Rahul Gandhi moves to the podium for addressing the rally | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Rahul Gandhi moves to the podium for addressing the rally | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
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Historian Ramachandra Guha’s claim that the Gandhi family is forcing people to vote for Narendra Modi is tempting but utterly misconceived. It offers a simplistic solution out of the quagmire that Indian liberalism finds itself in: remove the Gandhis and the idea of India will magically spring back to life.

Guha has chastised Kerala voters for “handing over the advantage to Narendra Modi”. Wrong diagnosis, wrong solution. Modi won because Indian society has changed, not because of Rahul Gandhi.

The ideological factor

Guha’s superficial reading is incorrect because of three reasons. First, it obscures the fundamental ideological shift that Indian politics has been undergoing in the last three decades, of which Modi is only the culmination. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar has argued that the BJP has taken over the “middle ground of competitive politics” with a “rebuilding of majoritarian politics” starting with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Political scientists Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma also concluded that “the resounding electoral success of the BJP in 2019… is the result of an ideological [and structural] shift in Indian politics.”

Chhibber and Verma deduce from their empirical study of voter responses that the main factor behind the Congress’ weakness is the dissonance between the ideology of the party and the average voter’s; it’s not the leadership.

Even if the Congress were to choose a new leader, it would suffer from the same encumbering ideology that has a much weaker appeal. It is about the public and the political culture, not the Gandhis. The former will take a long time to fix. Hoping Gandhis’ exit will reverse long-term socio-political shifts is naive.

Also read: Two reasons that can keep CAA-NRC protests from evolving into a larger anti-Modi movement

If not Gandhis, who?

Second, this argument assumes that the Congress has a ready line of nationally popular leaders waiting to take the mantle. A quick glance at the alternative options should disabuse you of any such notion. Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia are dynasts themselves, so they obviously don’t fit the bill. Moreover, Scindia (like Rahul Gandhi) lost his own family seat of Guna, Madhya Pradesh, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Amarinder Singh, often projected on social media as an alternative, is not popular outside his home state of Punjab. Or for that matter, Pilot outside Rajasthan. P. Chidambaram is ensnared in a corruption scandal. Shashi Tharoor is good for social media and college campuses, but will be laughably ill-equipped to challenge Modi in the heartland states. In fact, it is hard to recall the Congress ever deploying him to campaign anywhere outside Kerala.

One might argue that this dearth of leaders is the fault of the Gandhis for not grooming strong leaders and building their national profiles out of insecurity. One might also argue that state leaders can quickly transform into national leaders if given the right opportunity. They might cite the journey of Narendra Modi from the chief minister of Gujarat in 2012 to becoming by far the most popular leader in India within two years.

But Modi by 2012 had built an unmistakable brand across urban India, aided by clever marketing (such as around ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summits) and a commanding social media presence. Even then, he was probably the politician with the most appeal (Manmohan Singh had lost his shine) among middle-class Indians who were the first to embrace him. They saw in Modi an effective, no-nonsense (even authoritarian) administrator, who had developed Gujarat and will be the perfect antidote to the weak Manmohan Singh. His dramatic record of anti-Muslim prejudice found him frenzied adulation among the BJP base, and quieter approval across many middle-class living rooms.

In comparison, what is the brand of Scindia, Pilot, Amarinder Singh or Tharoor? What are their core achievements or alluring life story that will potentially resonate across India?

Also read: Foolish to think Hindus who voted Modi twice will shift due to threat to Muslim citizenship

Importance of Gandhis

Third, if the problem was just Rahul Gandhi, why did the powerful mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, the RJD in Bihar and the AAP in Delhi roll over so easily? Could it be because there are structural factors, like the emergence of a new middle-class, rapid penetration of social media (especially WhatsApp), the domination of the BJP over the electronic media, and, especially, the widespread adoption of a politically majoritarian ideology among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In the national election, the ideology of no opposition party could remotely compare in popular appeal to the heady mix of the BJP’s Hindutva and nationalism.

