All parties go through leadership transitions, most often accompanied by a change in the generation. Generational turnover in politics is, by its nature, a brutal event, where the older leadership that is less aligned with the new or emerging party leader is sought to be excised in a ruthlessly decisive manner. Yet, it’s often the only way to renew a party and give it a clear direction. Such a transition can only be forced through from a position of strength.
The leadership crisis in the Congress over the last year stems from Rahul Gandhi’s failure to lead this generational change during his two-year stint as president.
The Congress, this week, again found itself in the middle of an internecine battle between warring camps. This battle has been framed by the media, employing various terminologies — ‘old guard’ versus ‘new guard’, ‘loyalists’ versus ‘mass leaders’, and so on — but all these categories obfuscates the fundamental issue causing the leadership crisis. The divided and confusing image that the Congress paints these days is basically the logical outcome of a thwarted generational struggle in the party leadership.
Rahul Gandhi must look at how the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own Congress party navigated generational changes. And there are only three ways to do it.
Transition failure — the Congress
The first big generational change in the Congress was executed by Indira Gandhi in her successful battle with the Morarji Desai-led old guard ‘Syndicate’. She showcased impressive political sophistication, employing Left-wing rhetoric and policies to co-opt the support of younger Socialist leaders such as Chandra Shekhar and Mohan Dharia, and discredit older leaders in the party. Crucially, she split the party immediately after victories in mid-term state elections in 1969. These elections saw the fall of many Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) governments that had formed in 1967. This rebounding of Congress’ power bolstered Indira Gandhi’s political heft, which she skilfully employed in side-lining her internal political opponents.
The next generational transition was started by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency, when all power was centralised in the Gandhi family, to induct leaders such as Kamal Nath, Suresh Kalmadi, Anand Sharma, Akbar Ahmed, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jagdish Tytler and Sanjay Singh. After the loss in 1977, both Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were expelled from the party in 1978. and only left with their loyalists. However, with their comeback triumph in 1980, Sanjay Gandhi immediately set about completing the generational transition, which was halted midway due to his death later that year.
That was essentially the last moderately successful generational shift in the Congress, an indication of how much the party is ossified in time, which explains its lack of energy and political initiative. Rajiv Gandhi attempted another leadership makeover, building on Sanjay’s work, but ultimately failed when a series of election losses in the states and corruption scandals severely weakened his position.
Although he had earlier favoured younger leaders such as Rajesh Pilot, Madhavrao Scindia, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Arun Nehru, when he railed against older ‘corrupt bosses’, by 1988 the old guard was back in charge. Between 1985, when the Congress lost Assam, and 1988, the Congress hadn’t won a single major state election. As his position weakened, Rajiv Gandhi not just reconciled with the older leaders, but also an older style of politics. His initial modernist vision of politics gave way by 1986 to the strategy of appeasement of communal passions — of Muslims with Shah Bano and Hindus with opening of the locks of Babri Masjid. The return of Rajiv Dhawan as his political manager symbolised the return of the old generation in the saddle, which he confirmed with his conciliatory AICC Madras speech in 1988.
The only Gandhi leader to maintain a status-quoist approach with the old guard was Sonia Gandhi, who continued with the high command structure but with an inclusive and conciliatory approach towards the established senior leaders. In some sense, Sonia Gandhi had little room to adopt a more radical approach given that her leadership was contested from the beginning. In 1999, Pawar along with a few other leaders, left the party protesting her ‘foreign origins’. After the disappointing results in the general election of 1999, under her presidency, she even faced a leadership challenge from Jitendra Prasad. She only saw through these initial challenges, which included winning the presidential election against Prasad in 2000, by projecting a message of party unity.
After the ascension of Rahul Gandhi as general secretary in charge of Youth Congress and NSUI, there was some young blood injected into the leadership ranks of the party — Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasad, R.P.N. Singh, Selja Kumari. However, unlike his father and uncle, who as Youth Congress chiefs made the body an alternative power centre in the party, and placed their loyalists in key positions, Rahul Gandhi’s rise was not accompanied by any disruption of the old party order. Sanjay-Rajiv loyalists continued to command the critical posts of the party, symbolised by the enduring power of Ahmed Patel.
Why did Rahul Gandhi fare even worse than his father Rajiv with his attempt at a generational shift? In the 18 months of his presidency, he could not even form an AICC and Congress Working Committee (CWC) that would be clearly aligned to his leadership. Instead, he lamented after the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle that senior leaders had not campaigned well. From December 2017, when he was appointed the Congress president just after the encouraging result in Gujarat, to November 2018, after the spectacular ‘hat-trick’ in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Rahul Gandhi had enough political capital to engineer a leadership shift from a position of strength. Yet, he let the party drift in division, lacking both in decisiveness and political sophistication, and setting the stage for this long drawn out low-intensity conflict sapping the party.
