Dynasty on edge

Who’s up next: In what is being labelled as the first admission of failure by a Gandhi, Congress members are being forced to look for leadership beyond the familiar faces   -  THE HINDU/ K MURALI KUMAR

Rahul Gandhi is the first in the Nehru-Gandhi family to have resigned from a top post in the Congress. What does it mean for the party?

The end of an era or a new beginning — it’s difficult to say which of these describes Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step down as the president of the Indian National Congress. What is certain is the fact that he is the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage to have resigned from the top post that the family had intermittently held over five generations.

In its post-Independence history, the 134-year-old party has not seen an exit that has generated such speculation. Apart from the many question marks on its future, the party has to now grapple with the task of building an image that doesn’t depend on its first family — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. This comes close on the heels of its embarrassing performance in the 2019 general elections, where the Congress finished with only 52 seats in the Lok Sabha.

On their part, the Gandhis are still keen on maintaining their links with the parent organisation. They need the full backing of the party rank and file to battle court cases (the ongoing National Herald corruption case, for example) and defamation suits (there are two against Gandhi — one for his remarks against Union home minister Amit Shah during the 2019 poll campaign and the other for his comments linking the “BJP-RSS ideology” with the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September 2017). There is also the fear of political vendetta — given the family’s thorny equation with the top brass of the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre.

In terms of high-voltage political drama, the last 50-odd days have been unusually tense for the Congress. Conservation of the functional relationship between the party and the Gandhis has taken precedence over other pressing matters — the destabilistation of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in Karnataka, for instance. In what is being labelled as the first admission of failure by a Gandhi, Congress members are being forced to look for leadership beyond the familiar.

Party insiders say that Gandhi’s July 3 decision to quit was met with stiff resistance. He, however, stood his ground. He first managed to convince the current Congress chief ministers and the rest followed suit. This puts pressure on the non-Nehru-Gandhi members of the Congress to step in and lead from the front. It also adds a ring of uncertainty to Narendra Modi’s widely reported “naamdar” versus “kaamdar” narrative during his first term as Prime Minister. It was a dig at the dynasty politics that has come to characterise the Congress over the decades.

Speaking to BLink, Sudheendra Kulkarni, author, commentator and a former aide of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, welcomed Gandhi’s decision as a “bold beginning” that would test his party’s ability to find a new leader. He added that it was time for “him to be more open about the many past sins of the Congress” and to “shun blind criticism of the RSS”.

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It is not that as Congress president — between December 2017 and May 2019 — Gandhi did not work hard. He used the tried-and-tested populist measures of vote bank appeasement: From temple-hopping to hosting iftars. But he ran into a wall every time he tried to tinker with the old order of the party.

Past and present: It is said that grandmother Indira, an astute judge of people, used to value her Rahul Gandhi’s grit and determination even when he was a child   -  PTI/VIJAY VERMA

 

Unlike his grandmother Indira — who witnessed two splits in the Congress, in 1969 and 1977 — Gandhi’s time in the party has been largely peaceful. He was, after all, surrounded by “dad’s army” of over 15 former chief ministers, dozens of former Union ministers and ex-All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretaries. The results of the Gujarat and Karnataka elections — in 2017 and 2018 respectively — didn’t bring the Congress enough seats for Gandhi to be calling the shots. And when it came to picking chief ministers for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018, sister Priyanka and mother Sonia seemed to be in greater control and command. The presence and influence of the two women have often been counterproductive, reviving the “Priyanka is better than Rahul” debate.

The resurgence of this line of thought, however, adds to the negativity around the party that is struggling to survive against the Modi wave that has swept the country since 2014. Repeated attacks on the Congress leadership in Parliament and social media have highlighted popular misgivings about dynasty politics, making Gandhi the butt of unkind memes and jokes. While sections of voters appreciated Gandhi’s balanced and non-vitriolic responses to such attacks, many have sided with the view that the Congress can survive only if he resigns.

“India needs the Congress at this point to fight against the BJP’s overreach on India’s freedoms: Of speech, association and religious practice. Smaller opposition parties would wilt under pressure, or shrink to their regional bastions,” says Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of Political Science at Brown University, US.

