way,” says political analyst Rajiv Desai.
The idea is echoed by Choudhary, “Rahul has done something someone in a parliamentary democracy has to do. By stepping down he has got in the principle of accountability. He has respected the implicit message that has come through the mandate, which was a sentiment against the politics of entitlement. Rahul failed to put across his idea of India, it just didn’t capture the imagination of the people. Modi hadn’t lost any goodwill; voters wanted to give him another chance. Rahul’s failure is linked to the fact that the Congress has become a soft, drawing room party.”
Rahul’s resignation and his assertion that neither his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra nor his mother Sonia will return to lead the party seems like a step in the right direction. The Congress leaders, since India’s independence, seem to accept the Gandhi-Nehru family more than they have accepted each other. The way forward now for the party is to find a solution to move out of the dynastic mode.