IN 1953, JAYAPRAKASH NARAYAN prophesied that the disintegration of the Congress would become a matter of fact within a few years. The Grand Old Party, however, lurched on for years afterwards, despite an increasingly dysfunctional and unwieldy organisation, apart from a moral compass observed to have gone askew. The party, choc-a-bloc with political stalwarts of diverse worldviews, was running a government at the Centre headed by Jawaharlal Nehru that contradicted and violated the very values it was founded on. It relied on the appeal of its Prime Minister to paper over the glaring contradictions and clashing interests within.
By the time Nehru died in 1964, having fought off all attempts by the party leadership to have any say in the policy- making of the Government, the Congress had already acquired a power profile that highlighted a chasm between the reality of its actual working and its avowed founding intent as a decisive transformational vehicle for the country.
A vertical split in the party in 1969, led by Indira Gandhi, and a subsequent landslide victory of the Congress in 1971 were defining developments that warped the fundamental motivation and trajectory of the party, casting it in the mould of a primarily dynastic organisation where the supreme authority of both the Government and organisation were vested in the hands of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.
The priority fight against corruption and the objective of guiding India to its destiny of greatness were given short shrift, and other leaders trying to challenge the power of the family were marginalised. In this autocratic set-up, the rule of Sanjay Gandhi’s whim and the 1975-77 Emergency were a natural progression. When Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister in 1984, he held out the promise of change and modernity.
Like his mother and grandfather, however, he too was drawn into a vortex of party confabulations, power struggles, ego wars and corruption and scams, unable to fulfil the promise he initially held out. Some seven years after his 1991 assassination, his wife—and Rahul Gandhi’s mother—Sonia Gandhi took over as president of the Indian National Congress, and in the 19 years that have passed since she assumed the post vacated by Sitaram Kesri, she made no attempt to clean up the organisation.
At long last, Rahul Gandhi is now set to be elevated to the saddle of Congress party president by December 19th, if there is a contest for the post, and by December 11th, the last date for withdrawal of nominations, if there is no contest. Nobody expects one, and waiting for Rahul Gandhi’s victory announcement would be more in keeping with the farce of internal democracy that has played out for decades in the party. All polls within have traditionally been rigged in favour of the party’s first family in continuation of the belief—well into 21st century India—that the Nehru-Gandhi family name is the only one that can keep the organisation united and capable of drawing votes at the hustings. The desperate symbiosis of political opportunism between the Congress party and the Nehru- Gandhi clan is a long drawn-out elegy to an organisation that has long lost its political mojo, relying more on stitching together a ‘reactionary patchwork’ of castes (as one RSS leader put it) and announcing sundry pre-poll sops to various sections of society without even an ear to the ground.
Not surprisingly, the Congress has performed poorly in any real test of popular support in recent years, losing power in state after key state. Rahul Gandhi’s formal elevation seems unlikely to rejuvenate the Congress, given his political limitations. Even his far more powerful great grandfather, grandmother, father and mother failed to revitalise the organisation, and few observers of Indian politics believe he can do what they could not. If the number of major elections lost since 2014 under his vice-presidency is any indication, Rahul Gandhi will only be leading his party to what is likely to turn into a danse macabre for it in the General Election of 2019.
Despite all the soundbites on ringing in a generational change within the Congress, there are clear signs that Sonia Gandhi, who led it to two consecutive terms in power at the Centre, will persist in hand-holding both the new president and the party. For the ostensible sake of continuity, there will also be no purge of senior leaders.
These decisions could prove crucial if the Congress, however hollow and politically challenged, is to have even a sliver of a chance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections while facing the Modi juggernaut. The very survival of the Congress could be at stake, and it is important for a democracy that an electable opposition party exists at the national level.
In a brief address at a recent Congress Working Committee meeting, Rahul Gandhi urged party leaders to “aim for bull’s eye” in Gujarat. In the run-up to 2019, he will have to show he himself can shoot straight. This would be a daunting task, given the state of the party, even for its stalwarts.