City City Bang Bang, Columns

Congress: Going all in?

There was a looming inevitability about it, but now that it has happened, questions abound. Does the entry of Priyanka Gandhi into the arena of formal politics cause more excitement in media rather than deliver votes on the ground? Does it merely help reinforce the BJP’s attack on the Congress as being beholden to one family? Is it a symbolic gesture or is it a serious attempt to add some heft to the Congress’ attempt to revive its national fortunes?

There is a view that is commonly expressed by commentators that the Congress would be better served by moving beyond the family, and that the induction of Priyanka will only push the party deeper into a dynastic mode.  There is no question that this is a perfectly legitimate view but given the structure of the party, and the way it is held together, it is a largely theoretical perspective. There is little for the party to cohere around. At its core, lie a loose set of ideals, which are prone to being negotiated freely depending on the context. Decades of following a High Command-led style of functioning has led to a situation where most leaders at the national level depend largely on their proximity to the family for their survival. Without the family as presumptive leaders, the party would be in real danger of falling apart, given the absence of any working mechanisms that foster inner-party democracy. Which is why politically, at the national level, the Congress has only one move. In a time of need, go back to the family.

And even when it comes to this one move that the party turns to, it has been consistently tardy. One of the problems with the Congress party has been that it operates on its own timelines using what is largely an internal logic. In the case of Rahul Gandhi, the party kept him in a form of political purgatory for years as the heir, who was more anointment than appointment. He was the supposed secret weapon that was never drawn, and he skulked around the perimeters of power, without doing very much. It was the party that set up him up as an eternal student, and subsequently as a punchline, by vacillating endlessly about giving him a promotion and a real job. The obvious move would have been to give him the mantle of leadership in 2009, providing him with an opportunity to prove his capabilities, but that opportunity was lost.

Equally, if eventually Priyanka was going to take the plunge, the smart move would have been to draft in Priyanka much earlier, given her ability to command attention, particularly in media, and inspire confidence within the rank and file. At a time when the Congress and Rahul needed bolstering, having someone who could present herself with confidence and poise, would have potentially made a difference. But here again, one suspects that part of the reason for not inducting her was internal; she did not enter the political fray so as not come in Rahul’s way. Now that Rahul is looking more settled, her entry has become possible.

The party clearly has another chance today, and one can understand why it would want to play all its cards.  The BJP is under pressure in 2019, and as all surveys, as well the results of the last few state elections show, the Congress is not quite the spent force it seemed to be sometime back. Rahul too has managed to refashion his image to a considerable degree, and is a political player in his own right today. The entry of Priyanka at this stage is a sign that the party is prepared to go all in, in order to regain its political credibility nationally.

How will this turn out? While there is no question that even without any significant direct political experience, Priyanka appears to be much more naturally at ease in the political arena than her sibling, the days when the Gandhi name was enough to translate into votes have long gone, and charisma does not by itself convert into electoral results. Also, she carries a liability in the form of her husband, and it is not unreasonable to expect that as the elections come closer, the BJP might well step up its investigation into his affairs. Electorally, given the nature of UP politics, her entry could at best have a marginal impact, and while even that might turn out to be strategic, given the significance of the contest, it is unlikely to materially alter her party’s fortunes in the state.

The more significant impact of Priyanka’s entry is likely to be within the party at a national level. In that contest, the decision to restrict her role to a region of UP, seems a little strange. If used as a campaigner nationally, rather than merely in a part of a state, she could help in energising the party’s support base, while being a significant draw herself. If the party has to persist in the dynastic mode, then Priyanka is likely to add weight to the family firm at a strategic level.  Her presence multiplies Rahul’s options, while consolidating his position and giving him the room to focus on the longer-term vision that the party needs to pursue.

Whatever its merits within the party, externally this move does not play that well. There was a time when the quasi- royal aura around the Gandhis won the party votes, but today, the electorate has moved beyond that. Also, it breeds a closed, insular, loyalty-based culture that offers no prospects for a new kind of politics. Priyanka might be a new face, but she represents an old form of politics. In the immediate short run, focused as it is on 2019, the Congress has made the best move that it is capable of and done so with reasonably good timing, but the danger is that it takes the party back into the past rather than the future.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *