City City Bang Bang, Columns

Congress: The family trap?

On the face of it, Rahul Gandhi’s resignation letter hits the right notes. He accepts full responsibility for the party’s poor showing in the recent elections, and in contrast to the prevailing political norms, translates into making himself accountable, by stepping down from his position. He goes on to passionately reiterate his view about the dangers posed by the ruling party and asks for the radical transformation of the Congress. By insisting on resigning and by not giving in to the predictable chorus of several party leaders that pleaded for him to change his mind, he has demonstrated his commitment to the principle of accountability.

However, this reading of his actions is disingenuous. The truth is that he has stepped away from a position, but he has in no way relinquished power. This is a party where the family enjoys such presumptive power that it simply cannot be shed by the mere act of shedding it.

The other way of reading Mr Gandhi’s actions is that he has simply withdrawn from the theatre of action, to nurse his wounds in relative privacy. This would hardly be uncharacteristic of him, for several times in the past, he has shown a lack of appetite for hard battle, and this seems to be yet another instance of the unique luxury that he enjoys of being a leader without needing to do anything leaderlike. To his credit, it must be said that he gave it his best shot in the 2019 elections. He did what he could, without shying away from the battle arena. However, he made several strategic errors, and severely underestimated the power of the Modi-Shah machine, however sincere he might have been in his efforts.

But this is also the problem. The fact that Mr Gandhi is seen to be deserving of compliments simply because he seemed to be invested in his actions, underlines the extremely low bar of expectations that has been placed on him. Otherwise, which political leader does not give his or her everything at the time of elections? Even film stars can be seen sweating it on the campaign trail and having their photographs taken in wheat fields in the midday sun, so the mere fact that Rahul Gandhi did what he should have is hardly saying much.

The fact that despite his efforts, the outcome was so overwhelmingly in the BJP’s favour points to the increasingly unavoidable truth that he simply does not have the ability to connect with people at an emotional level. Political leaders derive their influence either from being able to represent the aspirations of a large swathe of voters or from being able to speak to some deep and unfulfilled emotional void, that they can then fill. Rahul Gandhi, neither represents any significant constituency, nor does he have the gift of being able to sense the inarticulate needs of voters and find resonant ways of speaking to those, an ability that Mr Modi has in abundance. His resignation might have been a signal that real change was underfoot, but that does not seem to be the case.

This is partly because of his own actions and partly because of the structural bind that the Congress finds itself in. In the weeks between the election results and Mr Gandhi’s decision to step down and his formal letter of resignation, the signs that came out of the Gandhi family did not reek of contrition and introspection, but of petulant anger and self-justification. Without undertaking any formal review, Mr Gandhi lashed out at senior leaders, including a sitting Chief Minister of the one very few states in which the party won power, for being more focused on their sons’ futures than on the party. Even if his charge were to be true, it was hardly the appropriate time to alienate the party’s state-level leadership. Then, Priyanka Gandhi attacked the party workers in Amethi for not doing enough. This is again quite baffling as a response. To lay the blame at the doorstep of the ordinary party worker is the worst possible way of dealing with defeat.

The other factor that makes his resignation irrelevant is the fact that the party simply cannot imagine itself as anything but the family’s fiefdom. The only glue that holds the party together and keeps its many leaders from tearing it apart on the back of their own individual ambitions is the assurance that no one else can aspire to leading the party. This mutually assured negation of each other’s ambition is the cornerstone of the party’s power structure. Which is why Mr Gandhi could resign, he could migrate to another country, take up sheep farming or embrace sanyas in the Himalayas, even then he or another representative of his family would still be regarded as the leader of the Congress.

The only possible way out for the family, is to actively underwrite this transition and hand over reigns to a new generation of leaders. For this to happen first, there must exist a desire and it is far from clear that is the family’s intention at all to hand over power within the party. And then, manage the exceedingly complex task of finding the next batch of leaders and contriving some sort of agreement on some mechanisms that help the party choose its own leadership in a way that minimises the inevitable fall-out. Both conditions are unlikely to be met, and thus the party’s current downward trajectory will probably continue. The BJP has many reasons to be thankful, and the impossible bind that its principal opposition finds itself locked in, is surely one of its biggest assets.

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