WITHOUT a Gandhi at the top, India’s Congress Party is increasingly looking and acting like a headless chicken. Since its debacle in the recent General Elections, there has been a deluge of desertions from the party. Apparently, Narendra Modi’s vision of a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India) was no idle boast after all.
The party that led India to freedom under stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad and numerous others offering immense sacrifices and governed India for nearly five decades has perhaps never faced a greater challenge to its existence in its long and illustrious history.
It has become so weak and feeble that the BJP has had the audacity to openly poach its legislators, reportedly picking them up for a cool Rs 25 crores, bringing down the Congress-JD (S) coalition government in Karnataka. In Goa, the entire Congress legislature party merged itself with the BJP.
The twin crises in Karnataka and Goa not just point to the existential crisis in the grand old party, it also underscores the all-pervasive culture of political opportunism and moral bankruptcy in India’s politics.
No principles, no ideological convictions and, above all, no ethics seem to matter with politicians changing ideologies like clothes, effortlessly moving from left to right and from secular values to a Hindu supremacist worldview. All that matters is the money that the BJP now seems to have in abundance and throws around with utter brazenness.
The fact that 94% of political funding, corporate donations, to be precise, are now cornered by the BJP, coupled with the most unabashed use of government machinery also helps the party muscle and manipulate its quarry. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, while the ruling party received a whopping Rs 916 crores in corporate donations, the Congress received a paltry Rs 55 crores during the 2016-2018 period. But all this is like chicken feed compared to what the ruling party received anonymously through electoral bonds, a clever invention of former finance minister Arun Jaitely.
According to a Wire report, between March 1, 2018, to May 10, 2019, electoral bonds worth Rs 5,800 crores were bought by anonymous donors. Of these, bonds worth Rs 4,444 crores were purchased by anonymous corporate donors between March 1 and May 10, 2019 — right in the middle of 2019 General elections.
Again most of these funds, no surprises there, went to the saffron party. This massive war chest of nearly Rs 6,000 crores provided by big corporates, as Siddharth Varadarajan of the Wire argues, helps Modi fight a presidential-style election defeating a crumbling Congress again and again.
There was a time when Congress used to be favoured thus by corporates. But the disappearing moneybags are only symptomatic of the greater malaise afflicting the party. Frankly, with its very existence on the line, raising money is the least of the party’s concerns right now.
Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as the Congress chief and the party’s unwillingness or inability to find a successor all this while only seems to embolden the Hindutva brigade that is hell-bent on raising the saffron flag in every state at any price.
With the Gandhi scion away and his mother being unwell, the Congress and its giant pool of talent, networks, and contacts spread in the length and breadth of the country present a tempting target for the BJP. And the longer Rahul remains away and unwilling to lead and the rest of the party unable to reconcile itself to the idea of a Congress sans Gandhis the harder it would be for the party to revive itself and face the daunting challenges of the future.
Ideally, Rahul’s decision to leave should have been accepted and respected with graciousness by the party and a successor should have been promptly found. This is what happens in mature democracies after a leader fails to deliver in an election.
We saw it happen recently in the UK with the opposition Labour’s young leader Ed Milliband stepping down after the defeat in the last General Election making way for Jeremy Corbyn.
After all, Rahul has tried his best, especially over the past couple of years, investing himself totally in bravely taking on the BJP led by Modi with great conviction and dignity. It is a tragedy it failed to convince India’s voters in enough numbers.
What the Congress confronts is hardly an ideal situation. The trouble is, the Congress is not like any other political party. Without a Gandhi at the top, it just melts down in a heap. And this has been historically proven, time and time again.
As analyst, Swaminathan Aiyar notes rather uncharitably, “The (Congress) party has long been a bunch of opportunists held together only by dependence on the Gandhis to attain power. Without that glue, the party will disintegrate. I am amused by those nostalgic for Nehruvian secularism who think a Congress minus the Gandhis will combat Modi’s rise. Sorry, all past attempts to create a Congress minus the Gandhis have failed.”
Unfortunate but true. A Congress without a Gandhi may sound like a good and suitably democratic idea but the idea has never worked. The party will simply come unstuck with numerous regional heavyweights turning on each other, just as regional satraps had turned on each other in the twilight years of the Mughal empire.
The Gandhis do not merely offer gravitas and identity to the Congress that continues to be a colourful melting pot and microcosm of India, mirroring its diversity, they may be the best bet to hold it together and return the country to sanity and its inclusive democratic traditions and ideals.
If the Congress is to survive as a viable political and democratic force, it is imperative that either Rahul Gandhi is persuaded to return or Sonia Gandhi is convinced to take charge of the party until a new leadership emerges. After all, Sonia led the party to victory twice, in 2004 and 2009. She proved that Congress needs the family to win elections. Unfortunately, she has been battling serious health issues for quite some years now.
Her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, has a natural flair and charisma to step into her brother’s shoes. She proved it once again with her powerful and instinctive reaction to the Sonbhadra massacre of tribals in Uttar Pradesh this past week. Unlike her reticent brother, she is a natural-born politician and seems to revel in the media glare and is totally at ease with the hoi polloi.
She is immensely articulate, charming and has an aura of her own which television cameras naturally love. Unfortunately for Priyanka though, her husband Robert Vadra, entangled as he has been with numerous cases under this government, may turn out to be the proverbial millstone around her neck.
Congress needs to resolve its leadership question at the earliest possible before more damage is done. With its national presence, inclusive politics and political infrastructure, the Congress alone among the assorted opposition parties has the potential and wherewithal to take on the BJP and save the country from the clutches of religious bigots and fascists.
While Rahul’s decision to step down is laudable and may have been inspired by highest democratic traditions, he needs to pay heed to the appeals made by the thousands of Congress workers. More important, this is the need of the hour.
Rahul is best qualified to finish what he started, taking this mission to its logical conclusion and return India to its original path of democracy, inclusion and social justice that was imagined by the country’s founding fathers. A ‘Congress-free India’ may be music to some ears but it would be bad news for the world’s largest democracy.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a former editor. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org