Family plots

Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma’s stoic declaration that there is no leadership crisis in the party is an unwitting reflection of the deep-rooted stasis within the country’s oldest political party. A staunch Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, his statement is at odds with the multiple and increasingly vocal rumbles of dissatisfaction from several party members, who spoke for many when they roundly criticised the Congress’ dismal showing in the recent Delhi Assembly elections. For a party that once held the city-state for 15 years, the lack of a single seat in two consecutive elections reflects the disarray within. It seems incredible that Sonia Gandhi should have been appointed interim president of the party. This summary rejection of democratic principles and the tightening stranglehold of one family leave it squarely open to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s taunts of being a party in the thrall of dynastic rule, with all the connotations of deep-seated corruption. In tamely toeing the family line again the Congress Working Committee, mostly comprising elderly party worthies, has missed the opportunity presented when Ms Gandhi’s son, Rahul, stepped down from the president-ship for the party’s poor showing in the 2019 parliamentary elections. That should have created space for the 135-year-old party to try its hand at democracy by allowing its many talented leaders to compete for the top post. But family control of the party has created an institutional inability to allow non-family talent to flourish and has seen the party fragment multiple times in the past and presented the absurd spectacle of a “remote control prime ministership” for Ms Gandhi between 2004 and 2014.

 
Yet, signs of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s redundancy have been clear for the past six years. Every Assembly election that the party has won — not least in the BJP’s Hindi heartland — was the result of autonomy extended to local leaders. Their success contrasts strongly with Mr Gandhi’s chronic inability to deliver on the national stage — the Congress won 44 seats in 2014 and 52 in 2019, and he lost control of the family borough of Amethi. It seems incredible that after Mr Gandhi’s honourable resignation, it was the name of his sister, who has not noticeably displayed any political nous, that did the rounds as heir apparent despite the presence of dynamic alternatives in Sachin Pilot or Shashi Tharoor. The party’s ability to win state elections should not be interpreted as signs of life as a viable opposition.

Those elections are fought on local issues with a focus on anti-incumbency. The welfarist proclivities of the right-wing Narendra Modi have deftly robbed the Congress of its leftist USP. The latter’s ideological bankruptcy is showing in its zombie-like response to the reading down of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act, saved only by Mr Tharoor’s eloquence in Parliament. Fears that the party will split if the Nehru-Gandhi family steps aside is a poor argument against intra-party reform, and it reflects the self-interest of an old guard that is out of ideas and energy. Creative destruction is the essence of democracy, and India, in the throes of an unpleasant majoritarianism, urgently needs the broad church ideology that the Congress has long stood for. But right now, Mr Modi could not have asked for a better national opposition.


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