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Congress predicament

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, Nov 27 2017, 2:16 IST

BJP president Amit Shah was justified in his jibe last month that everyone knows who the next president of the Congress will be, but no one knows who the next president of the BJP will be. The jibe was against Congress's dynastic politics, and how undemocratic the grand old party of India was.

The sarcasm was only partially justified, because the BJP, too, does not have a democratic tradition of electing its president. It is apparently decided by the party's central parliamentary board (CPB), but it is an open secret that the secretive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a decisive say in the matter, which BJP insiders freely concede off-the-record. But it does no credit either to the Congress or to the BJP that there is no vibrant internal democracy in the two dominant political parties of the country.

The Congress's case is curious and complicated. The critics are not right when they blame Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for the family's stranglehold on the party. The party is out of power, its numbers in the Lok Sabha are at an all-time low, and the mother-son duo has not been the vote-catchers they are supposed to be. The party is marginalised, and their influence is minimal. If there is any time they could be replaced, it is now.

The question that needs to be asked is: why does not the Congress party elect someone other than Sonia or Rahul? There is something wrong with the other leaders in the Congress that they are not willing to challenge the Nehru-Gandhis, either out of a sense of inadequacy or out of sheer lack of ambition. The relatively young Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot should have been contesting for the Congress president's post, and they should have been articulating a vision for the party. It is surprising that this is not happening.

We need to go back to 1996 to understand the internal dynamics of the Congress. At that time, Sitaram Kesri, not much of a leader in terms of dynamism or national stature, was the president of the party and he was in the fray as part of the organisational elections.

Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot threw their hats in the ring, and in the contest that followed, Pawar and Pilot projected themselves as relatively young compared to the septuagenarian Kesri. But Kesri won the election. The inference: Congress members are for the status quo. Secondly, they prefer a non-descript president so that each of their factions can have a greater sway.

What holds good for Kesri does not explain as to why Sonia Gandhi, a non-politician in 1998, was brought in, and one of the influential party leaders who had a role in this was Pawar himself. It seems that given the intense personal rivalries that mark the internal politics of the organisation, a representative of the Nehru-Gandhis is always seen as a safe bet. Sonia Gandhi was not Indira Gandhi. She worked along with all the factional leaders and she did not create a clique of her own as did her mother-in-law.

Rahul Gandhi cannot be expected to follow the consensual style of his mother, and it is quite likely that he might try to bring in younger people into the top slots of the party. The veterans in the party, who are seasoned players, will likely bide their time, and strike back when there is a crisis as happened with Rajiv Gandhi when the Bofors scandal and the V P Singh rebellion broke out in 1986. Rajiv Gandhi's "computer boys" were hustled out and the old guard retook the positions they had lost in the earlier round.

Unconvincing logic

The question about the legitimacy of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family occupying the party president's office remains, and no rationalisation can justify it. It is bad strategy, and it weakens the party. Rahul Gandhi will remain an important player in the party, but it is not necessary for him to be its president to retain his influence. During Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi's times, there were others who held the party president's post, including Shankar Dayal Sharma, Dev Kant Barooah, Kamlapati Tripathi.

The argument seems to be that at that time, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv were prime ministers and the party president, whoever it was, did not pose a threat to them. And whenever they were out of power, and this was so in the case of Indira and Rajiv, they had to be party president to retain their hold. The logic is not convincing.

If the Nehru-Gandhis need an official position to retain their hold in the party, it shows that their position is vulnerable, and they are not the strong and charismatic leaders they are projected to be by their camp-followers. Congress will remain on a weak wicket in the country's politics if it feels compelled to have a Nehru-Gandhi as president forever. It is distasteful in a democracy.

It is futile for outsiders to expect Rahul Gandhi to step aside and ask the party to elect another president. The challenge to his position will have to come from within the party. It is a bad reflection on the Congress that it is unable to produce even one politician, other than the Nehru-Gandhis, of national standing. One of the strengths of the party until Independence was that it had a galaxy of national leaders, despite the towering presence of Mahatma Gandhi.

It is evident that after 1947, Congress leaders reduced themselves to pygmies, content to live in the shadow of the Nehru-Gandhis. One is reminded of the pregnant line of Cassius in Shakespeare's political play, Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings."

(The writer is a political commentator)

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