Home National Interest Why Sonia-Rahul’s Congress began its race to the political bottom in 2004...

Why Sonia-Rahul’s Congress began its race to the political bottom in 2004 & is now winning it

Indira Gandhi had begun returning Congress to the Centre after realising she’d pushed it too far to the Left. Rajiv, Rao & Manmohan stayed the course. Sonia & Rahul reversed it, became indistinguishable from CPI(M) & just as unelectable.

Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint

Forget what Ghulam Nabi Azad is saying for now. The questions we need to first ask are more fundamental: Why do we even need to bother about the state of the Congress party? Does the party even matter any longer? If so, why? What does it stand for?

The party has won nearly nothing electorally since the winter of 2018.

In Kerala, the party conceded an unprecedented successive term to the Left, it declined further in West Bengal — if such a thing was possible — failed to regain Haryana and Manipur, and was wiped out in its Punjab stronghold. Although, to be fair, its leadership had to work really hard at conjuring up that dramatic political suicide.

Think of its three key players in that state. The incumbent chief minister and half-a-century party veteran Amarinder Singh who it dumped with such a public show of contempt, is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now. The comedian whose jokes they found so delightful that they put him at the head of the party, Navjot Singh Sidhu, is spending time in jail for “voluntarily hurting a person”.

And the big surprise choice as new chief minister, then hailed as such an incredibly brilliant ‘Dalit’ master-stroke, has not been seen or heard in public since the election defeat. When we last heard, he was mostly untraceable (for the media I mean), somewhere between Canada and the US. Hopefully, he will return at some point, unlike many others from his state.

The reason we talked about Punjab in some detail is that it shows three important issues. One, colossal incompetence that only comes from a belief that such is your inherited power that nothing, no one, can ever hold you accountable for your failures.

Two, that what matters most is your personal likes and hates and not the party’s interest. And three, that a blunder made, there’s no need to make amends or to recover any lost ground. It’s like, I did such an incredibly brilliant job of demolishing my own house, now why bother visiting the site of that devastation.

The upshot is, there is no questioning of the leadership. Those who question leave and are maligned by the faithful on their way out. Those that stay back, forage for the odd Rajya Sabha seat that may still be available.

It’s a turn of the knife below the belt, but even Putin’s Russia is better at seeking accountability from its bumbling generals and admirals in the war against Ukraine.

Also read: How Congress is like the Ambassador & why Indian politics needs a brand new set of wheels

Which brings us back to the central question: Where’s the party? Two state governments, and in each the chief minister goes to bed insecure each night worrying about someone else who has the ear of the high command. Elsewhere, it’s all every man for himself.

Every time we look at the Congress, its future, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, we find the situation more hopeless than even a few months earlier. The only thing the party has won in the past decade — and there is a reason I say decade, not just eight years — is a race to the political bottom.

This brings us back to the late Kaifi Azmi, an admirer of Nehru. In a completely different, self-pitying context in the 1961, early Dharmendra starrer Shola Aur Shabnam, he wrote: “Jaane kya dhoondhti rehti hain yeh aankhein mujh mein/ raakh ke dher mein shola hai na chingari hai” (what do my eyes keep searching for in myself, when it’s just a pile of ash, with no fire, no spark).

If the Gandhis are honest about seeing what’s left of their party, they have to only see the gaggle Rahul has now collected for his padyatra. Its most visible faces are from our most prominent NGOs and civil society. They are all decent people. But none, I repeat none of them today, is capable of contesting an election anywhere and saving their deposit. Or even collecting a crowd of a few thousand. It’s so big a political joke that the one thing we could commend Rahul for is his large-hearted ability to laugh at himself.

The biggest liability for the Congress is its glorious past. It was a great, big, dominant party for so long that it is now difficult for it to accept the realities of the present and realistic possibilities for the future. It is still vainly hoping that soon enough, the people of India will wake up to the blunder they’ve made in electing Modi.

And once they’ve had that epiphany, they will say sorry to the Congress and elect it back. If they don’t, what can you do with stupid people. We will also unleash on them the same uncouth social media armies that are employed to give every outgoing dissident — and media critic — the nastiest send-off. We have to concede that it isn’t as if this Congress has lost in every aspect of political craft to the BJP. One area where they’ve become even more adept than the BJP is in launching social media abuse at whoever chooses to hold the mirror up to them.

Politically, the party leadership — that is, the Gandhis and the shrinking circle of loyalists around them — dismisses all the G-23 dissidents as lightweights, and they are right. Almost none of them is capable of winning any election on the ticket of the Congress party. Two questions arise. One, if they are all such faltus (good-for-nothings) how did they rise so high under your watch? Why did no real merit grow? And second, if they count for so little, is it only their fault or that of the party?

The Congress has taken 50 years building its new, post-1971 politics where individual leaders have been systematically undermined and finished and everyone left totally dependent on the vote-catching ability of a Gandhi. But the last time this worked was in 1984, nearly 40 years ago. How long can a political force thrive on mere memory? All memories fade, particularly as generations do.

Also read: There’s no stopping Modi govt because Rahul Gandhi is flaunting his muscles as Congress sinks

There’s lately been some discussion over how long the Gandhis have held the party presidency uninterrupted. Since 1998, Sonia Gandhi has held the position for 22 years, Rahul for about two. Twenty-four years is a long enough period to do a balance sheet of your successes and failures. It could be said in all fairness that out of these they kept their party in power for a full decade, having wrested it narrowly from the Vajpayee-Advani BJP in 2004.

We can argue counter-intuitively that the 2004 ‘victory’ against the run of play turned out to be the worst thing that could happen to the Congress, and not only because it made the leaders lazy and smug. That too happened, but more importantly, instead of introspecting and seeing that return to power in a realistic perspective, it drew a whole set of erroneous political lessons.

First, that it was a vote against the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ by an India Declining. In the process, they buried the most important and politically encashable factor, that the only reason the BJP lost was that so many of its allies had bolted, revolted at its complicity and inaction on the 2002 Gujarat riots. This often happens with unexpected victories. The Congress in the summer of 2004 allowed its hangers-on, and its own fake socialist nostalgia, to override the most important political argument for the day and years to come.

That started the party’s own loss of ideological and political direction. Indira Gandhi was astute enough to realise she had gone too far to the Left and it was hurting India. Starting in 1980, she started course-correction and pushing Congress back closer to the Centre. This was detailed in this National Interest: Iron Lady’s rethink: Martyr, patriot, reformer?

Following her, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao kept pushing in the same direction, as did Manmohan Singh in his first term. But then in UPA-2, the new empire struck and pushed the Congress back. Today, it has gone farther to the Left than under Mrs Gandhi, so Left as to be indistinguishable from the CPI(M). No surprise that its electoral fortunes are also following the same trajectory.

This is what I had then described, repeatedly, as the party being in the grip of an autoimmune disease where a body begins to eat itself. Which is precisely what has happened now. If the lottery of 2004 hadn’t come and the arrogance wasn’t so high, a better, more durable politics could be designed for the future.

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is in danger of morphing into a clueless NGO