Indian National Congress in distress after Rahul Gandhi resigns

Congress workers protest Rahul Gandhi’s decision to resign outside his residence (PTI Photo)

The grand old party of India faces an existential crisis after its poor electoral performance.

Rahul Gandhi publicly resigned as the president of the ailing party Indian National Congress on 3rd July, 2019, weeks after a crushing defeat in the general elections. This plunged the party of Mahatma Gandhi into fresh turmoil over its future leadership.

In a sharply-worded four-page letter posted on Twitter, Mr. Gandhi took responsibility for the Congress party’s weak performance in the general elections, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, eviscerated the opposition. BJP won by a historic majority and cemented its place as India’s most formidable political force in decades.

The Congress president followed it up by saying, “Numerous people will have to be accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party.”

“I personally fought the Prime Minister, the RSS and the institutions they have captured with all my being. I fought because I love India,” said Rahul Gandhi before adding, “At times, I stood completely alone and I am proud of it.”

The resignation of Mr. Gandhi is unlikely to end his family’s long history of primacy in the Congress party which dominated Indian politics for much of the country’s post-independence history. Mr. Gandhi’s letter went much further than simply announcing his decision to step down. His resignation epitomizes the broader disarray in India’s opposition, which has no leader who can match Modi in stature and popularity.

The party bettered its Lok Sabha election performance this year, recovering marginally from the 2014 low. However, by resigning, Rahul Gandhi has in a sense accepted that the 2019 verdict was a vote against dynastic politics. It is arguably also an attempt on his part to insulate and protect the Congress from this criticism. His resignation upset the calculations for the BJP, weakening its unrelenting attacks against the Congress as a family enterprise.

Nonetheless, the political challenges facing the Congress are formidable. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has thrown the Congress into a crisis, especially as the party is out of power at the Centre and in most states. The Congress party for the first time finds itself in a situation where the party will be out of power for ten years (2014-24). By sticking to his decision to quit, Rahul Gandhi has thrown a challenge at his colleagues to build the Congress outside the shelter of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The revival of the Congress was on the shoulders of senior leaders but it seems to be failing as most of the Congress leaders are resigning as well.

Around 140 office-bearers of the Congress quit two days after party president Rahul Gandhi’s comment that he was ‘unhappy that no colleague offered to resign’ after the poll debacle. Those who quit included a general secretary, six national secretaries, two state working presidents and more than 100 national and state office bearers. The resignations were all sent to the Congress president.

If the absence of a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm was a pre-condition for the reconfiguration of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has created a historic opportunity for the party to break away from the anti-democratic notions of dynastic entitlements. The onus is now on the Congress to remake itself as an institutionalized modern political party and challenge the notion that the party cannot survive without the dynasty. This is a chance to rebuild India’s oldest political formation and the only nation-wide force opposing the BJP.

Despite the names of various potential candidates being thrown into the fray, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decision-making body of the party, has failed to find a replacement. There has been a strong group of leaders, who have been fiercely loyal to the Gandhi family. They have been given prominent positions in the party over the past two decades. The CWC is dominated by the old guard, which has resisted all attempts by Rahul Gandhi to bring in ‘outsiders’ in the top echelon of the Congress party.

Several of the old guard Congress leaders are above 75 with the oldest of them being 93-year-old Motilal Vora. His name has repeatedly cropped up as successor to Rahul Gandhi either as an interim or full-time president of the Congress party until ‘the family is ready again’ to provide leadership.

The Dynasty Debate

Rahul Gandhi is the primary heir to the ultimate political dynasty. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of India. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was the first female Prime Minister, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest Prime Minister.

A section of the population does still have their faith in the dynasty and wants it to continue as it is the first political party and has ruled mostly after the post-independence. “Rahul Gandhi is and will remain, my leader, our leader and will continue to provide solid strength for the Congress,” said party leader Ahmed Patel.

 

Gandhi has been labelled a ‘failed dynast’ by many. Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu slipped into his ‘non-apolitical’ avatar with his flippant “Dynasty is nasty, but tasty to some people” comment. BJP president Amit Shah listed ending dynasticism as one of his party’s achievements.

Interestingly, the BJP’s construction of the dynastic discourse depicts the Gandhi-Nehru family as the sole bastion of dynastic politics – take it out of Indian politics and the phenomenon will be banished forever. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth as every political party – barring, perhaps, the communist parties – cultivate and prop up dynastic leaders.

Beyond the Dynasty Debate

Congress has done its job only in some states but has fought poorly in most states by letting multiple messaging distract the voter. It has fallen for the temptation of Rafale and Chowkidar, pitched NYAY badly, left the BJP pitch to the middle-classes go unchallenged, and not built on the farm loan waivers in the states. In stark contrast, the BJP has reversed its position on the ground by making the elections all about Modi’s leadership, national security and nationalism. The election strategy of the Congress has not resonated with the wider public.

The Congress party’s problems run deeper than dynastic politics. The lack of a clear ideological vision is one of the biggest challenges it faces. According to political scholar Rahul Verma, “Whenever you question them on what their ideological vision is, Congress leaders say they are focusing on welfare policies and lifting people out of poverty. This cannot be an ideological vision because no political party is going to take an opposing stand on some of these issues.”

An ideological vision can also be used to mobilize ground workers and change the party structure in a bottom-up manner. This internal structure has also faced criticism from within the Congress. Senior party leader Veerappa Moilly believes that the party needs a ‘major surgery’ with internal elections at every level of organisation.

The problems are exacerbated by an absence of internal democracy and an entrenched ‘high-command’ system. Analyst Zoya Hasan writes, “They have no interest in democratization because most of them lacked a mass base or grassroots support, and their influence was dependent entirely on their closeness to the party president.”

Addressing these issues through moves such as fresh membership drives and transparent appointment of office-bearers will go a long way towards mitigating the crisis ailing Congress.

Related Links

Full text of Rahul Gandhi’s resignation letter

Who could become the next Congress President? Here’s a list of probables

How the Congress Lost the War of Ideas

(Coordinator: Shubham; Newswriting: Rhea, Sajana, Shruti, Shubham; Social Media content: Rhea; Infographic: Sajana; Editing: Sanket, Shruti.)