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AFTER THE FAMILY - The Congress's post-dynastic future

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 1.05.14

Rae Bareli, Sonia Gandhi’s constituency, went to the polls in this latest phase of India’s interminable general elections. It would be a good thing, from an anti-BJP point of view, if she lost. A majority of over three-and-a-half lakh votes is hard to shift so it’s probably not going to happen but it’s nice to imagine a what-if world where India’s two principal dynasts, Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, lost their seats to candidates from non-feral parties, say the BSP or the AAP.

Not because Sonia Gandhi is a bad politician; given the quality of Nehru’s heirs Sonia has been an exceptional dynast. She thwarted the BJP’s bid to become the natural party of government in 2004, declined prime ministerial office and reconstituted herself (with some help from the national advisory council) as the social democratic wing of the Congress. Progressives owe her a debt: the MNREGA wouldn’t have passed without her and the Right to Information Act passed because she took ownership of it.

But she shouldn’t be running India’s oldest party merely because she is Nehru’s grand-daughter-in-law. For two reasons. The obvious reason is that India is the world’s largest republican democracy and it’s weird to have it ruled by a succession of increasingly inept dynasts. But the more pressing reason is that the Congress, which historically pioneered the pluralist politics that kept India from becoming Pakistan, has been rendered dysfunctional as a political party because of its grotesque dependence on a single family. This isn’t just bad for the party, it’s bad for the country because it leaves India without a functional pan-Indian party of the non-feral centre. A Congress ‘led’ by Rahul Gandhi and his mother effectively surrenders the middle ground of subcontinental politics to the majoritarianism of the BJP.

Perry Anderson is wrong about many things in his angry jeremiad, The Indian Ideology, but he is cruelly accurate (and prescient, given that he wrote this in 2012) about the Gandhis and the Congress: “The dynasty that still rules the country, its name as fake as the knock-off of a prestige brand, is the negation of any self-respecting republic. The party over which it presides has lost any raison d’être beyond clinging to its bloodline — now desperately pinning its hopes, after the flop of Nehru’s weakling great-grandson, on his hardbitten sister, Priyanka Vadra, if only she would hurry up and divorce her too obviously shady tycoon-husband.”

The only part of this skewering that’s debatable is Anderson’s dismissal of the Congress as a force in Indian politics. Anderson is persuaded that the dissolution of the Congress is the necessary preliminary to political renewal: “Congress had its place in the national liberation struggle. Gandhi, who had made it the mass force it became, called at Independence for its dissolution. He was right. Since then the party has been a steadily increasing calamity for the country. Its exit from the scene would be the best single gift Indian democracy could give itself. The BJP is, of course, a more dangerous force. But it is a real party, with cadres, a programme and a social base. It cannot be wished out of existence, because it represents a substantial political phenomenon, not the decaying fossil of one, and has to be fought as such. So long as Congress lingers on paralytically, that will not occur.”

But the Congress’s problem isn’t the absence of ideology; the Congress’s difficulty is that it hasn’t been able to say for decades now that it offers “…[a] career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth”. For the party, this has been politically crippling.

Till Indira Gandhi’s death, the Nehru-Gandhi dynast (whoever he or she happened to be) could at least claim that the dynasty served a political purpose: it lifted the political prospects of Congress candidates at election time. Indira Gandhi became, by virtue of long tenancy and victory in the war of 1971, a charismatic dynast; she won general elections for her party. Even — or especially — in death, she posthumously won the Congress an enormous majority in Parliament in 1984.

Since then, the Congress has been in secular decline and the dynasty’s reason for being has gradually disappeared. When a political party can’t offer powerful politicians the prospect of the top job because it is permanently reserved for the First Family, and the First Family can’t deliver seats at election time either because the incumbent dynast has had a charisma bypass or because he doesn’t know how to do democratic politics, dynastic politics has run its miserable course.

For the last 15 years politically ambitious Congressmen with regional bases have been abandoning the party for precisely this reason. Mamata Banerjee broke away to form the Trinamul Congress in 1998 and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party seceded from the Congress in 1999. We have seen this pattern repeat itself, most recently in Andhra Pradesh.

Why should a provincial satrap remain within the Congress? In a normal party the provincial strongman aspires to pan-Indian glory, perhaps the prospect of becoming the prime minister of the country. No Reddy or Pawar or Banerjee in the Congress can aspire to that. They have the wrong surname. The only other route to the top is the Manmohan Singh route, which requires a kind of self-abasement that doesn’t come easily to powerful politicians with a mass base. In an era of coalitions, a regional heavyweight has more political leverage outside the Congress as the leader of an independent party than he does as a provincial franchisee of the dynasty’s private limited company.

Anderson (and other doomsayers) are wrong to think that a Congress minus the Gandhi family would lose its reason for being. Indian politics is crammed with energetic, ambitious and ruthless political actors with Congress lineages. If, for the sake of argument, Rahul Gandhi were to be defeated in Amethi and a diminished, headless Congress were to go into Opposition, it’s very likely that this Congress rump would welcome back someone like Pawar or Banerjee as the returning prodigal. The Congress would go back to being led by politicians who actually enjoy mass politics instead of reluctant dauphins and dowagers (Rajiv, Sonia, Rahul) who entered politics holding their noses and still give the impression that they’d rather be elsewhere.

The Congress will do fine without them. It will learn in its time in the political wilderness how to be a campaigning party again; if the Aam Aadmi Party speed-reads its way into political adulthood in a year, the Congress should manage to wean itself off the dynasty and start walking on its own in five. But since Congressmen don’t have the nerve to pull off the palace coup that’s essential for the party’s revival, we must forlornly hope that the electors of Rae Bareli and Amethi do it for them.