The opposition will not find a leader to challenge Modi in the game of presidential-style popularity contests, at least not in the foreseeable future. The opposition must therefore play a different game, in which it can win. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was indisputably the tallest leader in 2004, yet he lost the elections because the opposition played to its strengths, stitching up a broad coalition around bread and butter issues. For the last two years, the BJP has performed poorly in state elections because these have largely been about material issues, not about Narendra Modi and the Hindutva-imbued nationalism that he embodies.

The Gandhis are still important to the Congress, primarily because they manage disputes between various factions and keep the party together. Without them, the party might risk splintering. Also, for those invested in a secular idea of India, the Gandhis remain the best bet that the Congress will remain tethered to its founding ideals and not sway in the current of public opinion. The Congress’ stand on Kashmir and triple talaq, for instance, would likely have been different under an alternative leadership.

Whether Rahul Gandhi continues in his current role as a Davis Cup-style non-playing captain or assumes a more formal leadership role in the near future, the key for the Congress is to de-emphasise leadership (as it has been doing for the past few months).

At the end of the day, no one forces people to vote for Pragya Thakur, Sakshi Maharaj or Giriraj Singh. Intellectuals like Ramachandra Guha lambasting Rahul Gandhi are welcome to do so, provided they criticise him for his own political failings, and not use him as an excuse for the moral failings of Indian society.

The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.

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25 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Political parties are divided into leftists and rightist wings. Leftists follow Stalin and Mao ideology whereas rightist follow Hitler’s and Mussolini. Both are bad for the democratic country because ultimately they follow dictatorship.

  2. Get down to WORK WORK WORK. And before anyone on either side chooses to write his piece, I suggest do some research on political, economical and social parameters from what it was 5 year term wise till date with the base year being 15th August, 1947. Just do it. And then choose to denigrate the past and laud the present. Do so with no bias if you are a true Nationalist.

  3. Very well written. Afterall, it is the buisness of congress who they want as leader, and they seem to want a gandhi. it is not rahul’s fault if the rest of the opposition (in the general sense) cannot come up with a leader.

  4. 1. Whatever and whoever wishes to say in support of former Rahul Gandhi, Congress President, fact remains that Rahul Gandhi became Congress President only because he is son of former PM of India late Rajeev Gandhi and Smt Sonia Gandhi, who are respectively son/daughter-in-law of Smt. Indira Gandhi. 2. Yes, dynasties are there in other political parties too, but instead of opposing dynastic succession of individuals like Rahul Gandhi the Congress party’s leaders out of power since 2014, have become rather desperate. 3. For Rahul Gandhi’s supporters it is easy to be critical of the policies of NDA but let us face the truth: it is difficult to do what is preached. Therefore, my suggestion is that the Congress should come out with a “White Paper”. White Paper (WP) would have to be a comprehensive document that must deal with (a) UPA government’s performance in two terms from 2004-2014, (b) party’s views on problems like lack of jobs, unemployment, (c) farm crisis and farmers’ suicides, inflation, and in particular difficulties of senior citizens who are not govt. pensioners, (c) existing deficiencies in GST etc. It is necessary that the WP gives details as to how the Congress party would deal with all these issues in future when UPA regains power in the Centre. I say that the WP should be released at the earliest.

  5. One has real doubt about Ramchandra Guha’s real intentions. he has no problem with Indian electorate for electing modi with such a majority. But Kerala people has erred in electing Rahul Gandhi. his intentions are quantifiable all the while he questions CAA or when he questions Modi. . I do have every reason to believe that he is playing both sides while propitiate Modi albeit deceptively. The republic is unraveling for all those who observe seriously what is happening in India now and Guha is pillorying Rahul Gandhi for no reason other than his presence..What alternative Guha has, no body knows.. His intentions are doubtful.’
    the writer should be appreciated for bringing out the right perspective about Guha

