Dynasty is the Congress’s default position. In 1991, just after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, the party asked Sonia Gandhi to take over as Congress president. Sonia, who had remained out of politics throughout her husband’s political career, refused pointblank. But the party would not be satisfied. Could she at least nominate one of the senior leaders of the Congress to take the job? She nominated Narasimha Rao who first took over as Congress president and then as Prime Minister, at her suggestion.
Why does nobody call Narasimha Rao an ‘accidental Prime Minister’? Well, probably because once he had secured his position, he refused the still apolitical Sonia the one thing she had asked for: a more intensive investigation into Rajiv’s assassination. Relations between the two worsened and when Rao lost the 1996 election, Congressmen went once again to Sonia and asked her to guide the party. She refused: she was not in politics, she said.
Then, with the Congress in bad shape, Sitaram Kesari, Rao’s successor as Congress President asked Sonia to at least campaign for the party. She agreed and finally, when Kesri was ousted by the party, Sonia took the job of Congress president.
She was not an instant success. An alliance with Jayalalithaa to bring down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government succeeded but in the election that followed, Vajpayee stormed back to power trouncing the Congress.
Like most people, I was not surprised by her failure to master national politics. But I was intrigued by her acceptance of the job she had turned down more than once. I asked her about it in an interview. She had joined politics, she said, because the Congress seemed to be falling apart (which it certainly was) and she felt she could not walk past the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv in her study without feeling that she had let the party down. She was not sure, she said, that she could help the party given her inexperience. But she felt she had a duty to try. Off the record, she later added, she had no desire to become prime minister.
As we know now, she succeeded in reviving the Congress. She kept her word about not wanting to be PM. And she kept the Congress in power for ten years. The party’s performance collapsed during UPA II, you could argue, only because she fell ill and was absent for long periods while she was being treated abroad.
I thought back to those early days, to the return of the Gandhi family to active politics, as the uproar over the family domination of the Congress raged after the recent assembly election defeats.
Sonia is once again Congress President, having stepped in after her son Rahul Gandhi resigned in the aftermath of the 2019 rout, in the general election. But it is not clear how active her role is or how much exertion is possible, given that the years are catching up (she is 75) and her health is not perfect. For instance, she did not campaign much in the recent round of assembly elections. And you sometimes get the impression that she has come back to a job she was once relieved to give up only because the Congress is now in much worse shape than it was when she first joined active politics. And the battle she wanted to fight then, for the idea of a liberal, inclusive India, may already have been lost.
So how did it all go so wrong?
Well, political instincts are not necessarily transmitted through the genes. Sonia turned out to have surprisingly good political instincts. She managed to create an institutional structure around her and there was no kitchen cabinet and there were no influential cronies.
Her children, it now seems clear, have not inherited her instincts. Like his mother, Rahul is not a politician who connects easily with voters. Unlike his mother, who was always conscious of her limitations, Rahul seems to think that people will vote for him anyway once they see him campaign. In election after election, in state after state, this view has been shown to be flawed. Priyanka, unlike her mother, connects easily with people, and exudes warmth and charisma. But unlike her mother, there is no evidence of any political savvy.
Nor do the younger Gandhi have a big idea that appeals to voters; a counter narrative. Sonia’s great insight was that the fruits of liberalisation were not going to trickle down to the poor. So she reached out to people at the margins of our society, to those who had only grown poorer as the rich grew richer. That approach won the Congress the 2004 election. And the UPA delivered on Sonia’s promises by advocating direct transfers to the poor and by creating welfare schemes, such as NREGA.
Nearly all of this was first opposed by the BJP and then quickly hijacked by Narendra Modi. When people say that the BJP wins because of its welfare schemes, they forget that this was originally a Congress initiative.
In contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s big idea was to fight the last general election on the slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor hai’. When the results showed that this approach had no resonance with the electorate, his response was to blame his party’s leaders for not amplifying his attacks on the prime minister’s integrity.
Nor do there seem to be any political instincts there. He was unable to overcome the factional fights in Kerala (the state he now represents in the Lok Sabha) to the extent that the Congress lost what was once considered a sure thing because of the cyclical nature of Kerala elections. Nearly all of the bright young leaders he once surrounded himself with have now left the party or have tried to leave. And sadly enough, when a leader is seen as having no hope of getting anywhere, the only people who stick by him are the dregs, the people who have nowhere else to go to. That is Rahul’s current circle.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the party’s social media operation. The BJP’s IT cell media spreads poison but it is also frighteningly effective. The Congress’ Twitter operation is a mirror image of the BJP IT Cell but it is ludicrously ineffectual. It targets anyone who does not believe that Rahul Gandhi can walk on water for vicious abuse, not recognising that the people it is attacking the most are liberals who would normally be expected to support the Congress. In the process, it re-emphasises the widely-held view that the Congress is no longer a great liberal option but a nasty cult dedicated to worship of Rahul Gandhi and his family.
None of this gets the Congress anywhere. The BJP’s social media operation swings elections. The Congress’ social media effort only makes more enemies for Rahul Gandhi. It is one reason for the media‘s uneasiness with this avatar of the Congress. And yet, perhaps because nobody else says anything nice about him, Rahul is content to let this continue.
I could go on: the mishandling of Punjab and the emergence of Navjot Singh Sidhu as a family favorite deserves a whole book. In UP, Rahul Gandhi said in 2005 that the Congress needed time to build up its organisation. It has been 17 years and they have built up nothing except for the vote share of the other parties.
If the Congress was just a Jim Jones-style cult — which it sometimes gives the impression of resembling — then none of this would matter so much. But the Congress cannot be a cult. It is a great national party that has always stood up for liberal values. In between 150 to 200 seats, it is also the main opponent of the BJP. One reason the BJP wins Lok Sabha elections is because it so easily defeats the Congress in those seats. Far from opposing Modi, this Congress leadership is keeping him in power.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the Gandhi siblings. Nor do I doubt their decency. They work hard for the party without getting any reward. Rahul could easily do something else. Priyanka has now put her life on hold to work in UP. But the time has come for them to admit that they are not the solution.
They are the problem
Their mother won respect for turning down the Prime Ministership again and again. This generation has destroyed much of that goodwill by seeming eager to remain in charge of the Congress. At present, the position is even more bizarre. Rahul Gandhi has no official post. But he still acts like he runs the party. This is power without responsibility; the traditional prerogative of the heir.
Nobody says that the Gandhi siblings have nothing to contribute to the party. They do. Nor does any sensible person say that they should leave politics. All that people are saying is this: it is time to step aside. It is time to stop behaving like the children of a royal family. You have had your chance. You have blown it. Now let somebody else do the job you could not do. Don’t force the electorate to choose between a ruthlessly efficient authoritarian party and a fading dynasty. The Congress deserves more. India deserves better.
It is possible that leaders from outside the Gandhi family will not be able to hold the Congress together. But we need to find that out for ourselves. Yes, it is possible that the Congress will fragment and break up without the Gandhis.
But let’s face it, that’s going to happen anyway. It’s not the kids who are holding the party together. It is respect for Sonia. And that can’t last forever. Nobody expects this generation of the Gandhis to defeat Modi. And the Congress cannot survive a third consecutive defeat in 2024.
There is a lot to be said for trying your best. But there is more to be said for accepting that you have failed. Especially when the future of a nation depends on it.
The question Rahul Gandhi needs to ask himself is this: Will he, like his mother, be able to walk past the pictures of his ancestors without pausing for thought? And will that thought be: I am sorry; but I did not know how to save what you created?
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)