Gandhi’s official resignation, taking responsibility for the defeat of his party in the recent elections, has thrown the Congress Party, once the grand old party of India’s independence movement, into tumult. As one party leader told me, there is no one “either willing or able” to step into the post that Gandhi has finally formally vacated.
The party’s crisis is rooted in the fact that not one leader of consequence within the party is convinced that the Gandhi family — Rahul, his mother and former party president Sonia and his sister Priyanka — is serious about actually giving up control. Rahul Gandhi may have quit his position — but no one believes he or his family has let go of power.
In a series of conversations, several Congress leaders told me that Sonia Gandhi was opposed to her son’s relinquishing of power. At a recent meeting, she allegedly encouraged party leaders to deliver sycophantic speeches protesting the Gandhi scion’s resignation. Party sources also told me that his sister, whose much-hyped charisma came to naught in these elections, behaved in an even more arrogant and entitled way at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — the party’s highest decision-making body — blaming her colleagues for the electoral decimation. Subsequently, she publicly blamed hapless party workers without once taking her share of the blame for the defeat.
In contrast to his family’s behavior, Rahul Gandhi’s letter of resignation shows welcome signs of humility. But, if things go according to speculation, the party will select a nondescript, non-threatening, low-key president as a place-holder, until either Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi is ready to step back into leadership again.
And who shall choose this figurehead? The CWC, a collection of unelected Gandhi loyalists whom the family can count on to construct a safe interim arrangement. Ironically, elections have not been held for the CWC for decades — and the last two elections took place when a non-Gandhi was at the steering wheel.
Rahul Gandhi has claimed he shall not be involved in choosing his successor. But the party’s choice for another leadership position, the leader of the Congress in India’s Parliament, betrays the family’s game. Despite the fact that there were other substantial alternatives available, including the erudite Shashi Tharoor, the party chose Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a member of Parliament whom it had removed last year from a key organizational post. There is no danger of a regional, little-known politician such as Chowdhury outshining the Gandhis.
For the Congress, the only way out of this conundrum is mutiny. For it to challenge Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party at a national level once again, someone has to first be willing to challenge the stranglehold of the Gandhi family over the party. The party, however, has a long history of penalizing people with ambition.
Pranab Mukherjee, who retired as India’s president, never got the opportunity to be prime minister because of the Gandhis. According to multiple reports, on the day then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, was assassinated, Mukherjee said the senior-most minister — which was him at the time — should be the caretaker prime minister, instead of Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. He was apparently never forgiven.
Another party veteran, Sharad Pawar, had to leave the party and form his own regional front for standing up to Sonia Gandhi. Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, who just became the chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, was virtually ousted from the party for his aspirations, and has been blunt in an interview with me about the “dictatorial” streak of the Gandhis. And in an intriguing twist of history, Congress politician Rajesh Pilot — whose son Sachin Pilot is dynamic, hard-working and probably the best contender for the party’s top job — was pressured to step down from his decision to contest against Sonia Gandhi for party president years ago.
Yes, the younger Pilot is technically also a “dynast” in the way that Gandhi is. But dynasty alone doesn’t explain the near-demise of the Congress. In fact, data shows that 30 percent of India’s new parliamentarians are from political families — and that the ruling BJP has a high percentage of dynasts in its ranks, too. Indians appear to have pushed back against Gandhi because he and his family don’t come across as having earned the privilege. By contrast, Pilot left his cushy urban life in Delhi and worked at the grass-roots level in the state of Rajasthan. Even after the Congress failed to do well in the state, where he is deputy chief minister, he was quick to return to the campaign trail and interact with voters.
The Congress stands at a crossroad. The party that once stood for the broadest, most inclusive and liberal idea of India can either watch itself be reduced to the personal fiefdom of one family. Or its other leaders must finally show they have the spines to stand and speak up.