  6. Ramchandra Guha. Who says he is a historian. He might have read some history books besides doing a course in history. His favorite passion is Rahul bashing.Any person , need not be a professional historian or academician, can see the republic being unraveled before his/her eyes , The social fabric being destroyed.This reader who is in his late 70s has never seen such a turbulent period in our polity during his life.”Intellectuals” like Guha,(Yogendra) Yadav whether they realise it or not alert to the realities. We had historians like Thapper Trio who could analyse contemporary developments in realation to past and futre or Siv viswanathan who has no personal animosity to Gandhis and see thing objectively. Guha is an immature and over excitable character with poor judgment as shown by his endorsement of Nithish Kumar for PMs chair before he jumped the ship and proved himself to be an opportunist. I do have serious doubt about his intentions while he goes on protesting CAA etc.
    Guha says Kerala did disastrous thing in electing Rahul Gandhi Agreed. Does he have the guts to say so much openly that India did so in electing this autocratic bigot Modi.
    Any criticism of Rahul Gandhi at this juncture is an endorsement of Modi. It is an altogether different matter that unfortunately today it is Rahul versus Modii. Of course it is difficult option.
    It is gratifying to see that some one has ventured to expose Guha for what he is..Today also i saw Guha’s interview in media castigating Modi. my immediate reaction was: Hypocrisy

  7. So voting for BJP means “moral failings of Indian society ” ???…what an appalling view . Indian society never turned right even during the troubling days of rama janma bhoomi movement. However angry they are on congress , its always their natural choice for governance. Once Sonia took over, that perception changed. She made congress a fiefdom of leftest “intellectuals” paving the path for Modi to take over. 2009 LS tally for congress was primarily because of Manmohan singh and not due to Gandhis.

    Also general public also have to see from lutyens prespective. Its sonia Gandhi who gave them unthinkable power, so its natural for them to defend RG to the core. Ram Guha was open in his attack on gandhis because he is a man of substance unlike lutyens and he dont need gandhis to stay relevant. There is no doubt pragya thakur, sakshi maharaj are black marks in our democracy. But the author conveniently forgot how the congress and liberals directly or covertly supported folks like madhani (coimbatore blast convict) owesi etc.

    In short Sonia subtly did everything Modi doing now (Radia tapes, hartosh sighn Bal on NDTV etc are few examples on how congress manipulated media) . Sonia did those things gently….Modi too open…thats the only difference. Until Congress distance itself from lutyens and gang…there are no obstacles for Modi.

  8. Well, the Gandhis are part of the problem, not the whole problem. The rot in congress goes much deeper. If it has to be the vibrant, all-inclusive party that it once was, it has to rethink its values and culture and adopt a new political idiom. Just to blame Rahul Gandhi is just intellectual sloth!

  9. Very poor writing and dismal insight displayed by the author of this piece. Does it mean that India as a nation depends on one dynasty? If the answer is yes, we are not a democracy in the true sense of the term. Is Indian polity merely an aggregation of multiple dynasties , the Gandhi dynasty , the oldest and foremost amongst them, being the pioneer in perfecting the art of continuing the hold generations after generations? If the answer is yes, India as nation and as a democracy has no hope and no future. However, I believe this cannot be true. No polity can remain in vacuum and no one is indispensable in a true democracy. Leaders may come and go, dynasties shall cease to exist, but the nation exists for ever.
    In USA, a defeated candidate in a Presidential election will rarely get a second chance- Richard Nixon is a rare exception and this happened 5 decades ago. Hillary Clinton is not even in the race for 2020. Will Theresa May of the Conservative Party or Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party get a second chance? Most unlikely scenario. The UK politics has moved on and has not doggedly stuck to the discarded options. India should learn. BJP is no exception. The concentration of power in few hands and abundance of mediocre yes-men in the party is hurting the nation. The Modi-Shah duo have outlived their utility. BJP should think beyond Modi- Shah duo in 2024 and choose better options.

