Dilemmas of succession

Topics Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi formally took over as president of the Indian National Congress party last week. This cementing of the dynastic nature of the Congress’ leadership is hardly a surprise. The only question was when Mr Gandhi would step into a position that every Congress member has assumed would be his. It is, of course, unfortunate for Indian democracy that its oldest national party has essentially become a family enterprise. Mr Gandhi’s mother, father, grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather all led the party; his mother, Sonia Gandhi, was the longest-serving Congress president. While Mr Gandhi’s rise may be seen as inevitable, it is nevertheless important to recognise the severe political and institutional disadvantage that dynastic succession is for the Congress, especially when it goes up against a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised around a man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with no such elite family antecedents.

Mr Gandhi’s tenure begins with his party’s loss in two state elections, even if the verdict in Gujarat is being celebrated as having a silver lining. Keeping the BJP below 100 seats in Mr Modi’s backyard has given the dispirited Congress party members something to hold on to as a clutch of state elections approaches in 2018. That said, the challenges for Mr Gandhi in navigating these elections will be considerable. In Gujarat, he clearly devoted unusual amounts of time and effort to what most would have concluded was a lost cause. This was unusual because the new Congress president has not demonstrated great dedication in the past. It is important for that impression to be reversed in the minds of voters.

Managing the inter-generational transition will also be vitally important. Mr Modi had the disadvantage, when he took over as the BJP’s prime minister-presumptive, of having to deal with several major party leaders who thought that it was their turn. He managed the generational transition ruthlessly, imposing an age limit on major posts, and the party has not looked back. Mr Gandhi, too, will have to be similarly ruthless in his choices even though it may not be easy. In Rajasthan, for example, the Congress may have a chance of ousting a BJP government next year, but it will have to decide whether former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot or the younger current state party leader, Sachin Pilot, will be its flag-bearer. What would be worst for the Congress is if Mr Gandhi keeps the state party unit hanging and refuses to make a decision. There are many other such dilemmas awaiting him, in which party leaders associated with the past decades will expect a role that leaders of the same age as Mr Gandhi may see as finally coming to them. It will help him grow into his role and manage this transition if Mr Gandhi can craft a positive message for the party and present a credible counter-narrative that allow the Congress to take the fight to Mr Modi’s BJP, rather than relying on the growth of discontent and anti-incumbency. Whether and in what manner he does that will determine the Congress’s place and position in a polity that is remaking itself.

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