Why Rahul Gandhi quitting isn’t a bad idea

It can’t be easy being Rahul Gandhi. He isn’t just a dynast; he is a fifth generation dynast at that. It is exactly a century since Motilal Nehru took over as Congress president and much water has flown under the Anand Bhavan’s palatial structure since then. Now, when after another shattering Lok Sabha defeat, Rahul takes the principled step of resigning, the familiar “We cant do without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm” charade is being played out.

The two periods in the past 50 years when the party’s fortunes were presided over by someone other than a Nehru-Gandhi family member were periods of uncertainty. First, when Narasimha Rao was in charge between 1991 and 1996 and then when an old family retainer, Sitaram Kesri, was pitched into the top job. Then followed the Sonia Gandhi reign by the end of which Mrs Gandhi had become the longest serving Congress president.

But while Sonia Gandhi provided a crucial measure of stability and continuity at the top, did she make the Congress electorally successful? Well, not quite. From getting just 114 seats in 1999 when she first led the Congress into a Lok Sabha election as party chief to eventually a dismal 44 seats in 2014, Mrs Gandhi wasn’t able to arrest the steady decline in Congress fortunes. The one exception is 2009 and even here the Congress benefitted from a flawed BJP strategy of projecting an ageing LK Advani as prime ministerial candidate even while Manmohan Singh got a bounce from the firmness displayed over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The truth is, the Congress has been in a gradual state of decline for over two decades now. It is even possible that had Indira Gandhi not been tragically assassinated in 1984, the party would have lost ground in the mid-1980s itself. An ideological corrosion, a status quoist leadership, a lack of organisational cohesiveness, the disconnect between an imperious high command culture and an unenthusiastic cadre have all contributed to the Congress’s downfall. That this falling off has coincided with the rise of the BJP as a powerful Hindutva-led election machine has only precipitated the decay.

Maybe, Rahul Gandhi as an entitled dynast is part of the problem. After all, Rahul Gandhi’s presence as Congress president allows the Modi propaganda machine to play the kaamdar vs naamdar narrative to perfection. One image from the 2019 campaign stands out in this context: Rahul Gandhi going to file his nomination in Amethi in a motorcade accompanied by sister Priyanka, brother-in-law Robert Vadra and their children. Could there have been a more graphic illustration of how the party of the freedom movement is now a party that revolves around one family?

And yet, the fact is, the Congress predicament goes beyond individuals to a deeper identity crisis. What does the Congress really stand for today? The Congress remains a powerful brand with high name recall but every brand needs timely reinvention. The Congress brand has suffered because it has simply failed to evolve from a feudal party of power and patronage into a more robust and democratic organisation, one that creates space for merit over lineage, and encourages greater worker participation in mass agitations.

Yes, it is possible that without a Gandhi-Nehru at the helm, the Congress may atrophy further. But let’s not forget that this process of internal haemorrhaging has already long been underway. From Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal and now a Jagan Reddy in Andhra, the list of regional Congress leaders who have survived and even flourished after opting out of the mother brand is a long one.

Which is why Rahul Gandhi choosing to resign at this stage may not be such a bad thing after all. It may give both Rahul Gandhi and the Congress a chance to reinvent themselves: he as a more progressive dynast who is willing to sacrifice a cushy post for a determined push at becoming a mass politician outside the comfort zone of privilege; and the Congress as a party that tries to experiment with identifying and empowering potential leaders in key regions.

Maybe they should start the experiment with Maharashtra, once a Congress fortress but now increasingly coloured by a sea of saffron. The state goes to assembly elections in October with the spectre of drought looming large over several parts. Why doesn’t Rahul Gandhi undertake a 100-day padyatra across the state to identify himself fully with the critical issue of agrarian distress instead of being cooped up in Lutyens Delhi? Remember, it was a 3500 km padyatra that has dramatically transformed Jagan Reddy’s political career. Can Rahul do a Jagan and take up the challenge of revival or will he end up almost as a tragic Shakespearean hero, unsure of what he really wants to do, thereby only further aggravating the Congress crisis?

Post-script: The day after the Congress defeat, a senior Congress leader admitted in a private conversation that Rahul Gandhi had failed to measure up to the Modi challenge, which required a more well-planned election strategy. The next day, the leader was among the first in the queue calling for Rahul Gandhi to not resign!

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published:
Jun 06, 2019 20:18 IST

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