How the Gandhi family destroyed Indian National Congress

As the news broke on Congress’ appointment of former Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge as the leader of the party in Lok Sabha, I didn’t know what the perfect reaction to this piece of information was? Shall we laugh at the Gandhi family-controlled Indian National Congress (INC) or shall we cry for the fate of a once great political party?

One would have expected the party to learn from its mistake after the debacle in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, but clearly there are no lessons learnt.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor Sanjaya Baru, in one of the interviews after the release of his book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ had pointed out, in Congress, loyalty is more important than meritocracy. Apart from calling Baru’s book a piece of fiction, Congress didn’t attack him on the facts. The biggest criticism against Baru was that he was “disloyal”.

On the other hand, Kharge is not the first person to be awarded for his loyalty. All the three home ministers in the two terms of UPA government got their positions in spite of not being a great electoral success. In fact, Shivraj Patil had lost his Lok Sabha elections and yet given the all powerful and important home portfolio. Sushil Kumar Shinde, another loyalist, was pulled out of his retirement.

The loyalty factor is further complemented by the ‘threat’ factor. Gandhis do not promote anyone who might threaten their stature as the de facto leaders of the party. Perhaps denying Kamal Nath the position as leader of the party can be read in this context. Nath is still among of the very few ‘mass’ leaders left in the party. He has friends across parties and that could be read as a threat to failed scion of the Gandhi family.

A lot has been said about the reasons for the defeat of INC in the recent Lok Sabha elections. On my part, I would argue this defeat is part of the cancer that infected the party since the entry of Sanjay Gandhi and subsequently Rajiv Gandhi. The poison has been spreading for long. While it took more than 25 years for BJP to grow into a major force, it took the same time for three men of Gandhi family to destroy a strong democratic political organisation. Sanjay Gandhi was responsible for Congress’ defeat in 1977 after Emergency (Many say it was completely his brain child). After winning a historic mandate after his mother’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi couldn’t win the second time on his own. While a lot has been written about Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi eras, one is surprised how Rahul Gandhi didn’t see this coming. The writing was on the wall when the Congress lost all but one seat during the UP assembly elections in Amethi-Rae Bareli.

Just how did three men of Gandhi family managed to destroy an organisation that drove British out of the sub continent? The methodology seems very similar.

Build a coterie: Sanjay Gandhi started the concept of coteries in Congress. He would pick up young ‘talents’ and plant them on the top. Much like his uncle, Rahul Gandhi has also followed the same style of picking young unknown faces from Youth Congress or NSUI or even his friend circle. While on paper it may sound nice to have representatives from younger rank rise up, but the fact remains most of these have been undemocratic and arbitrary. Almost none of the leaders who made up the coterie of Sanjay or Rajiv or Rahul have a mass base. They are what you call ‘strategists’. Some have been their lawyers, some have been friends in social circuits, others even childhood friends—remember film star Amitabh Bachchan who was fielded by Rajiv Gandhi from Allahabad.

What follows is a complete lack of merit and only assertion of loyalty, because these ‘leaders’ (that include almost all the senior Congress ministers who lost in this year’s elections) are dependent on the Gandhi family for their survival. In a democratic set-up, they would have never been able to come up the ladder on their own. Unlike mass leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad Yadav or even Mamata Banerjee, they will never be able to win the party a state or even a Lok Sabha seat.

Talking about Banerjee, brings us to the second point.

Do not allow state level leaders to grow: This coterie of ‘leaders’ has to ensure that there is no threat from any mass leader to their existence. Whether it is Mamata Banerjee or YS Jaganmohan Reddy, for decades Congress, under the Gandhis, has refused to allow a mass leader to evolve in any state. What followed was that either the state-level leader had to revolt and leave the party, or submit himself in the hands of the ‘high command’. When one looks at the fall of powerful state leaders like Digvijaya Singh or Ashok Gehlot, it becomes clear what the survival tactics are in the grand old party of India. Most of the powerful ‘leaders’ of Congress are found socialising in India International Centre in Delhi, and not working in any state. Being residents of Delhi, Gandhis have always managed to accumulate a certain class of people around them who have absolutely no connect with rest of the country.

Loyalty over meritocracy: Let’s put it as simply—merit has not place in Indian National Congress or else Rahul Gandhi wouldn’t have been their leader. Some would like to call it loyalty; I prefer the term sycophancy, which is an essential quality in a good Congressman. It really doesn’t matter if you can win elections or have any good administrative qualities; what is paramount, is mastering the art of pleasing the family. Even the talented ‘leaders’ who were plucked from ground to give shape to the vision of the great Gandhis soon chose to depend on their loyalty to the family over their talent. Mani Shankar Aiyer is a classic example of such a Congress leader. Aiyer is a former IFS officer with passion for Panchayati Raj, who has now become a permanent fixture in every high profile social meets in Delhi. He continues to push for his favourite theme at any given opportunity but then cannot even get elected to Lok Sabha on his own. What is left behind is arrogance, a dogged loyalty for the Gandhi and a refusal to accept that the country has changed. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one of the rare Congress ‘leaders’ who managed to make it from India International Centre to 7 Race Course and is often seen a perfect mix of loyalty and meritocracy. But then what did he achieve? As he says let the history be the judge.

Another argument that has been around for years now is the indispensable nature of the Gandhi family for Congress. Some suggest the party cannot survive without the family, but we are at crossroads when we have to ask, can the party survive even with the family?

Unlike the Communists or BSP, the Indian National Congress is not an ideological cadre based organisation. Both the Communists and BSP did miserably in the last elections and yet both survive. They will probably bounce back (do remember BSP has increased its vote share inspite of not winning a single seat). Congress, in spite of Rahul Gandhi claiming it is an ‘idea’, has no clear ideology. The only glue that has kept the party together post Indira Gandhi is the power.

In absence of any major state level leaders, and an even weaker central leadership, what would happen to the party? Until BJP makes a major mistake, which seems unlikely, the prospects of Congress bouncing back seem minimal.

In many ways, BJP’s victory is a result of Congress’ mistakes, but will the BJP give the same opportunity to Congress? So far Narendra Modi seems adamant not to repeat the follies of Congress—whether it is breeding sycophants or depending on coterie. One doesn’t of course know about the future.

The 16th Lok Sabha election is historic, not because the BJP managed to come to power on its own, but because for the first time the rot that has been eating Congress away for decades, is now finally exposed.

Commentators say Congress has a great capacity to bounce back, but the party has clearly changed in its structure and ethos since its foundation and heyday. Whether it is for inner party democracy or meritocracy, Congress is not the party to be. The fact that the country has moved beyond the old rhetoric of ‘communal vs secular’, still hasn’t hit Congress leaders.

In a country where a major portion of the demographic is young, Congress is still stuck with old ideas. Even simple things like implementing a social media plan couldn’t go through because most in the party argue it is a hollow chamber. The party which opened the gates of Babri Masjid suddenly claims to espouse the cause of liberals in the country. If BJP moved further towards centre of right, the only cause Congress has against the ruling party will be lost.

Unlike the generations under Sanjay and Rajiv, the current ones have no particular fascination for the Gandhi surname or disillusion of any great breed from that stable. Congress has to clearly do much more than just sell the Gandhi name and ‘communal vs secular’ debate. It has to understand that there has been a generational shift in the country, and this shift is not just of age, but a thought process.

Next five years are going to be the most challenging, but nothing that Congress is doing seems to suggest that it is up for that challenge. So will Rahul be the last Gandhi in Indian politics?

Kunal Majumder is Associate Editor (Digital) at Zee Media Corporation in charge for dna online. He tweets @kunalmajumder.

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