On March 20, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a blog titled Institutional respect and ‘institutional contempt-two contrasting approaches’. Its central theme was a scathing attack on the Congress and its first familythe Gandhis. The gist of it was that the country’s institutions were the biggest casualty of the “dynastic politics” of the Congress and the 2014 election had made history with the people choosing the BJP in the spirit of ‘India First’ instead of Family First’. It wasn’t the first time Modi was targeting the Gandhis. Indeed the attacks have been relentless, starting way back in 2013 when he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. From calling him shehzada to naamdaar, Modi has not spared a single opportunity to highlight that Rahul Gandhi — till last week the Congress president — owed his political ascendancy solely to his lineage.
But when the prime minister goes into campaign mode the next time, this line of attack against the Congress may not be available anymore. On the morning of July 3, as the temperature outside breached the 40-degree mark, Rahul told a group of journalists in Parliament that he was no more the Congress president and the party must quickly find a replacement. A couple of hours later, he took to Twitter to post a four-page letter declaring that the decision he had conveyed to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) on May 25 — that he was no more the Congress president — was still valid. In doing this, Rahul had done the unimaginable; never in the history of the Congress has a Gandhi resigned from the top post. Of course, the current Congress is the party Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi set up in 1969 after a successful coup against the then leadership of the Congress, who wanted to dethrone her as prime minister. They sought to blame her for the party’s disastrous performance in the 1967 assembly elections in several Hindi heartland states. She soon formed the Congress (R), which later became Congress (I) and, finally, in 1996, morphed into the Indian National Congress.
Despite what several veterans say privately — that this will break the Congress — Rahul’s close aides maintain that it’s not a whimsical decision nor a tantrum, but a carefully calculated “political and ideological move”. In the political messaging battle that Modi has successfully waged against him, Rahul has been projected as an entitled dynast’ whose authority flows simply from the fact of being a Gandhi. Rahul wants to shake off that albatross around his neck. He has frequently expressed anguish at the smear campaigns against his family, including his late father Rajiv. This is why he won’t even let sister Priyanka assume the mantle.
His associates see his resignation and the Family’s categorical decision to stay away from the top post as a throwback to the sacrifice his mother made in 2004 when she declined the prime minister’s job. “He genuinely believes what he said in Jaipur in 2013, that power was poison and now he has proved that he is not here for position or power. He is not moving away from the Congress, but he will fight without authority, and set an example for millions of Congress members,” says a former Lok Sabha MP from the party. Congress veterans accept that this will certainly earn Rahul the moral high ground, but as one general secretary asks: “Where will he find his Manmohan Singh?”
Perhaps Rahul is in no hurry to find his Manmohan Singh. His resignation is also a message to a generation of Congress members who have failed to combat the new electoral narrative created by the RSS-BJP. In the CWC meeting on May 25, several Congress veterans tried to argue that a defeat in the general election was not a new phenomenon for the party and that it would bounce back as it has in the past. A visibly agitated Rahul admonished everyone to accept responsibility for the defeat instead of finding excuses and remaining in denial. “He resigned to set an example. And he expected those who were in key positions to do likewise if they had failed to deliver resultsand to make way for new leaders,” says a CWC member who lost the Lok Sabha election.
In 2014, the Congress had faced a similar debacle. Rahul had met around 400 Congress leaders then and taken meticulous notes. Based on those inputs, he had prepared a blueprint for the revival of the party. But that plan was never executed; several veterans and his mother Sonia Gandhi convinced him that such radical measures would be disastrous for the party. Over the next three years — till he took charge as party president in 2017 — he reached out to the veterans and developed a healthy working relationship with them. In fact, the average age of the CWC he formed was 67. Yet, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, he felt let down by these same veterans and made it evident in the CWC meeting. “At times, I stood completely alone and am extremely proud of it,” he wrote in the letter posted on Twitter.
The decision to step down is possibly also influenced by the realisation that in the changing shape of our democracy, which seems to be listing towards presidential-style elections, Rahul will need to reinvent himself to counter the personality cult of Modi. “It’s not possible within the current organisational structure of the party. Besides, Modi will always play his chaiwala versus shehzada binary. He talks of giving up, Rahul already has given up,” says one of his aides. The plan, if sources are to be believed, is simple: to create a counter-narrative to the BJP-RSS’s idea of India. As mentioned in the letter, he has been insisting that the Congress must first wage its battle against the BJP’s main source of strengththe RSS. He even tried to resurrect the Congress Seva Dal for this, to counter the cadre strength of the RSS. But that was easier said than done. Rahul faces a two-pronged challenge today: the baggage of his legacy and the lack of organisational support. “He has already shed the dynast tag by stepping down, he now needs to effectively articulate the alternative vision. That’s where the challenge is,” says a party MP in the Lok Sabha.
Whether Rahul manages to execute his plan or fades into political oblivion, the party certainly faces an unprecedented leadership vacuum. For the past six weeks, the Congress has been indulging in a farcical theatre instead of trying to find a new president. The party not only needs to find a new president but also stay united. Between 1991 and 1996, following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and Sonia’s reluctance to join politics, the Congress found two non-Gandhi presidents in P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. Kesri, only the second elected president since 1969, was unceremoniously sacked in 1998, when Sonia took over the reins of the party.
During the Kesri interregnum, the party saw multiple splits. Which is also what makes the Gandhis so indispensable: they are the pivots around which the Congress revolves. Given this, the priority of the CWC will be to find someone who is not only acceptable to all but also loyal to the Family. Several names are doing the rounds, but with the Family showing little interest in “selecting a successor”, it is not going to be an easy task for the Congress think-tank.