  10. It’s about time “The Print” stops these essays Having no substance and based on Very broad generalizations and conclusions. Pick up a topic and get someone who has been on the ground and spoken to a few people before he or she puts pen to paper. The impression I get is that any Tom Dick and Harry gets to write an Opinion. There has to be a difference between what an author writes in An Opinion page and “share your view”

  11. (1) Mr Ali is trying hard to convince by taking a high moral ground against “the moral failings of Indian society.” Well, such arguments may not win over a large section of educated, liberal Indians; for better or worse, India has turned an essential corner in its short democratic journey; (2) Certainly not at the risk of sounding very harsh, this “non-playing captain” title is fishy and could be a euphemism for ‘wheeler dealer’. Does a country of 1.3 billion require a visionary leader or a wheeler dealer?; (3) who shapes the ideology? The party leader. When Labour lost elections for being out of touch with the citizens’ aspirations, the media lambasted Corbyn and termed it ‘Corbynism’. Unfortunately, in Congress’s case, it cannot be termed as ‘Gandhism’ but it certainly qualifies as ‘Feudalism’.

  12. Chamchas are falling over themselves to declare that Congress and the Nehru clan cannot live without each other. It is no surprise that both are on their way to political extinction.

  13. The author appears to be a liberal, cannot make out if he is a left intellectual. So obviously he cannot accept that Gandhi family is forcing people to vote for Narendra Modi even if it comes from some one like Mr. Guha. The only thing common between Ra Ga and Na Mo is both are bachelors. But there ends the comparison.
    Also, for those invested in a secular idea of India, the Gandhis remain the best bet and the secularism practiced is there for all to see.

  14. Very well written. A very good analysis. Younger people in India seem to have a better understanding of what is happening in society.

  15. I thought the article was brilliant, until I came to the very last line. What, according to Asim Ali, is “moral failings of Indian society”? Hindus finally trying to defend themselves against unrelenting physical and non-physical attacks of Muslims and Christians–is this what he is referring to as “moral failing”? Just google-up ‘Massacres in India”, what you see might be instructive–and that is not something that Modi or BJP or Pragya Thakur or Sakshi Maharaj or Giriraj Singh put up on public domain.
    I’ll tell you what “moral failings of the Islamic society” is. I believe and have always said that 98 per cent of Indian Muslims are great people, extremely tolerant and gentle. They are like Abdul Kalam-ji. Muslims kings in the past have funded and supported Hindu temples and monasteries. But the problem is with the other 2 per cent, half of whom (1 per cent) are most probably misguided. This 2 per cent has wreaked havoc in the Indian society. “Moral failing” is the 98 per cent not having contained the 2 per cent.

    • Beautifully put, sir. Adding to your point, those 2 percent were given undue importance by the so called liberals…thats what made even moderates to turn right.

    • You are wrong on numbers projection.

      It’s only about 60-75% of Muslims in India who can be termed non rabid. It’s 25-40% who are Islam supremacists- thinking low of other religions and ethnicities, bigots in many manners (Rem the streets full choked during Yakub Menon funeral?), not accepting their Hindu ancestry- thinking all have been airdropped from Arabia to India in the past, have failed to get past the fallacies of religion/Quran/Hadith due to blind obscurantism (Useless opposition to Triple Talaq is just one example, drama against UCC in coming months will be another), etc.

      List is endless.

      Instead of setting own house (community here) in order, the writer is taking potshots at Hindu community and its moral failings. Forgetting all the way, that Indian society has always been secular having it in religious teachings to profess ‘all religions lead to God’. Will the writer accept it without risking his life?

  16. “Idea of India spring back to life”

    Do you think leftist inherited the idea of India? And right wing ruining it!

    Idea of India for us never belong to any side rather time dependent, Neheru time idea of India to crawl, Indira time to walk, Narshima time to stand, Modi time to secure

    UPA I, II bring NRC NPR idea for a reason.

    If your idea of India is to bring weak and manipulating left to counter right your idea has ulterior motives.

    Pathetic article

  17. In leadership Mr Rahul Gandhi , congress never gain against Modi . In mass peoples want personality from grass root level . So you stop propaganda through paid yellow journalism.


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