To some, Sonia’s continuation as UPA chairperson and head of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) is a cause for concern. In 2004-19, there were many occasions when Gandhi’s vision and course of action were blurred, overturned or withdrawn by Sonia. The most glaring cases were Gandhi’s initial thrust on restoration of inner party democracy. Senior Congress leaders — also known as the old guard — worked overtime to advise Sonia to confine the son to the India Youth Congress (IYC), National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the party’s student wing, and Seva Dal, its grassroots organisation. Between 2006 and 2013, when Gandhi was AICC general secretary in charge of IYC and NSUI, he focussed on organisational polls in these frontal bodies. However, both wings failed to serve as leadership factories, as was the case during the days of Indira’s younger son, Sanjay.

Post the debacle in the Lok Sabha elections this year, the party wasted no time in re-electing Sonia as the CPP head. She acted swiftly, appointing Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the MP from Baharampur in West Bengal, the leader of the party in the House. While being moved to a seat in the second row, Gandhi is said to have been dismayed by the lack of contest — especially among MPs Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tiwari and K Suresh — for the post that went to Chowdhury.

At this point, nothing will prove worse for the Congress than to have a “proxy” party chief working for the Gandhis. When Sonia joined the party, Congress chief Sitaram Kesri was reduced to a nobody. Between January and March 1998, when Kesri was finally dethroned, members Oscar Fernandes and V George were seen bringing files to the Kesri residence for signatures on key party appointments. Reportedly, Kesri didn’t take to this marginalisation kindly.

Insiders suggest that there are two schools of thought within the Congress. One group wants a leader from the younger lot as the new president — such as Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot. Some others want Mallikarjun Kharge as interim chief with three vice-presidents — Pilot, Scindia and Milind Deora

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Gandhi’s decision to step back goes against the role and importance that his grandmother, Indira, would have liked him to occupy. The fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhi leader was the “laadla” of the former Prime Minister. It is said that Indira, an astute judge of people, used to value Gandhi’s grit and determination even when he was a child. He was barely 14 when she was assassinated by her bodyguards on October 31, 1984, but the grandmother had already prepared him mentally for the “violent death”, which she had feared since Operation Blue Star — military action against Punjab terrorists — in June 1984. She, insiders said, had asked him not to cry in the event of her death and even gave him instructions for her funeral arrangements.

What followed Indira’s death was in continuance with the culture of dynasty that she had carefully cultivated. Her son, Rajiv, succeeded her as the Prime Minister. No Gandhi has held the position after 1989, when the Congress gave way to a coalition led by VP Singh. Seven years after Rajiv’s assassination in May 1991, his wife Sonia took over as the head of the Congress. She declined the role of the Prime Minister after a Congress-led coalition came to power at the Centre in 2004. Gandhi’s elevation to the party’s top post seemed a natural progression. Prime ministership would have been the next step, but that looks far-fetched at the moment.

This turn of events would not have gone down well with Indira, the matriarch who, according to an account of her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral by her cousin BK Nehru, jealously guarded the boundaries of the “family”. In his 1997 bookNice Guys Finish Second, the former diplomat mentions Indira’s look of disapproval when he stepped up to collect his uncle’s ashes. According to Hindu tradition, the nephew is entitled to gather the remains of an uncle who dies without a son.

“I saw, quite clearly, that Indira disapproved of my doing so. I stopped and was going towards the stairs to get down. But Mamun saheb [Kailash Kaul, Indira’s maternal uncle]... said it was my duty to collect the ashes... I thought it wiser to obey the daughter,” he writes.

He continues: “I did not understand at all, at that time, the reason for Indira’s disapproval... it is obvious that she was giving a clear and unambiguous signal to the assembled crowd that the succession was not going to be according to Hindu law and custom. The successor of power would be her, after her, her sons”.

Almost 35 years after Indira’s death, the grandson has decided to experiment with something different. As per the new plan, the Gandhis will stay in politics, campaign for the party but won’t lead from the front. Will it work? And is the Congress ready for that change? There are no answers yet. What’s known is that there will be a new chapter to the Congress saga.

Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is the author of 24 Akbar Road

Published on July 12, 2019

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