Is all the excitement about the election for Congress president justified? Will the elections make any real difference? Won’t Rahul Gandhi suddenly step in, agree to contest ‘by popular demand’ and finally get some electoral legitimacy for his—currently, extra-constitutional—leadership of the Congress party?
These are valid and legitimate questions and so far, nobody has the answers. But there is one question that we can answer with certainty: the election is very important.
Nevertheless, there are many imponderables.
Why is it important?
As I have written in this column recently, there is very little internal democracy within Indian political parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is mostly free of dynasty at the top but its leadership style is imperial. Nor does it bother too much with elections. Who elected JP Nadda as BJP president? When will the election to decide his successor be conducted? The BJP has no interest in answering these questions. It prefers to handle such issues by imperial fiat.
So, for all its faults and the questions surrounding the process, the Congress’ decision to elect a president is a major step forward for Indian politics and should be welcomed.
Isn’t this just a Rahul Gandhi ploy?
I guess we will know soon enough. But my sense is that Rahul Gandhi is sincere when he says that he does not want the job. He has consistently refused to accept it over the last two years despite pressure from Congress members. A few months ago, it was being suggested that his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would take the job instead. Fortunately, she has also resisted the pressure.
When Rahul stepped down as party president after the debacle of the last Lok Sabha election, he said that not only would he decline the job but that no member of his family would take it. So far, at least, he has kept his word.
What happens if Rahul stands?
Well, if he does put forward his candidacy, citing demands from party workers, he will demolish his credibility with voters. Even people who don’t think much of Rahul’s leadership qualities do not doubt his sincerity. He may not always say the right things but, people will concede, he generally means what he says.
It would be a shame for Rahul to blow his own credibility over the issue.
Will it make a difference if Rahul steps aside?
Yes, it will make a huge difference. At the moment, Rahul has a metaphorical target painted on his back. The BJP spends countless hours and innumerable crores on using social and mainstream media to cast him in the public eye as an entitled brat who is not fit to take on its great leader. If Rahul is serious about stepping aside, then that whole campaign loses its sting.
Second, one of the problems with the Congress is that too many senior party members feel it has been hijacked by a coterie of layabouts and duffers, many of whom owe their status only to their apparent proximity to Rahul. Once Rahul gives up the leadership, that coterie will lose its influence and be forced to disband.
Third, as long as the succession is restricted to members of the family, the Congress ceases to be an effective political party.
Younger people who join the Congress know that they can only go so far before they hit a ceiling. At the top end of the party, all that matters is staying in the good graces of the family. That needs to end. And it will, if the dynastic element is removed.
Is Ashok Gehlot a cipher for the Gandhis?
That may be putting it too strongly but yes, it is unlikely that he will make any major moves (should he become president) without clearing them with Sonia Gandhi. On the other hand, he will not listen to Rahul’s coterie and will be more accessible to Congress persons all over the country.
That will work to the Congress’ advantage even if there are no other improvements because of his leadership.
Is Shashi Tharoor a serious candidate?
Yes, he is. And his candidacy is one of the best things to happen to the Congress. That a popular, well-educated, intelligent and charismatic leader should feel free to stand for the party’s top job tells us that in this respect at least, the Congress is finally behaving like a genuine political party and not some imperial or dynastic operation.
At present, ambition is frowned upon in the Congress. Very little is decided through elections; almost every appointment is made by ‘firmaan’, disguised as a manufactured consensus. So when Sachin Pilot wanted to be chief minister of Rajasthan, nobody saw this as the sort of ambition every young politician should have. Instead, it was treated as treachery, as defiance, as ‘Lèse-majesté’.
If Congress leaders can’t be ambitious for themselves, then how will they learn to be ambitious for the party? Or for India?
Will the election of a non-Gandhi break the dynasty’s hold?
Maybe. Maybe not. What is clear is that power does strange things to people. In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, the Congress Working Committee, acting on autopilot, offered the post of president to Sonia Gandhi. She turned it down, said she was not into politics and backed P.V. Narasimha Rao for the job.
Within three years, Rao had turned against her and the Gandhis had no hold on the party. When corruption scandals and electoral defeats made Rao’s position untenable in 1996, he appointed Sitaram Kesri to the job, believing that Kesri would be his loyal stooge. In a matter of months, Kesri had become a bitter enemy of Rao, the man who appointed him.
There is very little loyalty in politics. Once you give up a job, you have no control over what happens next.
Will a new president lead the Congress to victory?
Probably not. But the way things are going, the Congress has lost two elections already and will lose the next one too. So how can it be any worse off?
On the other hand, a new non-dynastic president could drag the party into the 21st century and finally give the BJP the fight that the Congress has failed to give it in the last two elections.
That alone is something that the party should look forward to.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)