The slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’— Congress-free India — was coined by the Bharatiya Janata Party to win elections by targeting its main rival and the only other national party in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously used it in the debate on the President of India’s motion of thanks. Addressing both Houses of Parliament on 7 February 2018, he claimed that it was Mahatma Gandhi who had coined the phrase because it was the Father of the Nation who wanted the Congress Party disbanded after Independence. In fact, it was Gandhi’s ‘last will and testament,’ penned three days before his assassination on 30 January 1948.
If ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ was conceived by no less a historic personage than Mahatma Gandhi and popularised by no less a political heavyweight than PM Modi, to whom should we attribute the idea if not the catchphrase ‘Gandhi-mukt Congress’ – Gandhi-free Congress? The credit should undoubtedly go to Padma Bhushan Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s leading historians and political commentators.
Guha wants Gandhis out
Claiming to support the original Congress that led India’s freedom struggle, Guha wrote an opinion article published on 10 December, boldly titled Why The Gandhis Must Go Now. He openly called for the retreat or removal of the first family of Congress from active politics. He argued, “In the interests of their party, and of their country, the Gandhis should go now – go not merely from the top leadership of the Congress, but from the party entirely. For, if they stay, they shall represent an alternate centre of authority, serving only to fuel intrigues and dissension.”
What makes Guha’s diatribe against the Gandhi clan even more remarkable is his earlier appeal against its stranglehold on the party: “Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka may think they owe it to the Congress to stay in politics. They owe it to the country to go.” Likening the dynasty to a family-owned company in that op-ed of 25 July in the Hindustan Times, he added, “The longer the Congress remains a Family firm, the easier it will be for Narendra Modi to deflect criticism of his policies and remain not just in power, but in control of the political narrative.” Guha’s courage must be lauded. Unlike the sycophants, who are not merely part of the inner coterie of the Gandhis but are also spread wide and deep in important positions in various walks of life, Guha has called a spade a spade and put his cards on the table, so to speak.
Guha stands in stark contrast to those shielding and protecting the Gandhis from criticism. “Thinking that the cause of Congress’ decline is Rahul Gandhi alone is foolish. The problem is elsewhere. The Congress party needs to be a party of movement rather than ruling. For revival, it should focus on movement mode,” says JNU historian Aditya Mukherjee, typically. With the use of deflecting epithets – “movement mode,” “sacrifice for a cause,” “Hindutva politics,” “caste and communal politics,” and so on, he shields the ruling family of the Congress from honest introspection or criticism.
But where would the Gandhis go?
Now that the group of 23 prominent dissenters within the party is openly in revolt, the genie of party democracy cannot be put back in the Congress bottle. Since the group wrote to interim president Sonia Gandhi in August, the issue of the party’s functioning and elections has been brewing, even if it has not been allowed to come to a boil. The fact is that Rahul Gandhi, who was elected the 87th president of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in December 2017, is not seen as a decisive or even fully committed leader. His election itself, many contend, was a farce. Anointed heir apparent long back, he had full powers and backing, but little responsibility or accountability. To prove that he was not interested in clinging to his privileged position, he resigned in May 2019, after the Congress defeat in the general elections.
While the Congress has started the process of conducting its polls by announcing the list of some thousand AICC delegates who will elect the new party president, the dissenters also want a reconstitution of the all-powerful Congress Working Committee (CWC). According to Rasheed Kidwai, “In the good old days, too, the Congress had a chequered history of murky party polls, dissent and defiance, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s rejection of Subhas Chandra Bose’s victory and Jawaharlal Nehru easing out PD Tandon. But can a tottering Congress, facing an existential crisis of sorts, afford an inhouse showdown? The late Sitaram Kesri used to say, ‘Bina vidhvans ke nirman kaise hoga?’ (Can there be construction without destruction?).”
But here’s the rub. Jayen to jayen kahan? Even if they wish to, where would the Gandhis go? Unlike a family firm, which can be sold to a competitor or international buyer, the Gandhis cannot simply exit from the Congress or the country’s politics. Sonia Gandhi and her two children, Rahul and Priyanka, have been reluctant rather than eager politicians. Even Rajiv Gandhi did not show any great inclination to don his mother’s or grandfather’s mantle, being content as an airline pilot till the last decade of his life.
What seems more likely than a lock-stock-and-barrel vacation from the power centre is some sort of compromise formula or gradual devolution of authority. Whatever the way forward, there are winds of change blowing about. India’s oldest political formation cannot afford to self-destruct. Congress still has a host of experienced and active leaders whose collective wisdom should be able to steer the party from its present state of torpor if not moribundity. Given the need for a strong and viable opposition in any vibrant, functional democracy, the Gandhis will be judged by how well they facilitate the end of their own dynastic hold on the party, while remaining on call should the need to step back in arise again.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.