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Not Gandhi dynasty, but a Narasimha Rao-like figure can save the Congress now

The Congress needs someone who can re-build its image and appeal as a credible opposition without totally sidelining the Gandhi family.

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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.

Also read: Modi and Rahul Gandhi were friends in 2019 Lok Sabha polls – whenever the enemy was media

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.

Also read: A rebuttal: Reducing Priyanka Gandhi to her love for Rahul & similarity to Indira is unfair

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.

Also read: Sibling support, not sibling rivalry behind Priyanka Gandhi joining Rahul’s Congress

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.

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  1. The best way Nehru-Gandhi families can serve India is to relinquish the control get some new blood and then step out. Modi-Shah also need to have a successor plan

  2. BJP now looks a All India version of AIADMK under Jaya and Sasikala. The only difference BJP it is Modi and Shah. This is not good sign for a national party. Without Modi and Shah and of course RSS, the party would crumble like pack of cards. Let’s see. Modi is glue for BJP so also Gandhis for Congress. Congress was used by all, when they see downward all leave for duffer pasture

  3. I hope that there is a very great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi also known as Rajmohan Gandhi. I believe that he can lead our country. Influenced by his great grandfather and our Father of our nation Mahatma Gandhi. He is a great personality and great educational qualifications from United States. Currently he stays at Chicago, US. I believe that he is the best person for the leadership of the Opponent Congress Party which was founded by our Bapu.

    • Congress founded by Gandhi!? You seriously need to read history again. It is also an irony that a nation of thousands of years civilisation calls M K Gandhi father of our nation.

  4. As of now there is mo visible alternative for the Congress other than the Gandhi family. Even if some name pops up, it will have to have the consent of the Gandhi family first as without their consent the Congress committe will not dare to discuss any name. It’s in the interest of the Congress, Gandhi family and INDIA, that the Congress committee be given a free hand to discuss where they failed in the bygone election, retrospect, analyze, prepare tiad map for future course of action and same time give a new face to lead the party. Appeasement politics will hence forth not work. So the party has to prepare itself by changing its image that it is a party for all citizens and not for a particular community or group of people and imbibe confidence that its policy is Indua first and the other things come later.

  5. MAKARAND R. PARANJAPE is the same guy who stated that the Nazis were also leftist since they had “socialism” in their name.
    He seems to be the last person to be telling us anything about anything if he holds such a view.
    I would ask him to first go and watch the videos released by the German embassy in Brazil explaining why the Nazis were not leftists but right wingers.
    These videos were released during the Brazilian elections in Sept 2018, because the right wing supporters of the current Brazilian president Bolsonaro had made similar claims about the Nazis.
    I am pretty sure that the Germans know more about the Nazis – especially it seems more than the right wing Brazilians and Paranjape!

  6. If the result of the post-loss introspection turns out to be “Modi marketed better”, “EVM were hacked”, you can be sure that INC won’t survive. Its not possible to treat an incorrect diagnosis.

  7. This discussion can go nowhere. The very basic premise of it, “not Gandhi dynasty”, is a false start. With Rahul and Priyanka around, NO ONE in the party will ever dare to either question the ‘dynasty’ on ANY matter, or initiate energetic attempts to take over the helm and run the party. There is NO way that the dynasty can be kept away from the running of the party, whether with, or without their consent. As long as any member of the Sonia family is around, one will find that leaders and cadre alike will make a beeline to them for “Advice”. guidance and control, never allowing those who have replaced them to function in peace, nor trusting them to be sincere. . The “crabs in the barrel” syndrome will be spectacularly in operation, preventing anyone form sincerely functioning. .Congress will soon lose its relevance, all by itself, shrinking with each passing year. Many of the present seniors may desert it for greener pastures.

  8. Very unlikely that Congress will allow anyone other than a Nehru to be at helm if someone from the family is available. At the time PV Narashiman became a PM, there was really no one from the Nehru family ready to take on the mantle. Besides, in true Congress culture, look at how he has been dumped by the party. Even our ex Accidental Prime Minister does not attend any function in the honour of man who made him the Finance Minister.

  9. Sorry, the congress party, along with its nehru clan leadership, must die. Out of its death, new ideas and parties will emerge. But there is absolutely no good reason to “save” the congress party as long as the nehru clan is associated with it.

  10. I am reminded of a Sanskrit play, ‘ Mudrarakshasa’ written by Vishakhadatta. The Nanda dynasty is defeated by Chandragupta Maurya (324 to 297 BCE). While he reigning in Pataliputra, the entire kingdom is yet to be conquered by him. The biggest stumbling block is Rakshasa, the lone surviving minister of the Nanda dynasty who is still loyal to the dynasty. The play depicts how Chanakya, with his Machiavellian strategy, persuades Rakshasa to switch sides and become prime minister of the Mauryan empire. Obviously, Modi is not Chandragupta Maurya. However, the moral of the story is quite clear. Firstly, no dynasty can rule for ever. The rough average in India could be for about 3 to 4 generations. Secondly, loyalty to a dynasty cannot be eternal. Political constraints do compel followers to switch loyalties.

  11. Will Congress let go of Gandhis? NO. Should Congress let go of Gandhis? YES. But this will not happen because Congress is now like a family owned company. These are a bunch of wheeler-dealers who will cling to their perks till they get another opportunity to fill their personal coffers.

  12. First of all it’s not Gandhi but Nehru Dynasty. Second- Why are some people want to save Congress? In politics the rule of survival of the fittest applies. Without Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka it will no more be Congress. If Narasimha rao like leader takes leadership of Congress, it should no longer remain congress except the name. But who this Narasimha Rao? Will Rahul Gandhi leave the control of Congress so easily? Division of Congress will only create state level leaders such in Punjab. In Delhi no such scenario is possible. Better alternative is presidential form of government in India. Then there is a possibility that some one will emerge that will challenge the NDA.

  13. It is difficult to think of Congress without Gandhi family as it is the glue that holds every one together. It will be either with Gandhi or it will just either away with over a period of time, if BJP continues to perform well. In which case, we will see BJP as a new avatar of Congress. If Congress weathers away, then it would be BJP, a national party versus various regional parties and that can be a good scenario for the country. Modi has almost managed to get different castes to vote together and in this sense, he has changed the electoral equations fundamentally. This will be a new India which votes on national issues, performance, hopes and clean government. One way or the other, we should hope for the Congress mukt Bharat!

  14. The Gandhis will endure at the head of the Congress. Even when it fell to 44 in 2014, there was no challenge to their vice like grip over the party. They will weather the next five years of solitude. If they cannot dislodge a powerful incumbent, they will wait for him to defeat himself. That came perilously close to happening in 2019 itself.

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