Looking for a “different” India: the Congress’ dilemmas after Rahul Gandhi
Maria Tavernini 31 July 2019

Two months after Rahul Gandhi, 49, the scion of India’s most influential political dynasty, first offered to resign as president of the Indian National Congress, the party is still staring at political uncertainty. After weeks of rumour and speculation, this July 3rd Mr Gandhi tweeted a sharp, four-page resignation letter in which he openly attacked the idea of India that has been mainstreamed over the last five years. He also took responsibility for the Congress’ heavy defeat in the most recent general elections, held in May. Mr Ghandi wrote that while he had no “hatred or anger” towards India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “every living cell in my body instinctively resists their idea of India”, which is based on differences and hatred, he said. The decision, somehow awaited, has sparked mixed feelings in the country. He first announced his intention to resign in the aftermath of the BJP’s landslide victory in the past polls, despite senior leaders urging him to stay.

Narendra Modi, the outgoing prime minister and leader of the BJP, an ethno-nationalist party expression of the Hindu far-right, registered an astonishing win during the May elections. He secured his party 300 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of the Indian Parliament, relegating the Congress to a mere 52 seats (the second worse result after that of 2014, not even enough to lead the opposition). The BJP even snatched a historical bastion— Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, India most populous state—where Rahul Gandhi lost his family’s longstanding constituency. It was a humiliating performance for India’s Grand Old Party—which led the country to independence from the colonial yoke and ruled for most of its independent history—that prompted the young and uncharismatic leader to resign. As he stepped down from the presidency of the Congress, Rahul did not designate a successor but called for the party to radically transform itself and suggested a working committee to nominate the party’s next leader. “It would not be correct for me to select that person”, he wrote in his resignation letter.

Mr Gandhi has been considered a reluctant politician ever since he entered politics in 2004. His detractors accuse him of being a man from the privileged élite, with no charisma and no guts. He inherited the presidency of the Congress two years ago from his mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s youngest prime minister and Rahul’s father, assassinated in 1991. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first—and the longest-serving (from 1947 to 1964)—prime minister of independent India. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, an authoritarian woman and a central figure of the Congress, was the first female prime minister. His sister Priyanka entered politics this year, in an attempt to bring a breath of fresh air to the party organization. Despite his noble political lineage, many believe Rahul never showed much interest in politics, nor any real inclination for it. Even though Mr Gandhi has left the presidency, he will still keep a role in the party as an MP in the southern state of Kerala.

 

Fighting for survival

While the decision has created a vacuum at the top of India’s main opposition party, it has also opened up the chance for a complete regeneration of the party’s old establishment. At the same time, it poses an existential dilemma for the Congress. Will it manage to unify around its old ideals of parliamentary democracy, liberalism and secularism and around a new leader? And will it be able to overcome the elitism and corruption scandals that have marked Congress’ recent history in politics, which has disaffected the Indian electorate and eroded the party’s once glorious reputation? To do so requires finding someone suitable to compete with a personality like Narendra Modi, whose personal narrative is of a strong leader and self-made-man devoted to the nation and its citizens. This will be a hard task, since Modi has managed to build an unparalleled cult of personality around himself and has conquered the hearts of millions of Indians with promises of development and jobs for all and a glittering future for 1.3 billion Indians. This, despite the current reality, which paints a very different picture.

With the sudden farewell of the leader of India’s most influential political dynasty and with no obvious replacement in sight, many questions remain open. Who will take the reins of the party, assuming Congress has a future at all in today’s India? Can the party’s traditionally secular ideals be an alternative to the growing climate of intolerance and communal divisions endorsed by the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh? Sanghis and bhakts—the rather derogatory terms given to Modi’s supporters—propagate an idea of India based on the doctrine of Hintudva, or “Hinduness”, the view that Hindus alone should inhabit the country. This doctrine has recently manifested in various examples of extreme violence against India’s many minorities and oppressed communities, such as Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and Christians. The question is whether the Congress—humiliated by the polls and now without an effective leader—will manage to resurrect from its ashes and carve itself and new role into the current political scenario.

Without a leader at the helm, the party is facing troubles from every angle. Just recently, the Congress-Janata Dal coalition government in Karnataka lost a vote of confidence amid several defections of parliamentarians from the party. In Goa, 10 out of 15 members of the local Legislative Assembly resigned to side with the ruling BJP. Mr Gandhi’s resignation triggered a defection spree that involved senior Congress leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora, and the head of the Indian Youth Congress, Keshav Chand Yadav. However, amidst internal divides and lack of a consistent election strategy, the party’s biggest worry now is the upcoming state polls. Rumours have it that the Congress Working Committee, called to decide on an interim party chief and eventually to select a new party president, has been delayed due to the developments in Karnataka. Nevertheless, it is scheduled to meet soon. With three state elections scheduled over the next six months—in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand—there is an urgent need to address the leadership crisis and overcome the political impasse.

While it is too early to determine who will succeed Mr Gandhi, the names of a few interested candidates have emerged in local media. These include Rajasthan’s Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, the former diplomat and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, and Jyotiraditya Scindia. While a growing chorus would see Priyanka Gandhi—who is said to have the charisma of her grandmother Indira—take charge as Congress president, she recently reiterated that she was not interested in the role. The general uncertainty has only worsened Congress’ identity crisis and sparked a wave of disillusionment among party workers and cadres. However, the vacuum left by Mr Gandhi’s resignation is an immutable fact. It will be crucial to appoint a charismatic young leader to refresh the 133-year-old party and restore the voters’ trust: with or without the Gandhis.

 

Photo by Prakash Singh / AFP


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