Almost two years back, during a dinner at a minister’s home in Lutyens’ Delhi, I found myself sitting next to a former Congress chief minister (CM) who migrated to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Asked how he liked the BJP, the former CM said: “[The] Congress knows how to govern, but nothing like an organisation exists there. The organisation is strong here, but the skill of running the government is yet to come.” He is a dynast. He got his post in the Congress due to his perceived loyalty. The Congress leadership is unable to accept that in politics, there is no enduring legacy of loyalty. This explains the many turncoats in the Congress.
The Congress, as an organisation, was once present in every district. An uninterrupted stint in power and the resulting dynastic stranglehold robbed the party of its political vibrancy. Grassroots workers became frustrated. Powerful leaders such as Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee formed separate parties and seized the Congress’s remaining base. When asked about this, Congress leaders proudly say that Syama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), was also a member of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet. But Mukherjee left Nehru’s Cabinet and founded BJS, taking the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This provided the ideological foundation for the BJP. So, politics evolved into a clash of ideology versus dynasty. Under the umbrella of the Nehru-Gandhi family, dozens of other political dynasties began to thrive. The top family made sacrifices and others felt entitled to help themselves to the benefits.
After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the Congress could have developed new leadership and embarked on a fresh path. It did nothing. It came back to power, but did not strengthen the organisation. This is why Rahul Gandhi inherited a fragmented party and despite his marathon efforts, he could not inject new spirit. He could not balance the old and new.
In contrast, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine in the BJP created an election machine. They packed off senior party members to invisible margdarshak mandal, recruited powerful politicians from other parties, and snatched many states from the Congress. Even where the Congress performed well in assembly polls, it could not retain power. After every election, the BJP starts action on the next elections, while the Congress leaders waste time squabbling.
Rahul Gandhi gave up the party president’s post after losing the election in 2019, but confusion prevailed. He should have either retired from politics or nominated a successor. He did neither. Today, those who are misleading the Congress high command are the English-speaking elite, not those who have done grassroots political work.
The Congress was once a party of people in touch with the pulse of India, the desis for want of a better word. Jawaharlal Nehru was an acclaimed writer in English. But, at the same time, he spoke fluent Hindustani in public. Today, when times have changed, on the one hand, there is a party that fosters majoritarianism and along with this, reinvents itself across the country to be in tune with the needs of regional languages and traditions.
On the other hand, there are those who reside in Delhi’s posh neighbourhoods and curse the party leadership. If each of these leaders had also developed a safe constituency for themselves, the Congress today would have had more than 100 Members of Parliament. The party needs to get rid of them and ensure that its leaders are conversant in the regional languages of their places. And, in the absence of pan-India leaders, Rahul Gandhi must take charge. Even today, the Congress is in power in six states, either on its own or in a coalition. This is a good enough foundation to rebuild the party and challenge the BJP. But does it have the will to do so?
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal