Full Text: 'The Gandhis Must Quit Politics for the Good of Congress, Nation,' Says Ramachandra Guha

"They’ll [the Congress] never get in power in Delhi again. It is a fantasy," declared Ramachandra Guha in an interview with Karan Thapar.

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On Friday, March 11, The Wire published a video interview of author and historian Ramachandra Guha with Karan Thapar. In the 30-minute chat, Guha has made the case for why the Gandhi family must “retire” from politics not only to save the Congress party but also to revive Indian democracy. 

Touching upon the decimation of Congress in the recent Assembly polls, Guha has accused the Gandhi family – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi – of being the “facilitators” of Hindutva authoritarianism. Of the three Gandhis, Guha calls Sonia Gandhi as the “principal culprit” for the moribund state the party is in, and by extension, the political landscape in the country.

“They’ll never get in power in Delhi again. It is a fantasy,” he declared, highlighting that the Gandhis have lost touch with the people, and the change India has seen over the decades.   

“The best they [the Gandhis] can do for the people of India is to retire from politics,” he underscored. 

The full text of the conversation is reproduced below. It has been slightly edited for style and clarity. 


Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire, supported by The Glenlivet Books. In an article, he has written in the Calcutta newspaper this morning, India’s foremost modern historian and one of the country’s most highly regarded political commentators has said that the Gandhis must immediately retire from politics.

Joining me now to explain his views and what brings him to this very dramatic conclusion is the author himself, Ramchandra Guha.

Ram Guha, in an article you wrote for the Calcutta paper, The Telegraph, this morning, you say, and I quote, “I believe that for the good of the party as well as the good of Indian democracy, the Gandhis must not just exit from the party’s leadership but retire from politics altogether.”

I’ll ask you in a moment to explain what brings you to this conclusion. But, can you first confirm, you want the entire Gandhi family to immediately retire from politics?

Guha: Well, I am not a member of the Congress Party. I’m merely a commentator and observer. So it’s up to them what they want to do. But it is manifestly clear from the steady and almost irreversible decline of the party under their leadership as manifested most recently in this wipeout in the five assembly elections.

For them, in every state, they are unfit for the job of leading the party. I have also, in my article, explained why the Gandhis are a gift that keeps on giving to the BJP and Modi; how they allow Modi to shift the discourse into the past, and so on.

So, it is an objective analysis by a scholar. The Gandhis are bad for the Congress politically, and so long as the Congress declines, it’s for the benefit of the BJP – which for me as someone who believes in democracy and pluralism and institutional robustness – is a problem, because I think the BJP is leading the country down the path of disaster and we need a viable opposition.

Thapar: I’ll come to the reasons behind your conclusion in a moment’s time, but – just so that the audience is clear – you stand by what you’ve written? The Gandhis – all three, Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka – must retire from politics immediately.

Guha: That’s if Congress wants to revive itself. As I said, I’m not a member of the Congress Party. It’s quite unlikely they will heed my advice. I’ve said similar things in the past, perhaps in not such a categorical manner. But it’s manifestly evident that the Gandhis do not know how to revive the Congress Party. That’s the first thing that is very clear.

And so long as they are in charge of the party, they are only helping Modi and the BJP. It’s completely in the interest of Modi and the BJP to have the Gandhis at the head of the Congress Party. In fact, critics might even say there’s some kind of match-fixing going on.

Thapar: Absolutely. But your sentence that I quoted is specific. They must not just exit from the party’s leadership but retire from politics altogether. That’s what you’re saying. Retire from politics altogether. Yes. Okay.

Guha: If they believe in the good of the party and the country.

Thapar: For the good of the party and for the good of the country. All three Gandhis – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi – must retire from politics altogether. Correct?

Guha: Yes, that’s my view.

Also read: At CWC Meeting, Talk of Sacrifice, Course Correction and for Rahul Gandhi to Be More Accessible

Thapar: Let’s then come to your reasons for saying they must retire. You have several, and I’ll take you through them one by one.

First, you write, their very presence in Congress makes it easy for Narendra Modi and the BJP to deflect attention from the government’s failures in the present by resorting to debates about the past. For those who haven’t read your article, can you explain that point a little further?

Guha: If independent observers like me and others talk about the draconian misuse of laws like UAPA, the suppression of the press, the intimidation of independent journalists, the harassment of NGOs like Amnesty International, Modi will say, what about Indra Gandhi in the emergency? If Rahul Gandhi talks about Rafael, then he’s asked, what about your father in Bofors?

If questions are raised by credible defence analysts about a steady Chinese encroachment on our territory, and so long as the Congress is around to raise those questions, Modi will say, remember Nehru in 1962. So as long as you have a descendant… now, it’s a complicated matter which would require an independent show to explain, namely that Nehru and Indira and Rajiv left behind legacies that are mixed, partly positive, partly negative.

But so long as a direct descendant of those three prime ministers is heading the Congress party, it’s only the negative aspects of those legacies that will be highlighted, focused upon and repeatedly reiterated by the party in power to deflect attention from their mismanagement of the economy, of our security position in the present. That’s very obvious.

I mean you look at the games the BJP plays. Look at how often they resort to history. Look at the BJP, IT cell, and how often they dwell on the past and the crimes alleged/real against Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. All of this would stop if someone called Gupta or Sharma or Ahmed or Engineer or Varghese was in charge of the Congress Party.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters celebrate the party’s victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections at Gorakhnath Temple, in Gorakhpur, Thursday, March 10, 2022. Photo: PTI.

Thapar: Your second reason is that even though the Modi government’s performance is “underwhelming” – and that’s your precise word – it’s in full position to win in 2024. This is simply because in 191 seats, the opposition is the Congress, and it can barely win 16 of those seats, i.e. 8%. That is what Congress won in 2019. Only a reinvigorated Congress party can do that. And that requires the Gandhis to leave politics.

Guha: Yes, and there are several reasons for this.

One is, of course, as the recent Assembly results show, the Gandhis are incapable of providing focused, credible and effective leadership to their state units.

In Uttrakhand and Goa, as I explained, there was deep disenchantment with the ruling BJP. But, the Gandhis, under their leadership, the Congress could not translate that disenchantment into effectiveness at the hustings.

The other reason is that general elections are increasingly presidential. And since Congress still has a fairly large footprint across many parts of India – once the Congress is positioned as the most important of the opposition parties – Rahul Gandhi becomes their default prime-ministerial candidate. Of course, that would be a huge advantage to Narendra Modi.

Now, as some observers like Yogendra Yadav argue it would be even better for the Congress to “die” altogether not just for the Gandhis to exit politics, but for the Congress to go extinct. But that’s not going to happen.

So in my view, the only practical option is for Congress to find new leadership. Actually, that can only happen by the Gandhis voluntarily exiting – because, as we know – they have control over the party, over the finances, over the organisation, over the ideology. It’s hard to see a palace coup. Just as it’s hard to see a Paris coup against Vladimir Putin – much as that might be desired – it’s hard to see an authentic rebellion to get rid of the Gandhis.

And maybe finally they should wake up. And if they actually care for the country, if they actually care for their party – which they claim to do – they should see that they are a burden and a hindrance not just to the party but to the revival of Indian democracy.

Thapar: A third reason why the Gandhis must go is that, as you put it, today’s India will not accept a fifth generation dynast at the head of  – what you call –  the country’s “most storied party”. You’re right. And I’m quoting you: “Living as they do in the close circle of their sycophants, the Gandhis have little understanding of how Indians in the 21st century actually think.”

Guha: Yes, absolutely.

Just look at the most recent assembly elections. Some observers have rightly concluded that if you’re looking at individuals, the three major winners in these five assembly elections, in whatever order, would be Modi, Adiyanath and Kejriwal.

What is common between the three very different personalities, different kinds of characters, different philosophies of governance – or, say misgovernance? What is common?

All are entirely self-made. No one had an ancestor in politics. That is why they appeal to people. Because young voters think, “Ye Hamare Liye Hain [These are for us]”, this kind of rise of the self-made person is ubiquitous across many sections of the Indian economy and Indian society. It’s true of films, sport, music, entrepreneurship and it’s true of politics.

Apart from the three individual winners in the recent polls, if you think of the impressive electoral performance of someone like Mamta Banerjee, for example, she is also completely self-made. Naveen Patnaik, though he may be Viju Patnaik’s son, he was never promoted by his father. Actually, he abandoned, as you know, a successful career as a designer in Delhi to go and serve the people of Odisha. Actually, he has no family, no children, no wife. So I think this is, in any case, Indians today, as they are less feudalistic are more inclined to trust, follow and admire self-made politicians.

Secondly, in any case, they would be suspicious of the Gandhis. But when the Gandhis come forever pointing to the Indians, repeatedly mentioning the sacrifices of Indira, Rajiv and Nehru, and so on and so forth, this irritates people even more. Their entitlement, their sense of privilege, their arrogance, become even more glaringly obvious when they boast about their image.

Thapar: Now, there are two further hints in your article as to why the Gandhis should go. I am going to put them one by one in the hope that you’ll expand on them. First, you write and I quote, “Whether they know it or not, whether they sense it or not the Gandhi family has become active facilitators of Hindutva authoritarianism.” People will wonder what precisely do you mean by that?

Guha: From the election results over the last few years, the recent assembly elections, and elections in 2014 and 2019, it’s very clear that Modi and [Amit] Shah are delighted that the Gandhis are in power.

In fact, they make a point of attacking Rahul Gandhi, so that he thinks he is important. People, the Chamchas, around him, the echo chambers around him, think that he is the real alternative to Modi, but when it comes to elections we see what kind of alternative he is.

In Uttar Pradesh, it was supposed to be Priyanka Gandhi was seen as the Bhramashtra, the last and the most deadly weapon, but what did she get? Only 2.4% of the vote and the seat share went down. Now, to an eight-year-old who studies statistics, it is clear that whenever the BJP comes up against Congress, the BJP wins the election.

So, what does the BJP do when it is in power? I talked in my article in one paragraph, but at a greater length in other columns of mine which don’t deal with the Gandhis, but about the damage the Modi regime has done to our economy, to our social family, to our place in the world, to our natural environment and to our moral fiber.

So, if god forbid, we get five or 10 more years of the BJP, this India will not just be unrecognisable, it will not just be more polarised, more communal, it will be poorer, more vulnerable to outside attack, treated with contempt by the world, it will become like Russia and the state which it is in now. And that dreadful eventuality can be averted only if there is vigorous and sustained opposition to the Modi regime, which is electorally successful.

Other parties, however, operate in limited spheres, and it has been proved already. The Aam Aadmi Party proved that most recently in Punjab, TMC in Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu, and so on. So other parties are willing to take the fight to Modi and Hindutva, and sometimes they actually succeed. Therefore, the Congress and the Gandhis at the head of the Congress – presiding over a period of steady decline which corresponds to the steady expansion of the footprint of the BJP – that they are the facilitators. The Gandhis especially are the facilitators of Hindutva authoritarianism, and that’s a fact.

Thapar: Now, there is yet one more reason in your article, and once again there is only a hint and you call it their “lack of political intelligence”. What do you mean by their “lack of political intelligence”?

Guha: Look at the statements they make. If you look at when Rahul Gandhi was leading a Congress campaign in 2019, the obvious thing to say would have been “Achhe din kahan hain? Where are the jobs, where is the economic growth, where is the building of schools, hospitals, etc.”

Rahul Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Instead, Rahul Gandhi accused Modi of personal corruption, which is something people wouldn’t buy. Then, it became all that Chowkidaar Chor hai campaign. And, of course, this coming from the son of Rajiv Gandhi who lost his elections because of the Bofors scandal was absurdly ill-chosen – this kind of metaphor. More recently, if you look at his speeches in the parliament, even when he makes some good points, as in the last speech, where he talked about the influence of Adani and Ambani and growing unemployment, it became all about “my father did this, my mother did this, my great grandfather did this”. And that completely nullified any impact other points in his speech might have made.

