Who will save the Congress? After the last and final phase of the Lok Sabha polls, the time has perhaps come to ask this question. Although the results are not out, most take as a fait accompli that the Congress will lose badly.
Back in January, before the heat of the general elections had risen, Congress president Rahul Gandhi made an important announcement. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, was finally entering active politics. She was immediately elevated as party general secretary, fast-tracked to the centre stage by virtue of being a member of the ruling family. I wondered at that point if she would be the ‘X-factor’ if not the secret weapon in the Congress arsenal.
Her performance so far shows that she is still a crowd-puller, speaking better and showing greater poise than her elder brother. Certainly, she is not given to making gaffes and committing unforced blunders as Rahul is wont to. There is hardly a statement reliably attributed to her that is careless, insensitive or foolish. Quite the contrary, she exudes a quiet confidence and dignity in the midst of all the hullabaloo of Indian politics, what with its mud-slinging and bare-knuckle boxing.
But at the end of the campaign season, it is amply clear that her impact has been rather tepid, way below expectations, if not virtually inconsequential. The reason is obvious. It is the family’s protective shield around her that has dulled and diluted her impact. When all eyes turned to Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s constituency, there was a conspicuous absence of any noteworthy opposition. In 2014, Arvind Kejriwal himself fought a losing battle against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. This time around, let alone offering the semblance of a straight fight, Rahul Gandhi has allowed Modi a walkover.
Wouldn’t it have been strategically significant, not to say brave, to field Priyanka Gandhi as the combined opposition candidate? Why did the Congress balk? Even if Priyanka had lost the elections, she would have earned the electorate’s respect. Modi himself would have had to treat her, as a much younger rival, with kid gloves. Given how age and gender sensitivities play out in our elections, Modi would have had to be very careful how he attacked such an opponent. History has shown that we become only as great as the causes we espouse and the opponents we fight. By taking on an opponent as great as Modi, Priyanka would only have gained in stature.
But such a spectacular contest, which might have been the dramatic if not the dream finale to a closely, even bitterly, fought election, did not take place. The Congress retreated. Some say that ‘Behenji’ Mayawati also objected to a seat being wasted, but this is an unlikely argument given that the ‘mahagathbandhan’ has little chance to win Varanasi either.
Only one explanation emerges: protect the family at all costs. Rahul too, in fact, fled from the Hindi heartland to the safe seat way out in Wayanad, signalling the rout of his party and his own shaky candidature in Amethi. So what if he does win and vacate this seat for Priyanka? It would be too little too late against the Modi groundswell.
This brings us to the third and some might consider the most astute member of the family and still its head, Sonia Gandhi. During this election, we never saw her campaigning. It was as if she had left the field to her children, completely withdrawing from active politics. Her family fiefdom, the Rae Bareli seat, however, seems reasonably secure. Perhaps, the BJP agreed to leave her alone this time.
The real question is what will happen to the family if the Congress loses again? Will its hold on the party diminish or unravel? Will there be greater inner party democracy if not an internal revolution? Will the party reorganise and rejuvenate itself to remain relevant, even survive? Or will the once mighty Congress, India’s greatest political formation and the mother of all other political outfits in the country, feebly and tamely fade away in an inglorious, anticlimactic, tragic demise?
Perhaps, the answer lies somewhere in between, in the tension and play of opposing forces within India’s grand old party. The family is still strong, united and stable, but some sort of post-election reformation, if not leadership change, will be inevitable. How it is effected remains to be seen. But the lead will have to come from the family itself. In this transition, both Rahul and Priyanka need to play a crucial role or risk losing the plot. They must consider how to cede power without altogether surrendering the reins of the party.
For any thriving democracy, a strong opposition is essential. The hodgepodge of squabbling regional parties, which themselves are mostly family-run, is not the answer. Although they will remain the third pole of India’s three-cornered polity for some time to come, the role of the Congress as India’s principal national opposition party is still intact. Now that the Gandhi family can no longer lead the Congress to victory, they will have to rethink how to remain in the reckoning.
Secularism, socialism, populism, minority appeasement, disguised communalism, and doles will no longer suffice to keep the Congress pot boiling. Nor will the unquestioned supremacy of the Gandhi family. So, who can save the Congress? Perhaps, a second Narasimha Rao-like figure can re-build the image and appeal of the party as a credible opposition without totally sidelining or antagonising the family. Such a figure would need not only considerable leadership qualities, but grassroots support and financial clout too. Also, humility and cunning.
Despite some names being bandied about, it is not clear who will seize this opportunity or on whom the mantle of the saviour of the Congress party will fall. On the day that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated with an RDX-laden explosive belt some twenty-eight years back in Sriperambadur, his surviving family members may well think of how best to save the party he led and died campaigning for.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.