To reverse decline, must India’s Congress party ditch its dynasty?
Second successive election failure raises questions about Gandhi family’s dominance
The question is on everyone’s lips: What’s next for the Indian National Congress?
For the second parliamentary election in a row, the Congress has been trounced by Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2014, the Congress won 44 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house. This year, that tally increased by just eight.
It is a brutal fall for India’s oldest political party – the party that led the freedom struggle against the British and that once housed personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. And it raises grave questions about the Congress and the leadership of its president, Rahul Gandhi.
When India became independent in 1947, the Congress was such a dominant force in Indian politics that Mahatma Gandhi suggested that it be disbanded or transformed into a social organisation.
Instead, the Congress continued, and flourished. In the first 50 years after India gained freedom, a Congress prime minister governed the country for 44. Only in the 21st century did a non-Congress prime minister complete a full term.
Now Mr Modi has become the first politician to lead a party other than Congress to two successive majorities in parliament.
Not surprisingly, the Congress finds itself the subject of withering criticism. “The Congress must die,” Yogendra Yadav, who leads the small new opposition party called Swaraj, said on Twitter. As an opposition party, Mr Yadav said, the Congress was both failing in its mission and crowding out other parties that might be able to better challenge the BJP.
Ramachandra Guha, a historian, said in a television interview on Thursday that it was “astonishing” that Mr Gandhi had not yet resigned.
“Both self-respect as well as political pragmatism demand that the Congress elect a new leader. But perhaps the Congress has neither,” he said.
Mr Gandhi is the fifth generation of his family to lead the Congress – a dynastic trait that Mr Guha has often identified as the party’s most glaring weakness. Mr Modi used it as ammunition, often calling Mr Gandhi a “shehzada” or “princeling” in his campaign speeches.
The Congress has, thus far, shown little sign of serious introspection. “We have to go back to the drawing board,” Salman Soz, a party spokesman, told AFP. But no one in the Congress has indicated what flaws they hope to address.
A party statement said that Mr Gandhi did offer to step down as the Congress president, and that the offer was roundly rejected by the party executive. But this felt cosmetic. “If anyone can lead the opposition, it is Rahul Gandhi – he has demonstrated this in the past few years,” Ghulam Nabi Azad, a senior Congress member, said in a press conference.
The leadership of the party is a fraught and crucial question, said James Crabtree, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The Congress needs to allow new leaders with new ideas, but it is hard to see how this can happen when almost anyone who fits that bill would be seen as a threat by the ruling family.”
Part of the reason the BJP triumphed so handily is that it could rely on an extensive network of party cadres who mobilised voters, said Peer Mohammed Azees, a political analyst in Chennai.
“They look at Modi as one of their own, and they work hard for him,” Mr Azees said. “In the same way, the Congress has to strengthen its grassroots network.”
The Congress also proved unwilling to collaborate deeply with other, smaller opposition parties, so that they might collectively oust the BJP from power. In Delhi, a nascent partnership with the Aam Aadmi Party fell through, resulting in the BJP winning all seven Lok Sabha seats in the capital.
The Congress is still a party of ideas. During this election, buoyed by Mr Modi’s mismanagement of the economy, Mr Gandhi hit the electorate hard with policy prescriptions. In its manifesto, the Congress laid out details of a new universal income scheme which promised to lift millions of Indians out of poverty.
But the party yielded the space for bigger, grander ideas – including those of ideology – to Mr Modi and the BJP. Drawing on Hindu nationalism, Mr Modi sketched out an abstract narrative of a more powerful India. His rhetoric was often divisive and communal, but it proved effective at pulling Hindu voters into his camp.
“You can’t fight an ideological battle through policy,” Yamini Aiyar, the president of New Delhi think tank the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in a column for the Hindustan Times newspaper on Friday. “Ideological agendas need to be challenged through counter-ideas, not technocratic policy.”
There were instances where the Congress could have done that, said Mr Azees. Mr Gandhi should have talked less about his universal income scheme and “more about the sacrifices that his father and grandmother made for the country,” he said, referring to Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, who were both assassinated.
As the election neared, Mr Modi made his campaign all about nationalism and the security and might of India. But Mr Gandhi kept talking about policy, Mr Azees pointed out. “He stuck to his narrative even when the ground was shifting under his feet. Maybe he wanted to be seen as consistent. But in politics, there’s no such thing as consistency. Every morning is new.”
For a start, he said, the Congress has to reclaim the notions of nationhood from the BJP.
“When you see that ideas of faith, or the idea of India, belong to the BJP, that’s problematic,” he said. “Rahul Gandhi’s heart is in the right place, but it’s high time he started to change the narrative.”
Mr Crabtree did not rate the likelihood of meaningful change very highly at all.
“The Congress will struggle on much as before, unable to get rid of the Gandhi family and thus unable to renew itself,” he said. “Their best hope is simply that Modi makes mistakes.”
Updated: May 26, 2019 06:52 PM