After the debacle of 2019, Rahul Gandhi had no chance. The window of opportunity had passed. He sulkily resigned, and the old guard was immediately back at the centre of Congress decision-making during the interim Sonia Gandhi presidency. In Haryana, Bhupinder Hooda took over from Rahul Gandhi-loyalist Ashok Tanwar to lead the state campaign. Ahmed Patel was back at the powerful managerial role co-ordinating the election strategy for Haryana and Maharashtra. This was a reprise of Rajiv Dhawan’s comeback to the managerial helm in 1988. After the relative success in these elections and the withdrawal of Rahul Gandhi from the centre stage, the old guard further consolidated their grip on the Congress. It is in this political context that younger leaders such as Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Pradyot Dev Burman found themselves left with little political recourse other than to force a defection or split.
What is often missed in media debates is that leadership transition battles are not merely power struggles, they are rooted in two different conceptions of party ideology, party culture and organisational structure.
Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi led their struggle with the stated aim of empowering the poor and grassroots worker at the expense of the corrupt party bosses. The Rajiv-Sanjay transitions were meant to introduce a professional and modern management structure in the Congress in the place of the old politics of patronage. Rahul Gandhi’s attempt at the makeover of the Congress was also driven by a moralistic crusade of going back to the secular and pro-poor activist roots of the Congress, which ruffled the older leadership who pejoratively dubbed it the ‘NGO-isation of the party’.
Violent transition — Samajwadi party
To see what Rahul Gandhi could have achieved with the Congress, we just need to look at what Akhilesh Yadav did with the Samajwadi party. He faced harder odds, competing as chief minister against his enormously powerful uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav and even his own father, party president Mulayam Singh Yadav. He removed Shivpal Singh Yadav from the cabinet in 2016, despite knowing that he was backed by Mulayam Singh Yadav. With the help of his uncle Ram Gopal Yadav, Akhilesh stripped Mulayam Singh Yadav of the party presidency through a convention, and forced Shivpal Yadav to leave the party.
Not only did Akhilesh Yadav show resolve, ruthlessness and a sharp political instinct, he also demonstrated an exceptional understanding of the importance of timing in politics. He could have only pulled off these shocking manoeuvres while he was still the CM, and not after the election loss of 2017. This is why he transformed his party in his last year of office, from a position of strength, when he could still provide political patronage to his loyalists.
Smooth transition — BJP
One can also look at how Narendra Modi streamlined the party immediately after he became the BJP PM nominee, placing Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah in key campaign leadership roles. And as soon as he secured his electoral majority in 2014, he consigned into the ‘Margdarkshal Mandal’ all the senior leaders who had been unenthusiastic about his nomination such as L.K. Advani, made his confidante Amit Shah the party president, and brought relative lightweights like Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goel and Smriti Irani into hefty government roles. The BJP’s generational shift was swift and smooth, backed by the power of a huge electoral mandate.
Even in the UK, from where we have borrowed our Parliamentary democracy, we just saw a bloodless coup executed flawlessly by a powerful new leader — Labour Party’s Keir Starmer. Just a few months into his leadership The Economist summed up his style thus: “The speed and ruthlessness with which he has cleaned out Mr. Corbyn’s allies and their grubbier beliefs has surprised those who thought he’d put ‘vanilla unity’ above the pursuit of power.”
Yet, this selfish pursuit of power also gives the Labour Party a desperately needed new direction and appeal after their worst loss in eight decades. The Congress, also at its historically lowest point, needed a similar transformation from Rahul Gandhi. Yet, all we are left with is a party with a different de facto and de jure leader and a chorus of sniping voices that can neither agree on the past nor on the future.
Meanwhile, the failure to produce mass leaders that has plagued the Congress, since the ‘de-institutionalisation’ of the party in the Indira era, has meant that the old guard has faced little political competition for decades. This, in turn, has given them little incentive to expand their support base rather than lord over their local fiefdoms, because loyalty to the high command was all that was needed to maintain their position. This fossilised old guard and stillborn new guard are but the two tragic faces of the leadership crisis in the Congress.
Even if Rahul Gandhi becomes the party president again, he would find it near impossible to force through a leadership transition. The leadership renewal of the Congress, on hold for the last three decades, has been again postponed indefinitely.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Asim Ali is Research Associate at CPR. Views are personal.