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