Without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm, India’s Congress Party has no present but with them, it has no future. What to do? Absent a national kaamdar (lifter), the first family is the only glue that can hold Congress together and prevent it from splintering. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation caused complete confusion and consternation, confirming the party’s umbilical cord is yet to be cut. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) met on 10 August and even after Sonia Gandhi and Rahul recused themselves, it unanimously appointed Sonia as interim president because the challenging times confronting the country demand an ‘experienced and tested leader’. By refusing to be Gandhi-mukt (free), the 54-member CWC paves the way for a Congress-mukt Bharat.
Its malignant influence ensures that the chief criterion to be Congress chief is loyalty to the family when the primary attribute should be personal ambition and talents harnessed to the national cause. Punjab Chief Minister (Premier) Amarinder Singh is one of the very few regional kaamdars left in Congress. His eminently sensible suggestion for the baton to be passed on to a younger leader fell victim to the intergenerational tussle as the old guard successfully snuffed out NextGen aspirations. The family is the winner of the poisoned chalice; the party and the nation are the losers as the most plausible national alternative to the dominant and unchecked ruling party insists on committing political hara-kiri. If senior Congress leaders themselves lack self-respect, prostrating themselves in such unseemly display of public obeisance, how can others respect them? Even more critically, it calls into question their commitment to the nation’s welfare and future, a sad comment on the party that led the country to independence.
In the US part of the explanation for President Donald Trump’s success, despite his well-chronicled personal failings, is an uncanny ability to define and destroy opponents, as in ‘crooked Hillary’ or ‘Pocahontas’ Elizabeth Warren. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a similar ability and, like Trump, has his army of bhakts (base of devotees). Congress paid a heavy electoral price for ignoring the devastating ‘naamdar-kaamdar’ (dynast-lifter) jibe. This identified Rahul as an entitled and loathed princeling disconnected from everyday reality, in contrast to Modi’s rise to the top by dint of merit and hard work. The dynastic succession also made it impossible for Rahul to deflect guilt-by-association of the historic Bofors scandal. Modi’s muscular nationalism and aggressive self-confidence struck a visceral rapport with the 83 million new voters this year. In 2024, more than half will have no memory of a Nehru-Gandhi as PM and will be disdainful of all naamdars and family fiefdoms.
A leader connects emotionally and intellectually to make followers transcend their immediate self-interest in support of a larger cause, vision and agenda. Despite heavy defeat in 2014, Congress refused to introspect and refresh its leadership, organisation and policy agenda. Instead an unqualified and unserious leader was showered with praise by the inner circle of sycophants. India’s state political landscape is littered with ambitious and able politicians who became disillusioned about their prospects inside Congress, abandoned it and started their own regional parties. Modi is set to dominate Indian politics as a colossus. Yet, in the ultimate indictment of Congress, he would never have been permitted to emerge as an alternative leader to a hand-picked devotee of the family. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor highlighted the attractions of a British Conservative Party type process for choosing the Congress party leader as a means of garnering public attention, recruiting fresh talent and galvanising the party faithful.
Indira Gandhi destroyed Congress as a party with a unifying social purpose, an unrivalled nation-wide organisational reach, a collection of regional satraps rooted in their state’s socio-political realities and a dedicated cadre of village-level workers. Since then Congress has steadily atrophied with occasional injections of life-support medication from the likes of former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. How long before the corpse is cremated? Will anyone notice or care?