A letter of dissent was recently addressed to interim Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi by 23 senior members of the party including sitting MPs, chief ministers and former union ministers. It brought into focus the leadership question, rather the lack of it, within the party.
There are broadly two perspectives on this letter among Congress Party members and its supporters: on the one hand, it signals a yet-undying hope for the revival of the grand old party; on the other, it is seen by the party (read: Nehru-Gandhi) loyalists as a threat to the Congress’s legacy. The epoch of party leadership over the last few decades has become so ingrained in the minds of large swathes of the Congress that they are unable to even think of taking orders from a non-Gandhi. Perhaps, in retrospect, they could learn a few lessons from the past.
Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president of the Congress Party for the first time in 1929. A persona like no other, Nehru’s scholarly beliefs, his undying love for the country and, perhaps most importantly, Mahatma Gandhi’s patronage enabled him to be the leader that all sections looked up to. The Mahatma had declared that Nehru was his political heir. This was not because Nehru was a sycophant of Gandhi — far from it actually, their disagreements have been well-documented.
It also wasn’t because he was the son of Motilal Nehru — a brilliant lawyer and instrumental freedom fighter. The younger Nehru was chosen by Gandhi for his skills, his acumen and the adoration he justly enjoyed from the Indian people who placed him second only to the Mahatma.
Jawaharlal Nehru was so embedded in the Congress Party’s conscience and had become synonymous with the nationalist struggle in such a way that one couldn’t think of a leader other than him to become Prime Minister of India, and rightly so. If there were disagreements between him and his party colleagues, all he had to do was offer to resign as prime minister, and his colleagues would have no choice but to come around. The Congress was so heavily dependent on Nehru that a popular saying during the latter part of his tenure was, “After Nehru, what?” The answer at that time, however, remained unsure.
India was shocked to a halt when Nehru passed away on 27th May 1964. Lal Bahadur Shastri was given the responsibility to step into the shoes of India’s favourite son, albeit for a brief period as he passed away soon after in 1966.
Congress once again was faced with the leadership question. At that time, much like today, there was no dearth of talent, leadership ability and political sagacity within the party. But the decision that was taken has had grave and wide-ranging consequences not only in terms of the future of the party but the entire country.
Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, was chosen to become the leader of the country comprising 500 million people (at the time). What were her qualifications to lead the country? Why was she chosen over a seasoned politician like Morarji Desai? One of the reasons was simple: because she was Nehru’s daughter. There were other reasons, too, like the belief among the Congress ‘Syndicate’ (K Kamaraj, Sanjiva Reddy, SK Patil, Atulya Ghosh and S Nijalingappa) that Indira Gandhi could easily be manipulated.
But, K Kamaraj – the architect behind her selection – had anticipated that the people of India would hail her as prime minister while the memories of the nationalist struggle and of Jawaharlal Nehru’s contributions were still fresh in their minds. “Who better to lead the nation than Nehru’s daughter?”, it was thought.
Indira Gandhi’s selection as Prime Minister set into motion the Nehru-Gandhi conundrum and made political leadership in India a mostly dynastic affair in the absence of a viable opposition.
Indira Gandhi was succeeded in 1984 by none other than her elder son, Rajiv — a political neophyte who had no intention of becoming a politician, let alone the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world.
The Indian people, like before, hailed Rajiv Gandhi’s selection — as was evident from the party’s landslide victory (404 out of 514 seats) in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls. The man who was actually being groomed to succeed Indira Gandhi was her younger son, Sanjay, who took an active interest in the day-to-day functioning of the party. But he passed away in an unfortunate accident on 23 June 1980. Hence, Rajiv Gandhi was roped in for the top post.
The reason he was chosen, once again if not more this time, was that he was a Nehru, a Gandhi, a dynast representing the most famous family in the country. The party hailed him not out of respect towards him, but for respect towards the lineage of which he was but a scion. He bore the surname of Nehru-Gandhi, and that was enough.
Today, Congress has reached a point where the majority within the party is unable to elect a non-Gandhi as their leader. The party is so stuck in its ways that, despite being criticised from all quarters — including some of its own members, there is a parochial consensus among Congressmen that the party and the Gandhis are synonymous. However, 74 years after independence, an undeserving Gandhi is no longer acceptable to the people of India, especially to take on the behemoth that is the BJP.
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the general perception about Rahul Gandhi is that he is unfit to lead the country. The Indian people have rejected Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, as was evident from the debacle the Congress faced in the 2019 general election. The rejection was so unequivocal that Mr Gandhi even lost his seat from Amethi – a Congress stronghold that he had represented since 2004. After his virtuous decision to resign as Congress Working Committee (CWC) president, having taken responsibility for the party’s defeat in 2019, there was a flickering hope for change within the party.
But the selection of Sonia Gandhi as the interim president made the situation retrogressive and invited a barrage of justifiable diatribe.
The Congress is so blinded by sycophancy and so comatose at this point that they refuse to hear the voice of the electorate. They have ensconced themselves into the Nehru-Gandhi leadership and now it has almost become a part of their identity. So much so that they believe the party would probably balkanise if led by someone from outside the ‘family’.
This is the dilemma the Congress faces. It is also the corollary that has empowered the BJP to win two successive terms in parliament. Despite the repeated implementation of faulty policies like demonetisation and GST, the BJP won in 2019 because of the dearth of a sturdy, dependable and capable national opposition.
Despite a large pool of talent and the repeated assertion by Rahul Gandhi against claiming party leadership, the Congress Party refuses to adapt to the times and insists on being led by a Gandhi. They must realise that the India of today is not the same as it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The Indian people today would choose talent and robust leadership over family lineage – a fact that Gandhi loyalists are yet to ruminate upon, let alone digest. Considering the present circumstances, the country would have anyone but a Nehru-Gandhi to lead them.
If the party fails to elect a non-Gandhi, it will have sounded its own death knell. The Congress is hanging by a thread as it is and, funnily enough, they hold the scissors in one hand and the sewing needle in the other. Depending on the decisions taken in subsequent CWC meetings, the party will either take steps to fortify themselves to face the majoritarian saffron party in 2024, or it would pale into insignificance by refusing to accept that ‘change is the only constant’. Either way, their decision will have radical consequences for the future of India as a democratic, secular and tolerant nation.