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Why The Gandhi Family Name Is No Longer A Winning Ticket For The Congress Party

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Mrs Sonia Gandhi needs no introduction. Being a shrewd politician herself, Mrs Gandhi has inherited it all. She was conspicuous by her absenteeism in Indian politics before she was elected as the President of the Indian National Congress (INC) party in 1998, to save the dwindling fortunes of the party when the party was battling with internal dissent from the likes of Rajesh Pilot, Madhav Rao Scindia and P Chidambaram.

During her stint as the first lady, she was an extremely passive public figure. To the common man who saw her only as a part of her husband’s election campaign entourage, she came across as a Nehru-Gandhi bahu, divorced from the ground realities of the nation. She spent three decades in the nation before she attempted to establish a personal connect with the masses on her own. From then on, she played the dynasty card blatantly, garnering emotional and political support on the back of her family’s contribution to the nation during the freedom struggle, and thereon in the course of nation building.

In 1999, Sonia Gandhi formally announced her arrival on the stage of Indian rajneeti when she contested and won Lok Sabha seats from both Bellary and Amethi, defeating the seasoned BJP veteran Sushma Swaraj in Bellary. Sonia Gandhi’s entry into active politics was a clear message on the leadership crisis that India’s oldest political party was going through. The party was deeply divided on the lines of power and ideology, under Kesri’s leadership. At such trying times, the only common thread was the party’s reverence for the Nehru-Gandhi lineage, and Sonia Gandhi was their last unifying resort.

Unfortunately, her leadership did not yield instant dividends for the Indian National Congress. The Sonia Gandhi-led INC lost the 1999 General Elections, getting 28.30% of the vote, its lowest ever till then. Almost instantly, her leadership skills came under the scanner. She had a minimal body of work to defend her position, that she had acquired by virtue of being a Gandhi. Her political acumen was yet to be tested. Most importantly, her ability, willingness, and commitment towards working for the welfare of the nation was yet to be actualised. Perhaps many Indians, who patronised the Nehru-Gandhi family, were not very excited about endorsing people that they associated with imperialism and avarice. I remember a school teacher telling us how uncomfortable she was with Sonia Gandhi being at the helm of affairs of INC. She said, “Are we so devoid of leadership, that we need a non-Indian to take charge.” In “An Era of Darkness”, Shashi Tharoor writes that two hundred years of British Raj complete with “avarice, pride, cruelty, malignity, haughtiness, insolence” has made Indians sceptical of entrusting the reigns of governance with any person of foreign origin. To make matters worse, INC was juxtaposed with BJP’s nationalist ideology, further strengthened by Vajpayee’s display of strategic acumen during the Kargil war. Mrs Gandhi had little going for INC, except the inebriated addiction of the INC itself.

INC’s performance in 2004 was belied by an increase of 27% in the Lok Sabha seats from the 1999 debacle. In the 2004 elections, the party won 145 seats. The total number of voters increased by 6.95% in 2004, while the total number of votes of the INC increased by a meagre 0.28%. Ideally, parties get votes based on their work delivery during the previous term. In 2004, INC won seats because the BJP lost them. At a point when it looked inevitable that Mrs Gandhi would be sworn in as the 13th Prime Minister of India, it was heartening to see the architect of economic reforms, Dr Manmohan Singh assume office. When Mrs. Gandhi said, “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.” Did she mean that she didn’t feel it was right for her to govern the nation? In that case, why did she ever agree to be a part of active electoral politics? She would have faced severe political backlash, both from within and outside INC, otherwise. Notwithstanding her decisions, it was impudent of her to continue to call the shots, yet not be at the centre stage to face repercussions. Cut to 2009 elections. There was high growth during the term of UPA during its first term in 2004-2009. The party won 206 seats; got 15.2% more votes than 2004. The party seemed to have come a long way from its days of crisis. There was a fresh breed of promising politicians, including Sachin Pilot, Jaiveer Shergill, Milind Deora, Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia who enjoyed youth support. Was INC finally coming of its own, breaking free from the clutches of dynasty politics? Unfortunately, it was not. Another Gandhi, who did not have to plod as a primary candidate to prove his mettle was being seen a potential forerunner as the party supremo. The mother-son duo was seen as the power centre, irrespective of who the official signatory was. Scams began to make the UPA II crumble. Sonia Gandhi refused to relent as the party swiftly slipped into crevices of corruption.

2014: Rahul Gandhi had not been able to make his mark as a 24 x 7 politician. He did not enjoy the support of the masses. His surname had started working against him. The fact that he had it easy in politics was not appreciated by many amongst today’s competitive youth, who believe in meritocracy as opposed to inheritance. With a talent pool that comprises of such eminent lawyers, bureaucrats, historians, economists, and political experts, it is an impending question, why has the INC decided to sabotage itself, by not willing to experiment with its organisational structure?

How different would INC’s fortunes be, if it decides to promote meritocracy and widen its realms of leadership? With political sharks like Narendra Modi and ambitious leaders like Nitish Kumar, does INC boast of the killer instinct? Can INC stand on its own, independent of its history? Will the young talent in INC be shadowed by the tradition of inheritance?

The nation has come a long way in these 69 years. Unfortunately, INC seems sluggish to embrace change. Party leaders are analogous to corporate leaders, who need to prove themselves on multiple fronts year after year to keep their offices intact. Public appraisals are critical to a political leader’s career. It is up to the INC to act on the appraisal or indulge in its own adulation.


Image source: Kevin Frayer/ Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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