India Today - - INSIDE - (Aroon Purie)

Ev­ery rev­o­lu­tion, they say, car­ries the seed of its own de­struc­tion. That seems to ap­ply to In­dia’s Grand Old Party too, the In­dian Na­tional Congress, which once de­liv­ered us from colo­nial rule. I be­lieve the seed was sown when In­dia’s leg­endary prime min­is­ter, Jawa­har­lal Nehru, made his daugh­ter Indira Gandhi the pres­i­dent of the Congress in 1959. Iron­i­cally, he was the main rea­son why In­dia re­mained a democ­racy un­like many other coun­tries that were freed from colo­nial rule. Even such a staunch demo­crat could not re­sist the pull of dy­nasty. Af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Lal Ba­hadur Shas­tri died in 1966, Indira Gandhi de­feated her ri­val Mo­rarji De­sai in the party’s par­lia­men­tary lead­er­ship elec­tion and suc­ceeded Shas­tri as prime min­is­ter. Three years later, in Novem­ber 1969, she founded her own po­lit­i­cal start-up—the In­dian Na­tional Congress (R)—af­ter be­ing ex­pelled from the par­ent or­gan­i­sa­tion. Over the years and sev­eral elec­toral vic­to­ries later, her party sub­sumed most other splin­ter groups to re-emerge as the INC. It was a newly re­cast, dy­nasty-driven party, with many re­gional satraps. Grad­u­ally, any­one with an in­de­pen­dent power base was squeezed out.

Dy­nasty squashed the po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions of non-dy­nasts, but Brand Gandhi guar­an­teed power, and that kept the flock to­gether. Indira Gandhi de­liv­ered em­phatic wins in 1971 and 1980. Ra­jiv Gandhi de­liv­ered the party’s big­gest landslide in 1984— 414 seats and a 48.12 per cent vote share. So­nia Gandhi steered the party to suc­ces­sive vic­to­ries in 2004 and 2009. The Gandhi name con­tin­ued to have cur­rency, al­though govern­ments af­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi were coali­tions. With no clear ide­ol­ogy like the Left or the BJP, Power be­came the big­gest glue to hold the Congress to­gether.

In 2019, the Golden Ju­bilee year of its break­ing away from the orig­i­nal party, how­ever, the Congress is lost in a way it has never been be­fore. The party has suf­fered two suc­ces­sive hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tions. This is partly be­cause Brand Gandhi has been swamped by the big­ger Brand Modi, the for­mi­da­ble Amit Shah and a resur­gent BJP. The Congress to­day is re­duced to an em­bar­rass­ing rump, with just 52 seats in the 543-mem­ber Lok Sabha and a 19.49 per cent vote share. For the sec­ond time in a decade, it does not have enough seats to even stake a claim to the post of the leader of the op­po­si­tion. The party it­self is lead­er­less. No one quite knows who is in charge. Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi quit on May 25 and, by post­ing his res­ig­na­tion on Twit­ter ear­lier this month, be­lied pop­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tions within his party that he would re­turn.

With the Congress now look­ing at an­other long stint in the op­po­si­tion, the ques­tion is whether In­dia’s old­est party can sur­vive this ex­ile in the wilder­ness. Af­ter the party’s rout in 2014, I had writ­ten that power was an aphro­disiac for the Congress, which had un­til then ruled for 55 years

af­ter In­de­pen­dence. It can­not sur­vive with­out it for too long. If party mem­bers can­not smell that pos­si­bil­ity, Rahul Gandhi could well be pre­sid­ing over the dis­in­te­gra­tion of In­dia’s old­est party.

That the dy­nasty had been yield­ing steadily di­min­ish­ing re­turns was no secret. From the high 40s of the 1970s, the Congress vote share has now sunk to be­low 20 per cent. In 2004, it was in power in 14 states. Fif­teen years later, it rules in just six states.

The re­sults of the drift are al­ready ev­i­dent. In Goa this month, three-fourths of the party crossed over to the BJP. The JD(S)-Congress gov­ern­ment in Kar­nataka, like­wise, is riven with de­fec­tions and hangs by a thread. Ev­ery other Con­gress­ruled state must be hav­ing night­mares.

With all three po­lit­i­cally ac­tive Gandhi fam­ily mem­bers re­luc­tant to as­sume the man­tle of Congress lead­er­ship, the search is on for an­other ac­cept­able face to run the party. Most of those left have no po­lit­i­cal base and there­fore no wide sup­port in the party. Also, any self-re­spect­ing politi­cian will won­der whether the Gand­his will run him or her by re­mote con­trol.

Our cover story this week, ‘Can the Congress Rise from the Ashes?’, writ­ten by Se­nior As­so­ciate Edi­tor Kaushik Deka, tries to an­swer this ques­tion amidst the chaos within the party. The search within is now to lo­cate a suit­able suc­ces­sor to Rahul Gandhi, one who will be ac­cept­able to the var­i­ous fac­tions and, of course, to the Gand­his them­selves. It’s a tall or­der even within a di­min­ished, down­sized or­gan­i­sa­tion. A nonGandhi will head the party for the first time since 1998.

The sur­vival of the Congress is about some­thing more than just nar­row sen­ti­ment or fam­ily nos­tal­gia. The Congress is un­der­go­ing not only a cri­sis of lead­er­ship but of its very iden­tity. It has to rediscover and rein­vent it­self apart from mount­ing a spir­ited chal­lenge to the way the BJP, un­der Naren­dra Modi, is gov­ern­ing the coun­try. One of the pre­req­ui­sites of a vi­brant, func­tion­ing democ­racy is a ro­bust op­po­si­tion that keeps the rul­ing party on its toes. The Congress, with its pan-In­dia pres­ence, is the only party ca­pa­ble of chal­leng­ing the rul­ing BJP. Af­ter all, the BJP won 38 per cent of the vote in the last elec­tion, which means 62 per cent is up for grabs. There is a pos­si­bil­ity that a new Congress pres­i­dent could re­vive the party and give In­dia what it needs—a strong op­po­si­tion. It would be a tragedy if the Grand Old Party is not even up to this task. It should re­mem­ber that, just like revo­lu­tions, Em­pires rise and fall. And can rise again.

Our June 2, 2014 cover

Our Dec. 18, 2017 cover

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