Let me give you one last example because these are sound bites that travel widely on social media. Now, a statement taken out of context can have a devastatingly negative effect. I’ll give you one last example from my home state, Karnataka, a few weeks ago there was a completely unjustified and shocking ban on children wearing hijab. Sometimes even on women and teachers wearing a hijab to school.

When this controversy broke out, Priyanka Gandhi in her statement said women should be free to wear a hijab, ghoonghat or a bikini. Now, it was such an insensitive statement. It will only come from someone who has generally been hanging around in southern France rather than talking to ordinary Indians who think about how people should dress. In the context, it was such an elite statement, unconsciously elite statement, which revealed the kind of lives the Gandhi siblings have led. I have sympathy for them at a personal level because they have seen terrible tragedy of their grandmother being assassinated, their adored father being assassinated, growing up in a sheltered environment, only meeting certain kinds of people, but they are really children and their lives have been spoiled. And there, I say, stupid children.

So, while I may have sympathy for their circumstances during their upbringing, I can never have sympathy for the consequences of what they do in politics. This is precisely because it is hurting my country. It is a country all of us care about, its democratic and plural traditions. They are, sympathetically one can say, politically naïve, but more objectively, one could say, they are facilitators of the Hindutva authoritarianism.

Also read: The Congress Must Transform to Rebuild the Opposition

Thapar: In fact, in a nutshell when you called them “stupid children”, a moment ago, what you are saying is that they don’t know what to say, nor do they know the right idiom for saying it. They are out of touch and there is no connection with the people whose vote they want.

Guha: Yes, absolutely. Just contrast the kind of remark they made to the speech [Arvind] Kejriwal made yesterday after AAP won in Punjab.

I must clarify, by no means, I am an unqualified admirer of Kejriwal. He is a cunning crafty man who believes in a cult of personality just as Modi does, but he knows what politics is about. He knows how to fight elections. He knows how to win elections, and when the election is won. He knows what kinds of things to say. He spoke about Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar – the two names that mean so much in Punjab. He talked about schools and hospitals.

For anyone watching this programme, an admirer of the Gandhis, think that they [the Gandhis] have great political intelligence, they must contrast it with what they say, how they say, and when they say. See it for yourself as to what they said in response to Kejriwal’s victory speech in Delhi. Then, you’ll get a sense of how utterly unsuited the Gandhis are to run even a municipal political party, let alone the Indian National Congress.

Thapar: Now, this is not the first time that you’ve launched a pretty devastating attack on Rahul Gandhi. You first did that – if I am right in saying so – on January 26, 2013, when you were again writing for The Telegraph. You said that if ever he became prime minister, the nation shall not be in safe hands. I get the sense that, you believe, the biggest problem of the three Gandhis is Rahul: A) Because he lacks the political skills and charisma, and B) Because of the influence he has on his mother and his sister. Am I right?

Guha: You are right in my being consistent in my views on Rahul Gandhi. If I may add I was prescient about his utter unsuitability for winning elections. I said that in January 2013 – when UPA [United Progressive Alliance] was in power. But, the more I think about it, the principal culprit is Sonia Gandhi. This is because she runs the party with an iron hand, and the children are instruments of her will. She is a dynasty fundamentalist. She thinks that the Gandhis have the divine right to occupy the throne in Delhi. She somehow believes that Narendra Modi is a usurper. Or, Sher Shah Suri to the Mughals and her darling Mughal children will return to occupy the throne of Delhi. So, it’s really the person. I have no sympathy for Sonia Gandhi.

I have some sympathy for Priyanka and Rahul because of the circumstances described. But what has Sonia Gandhi done in the last seven years after the defeat in 2014? It should have been a wake-up call to revive and renew the Congress. What Sonia Gandhi has done is only to consolidate her family’s hold.

When, after the defeat in the 2019 election, Rahul Gandhi felt a twinge of conscience and resigned from the president-ship of the party. He said it could be a non-family member [to lead the party]. But, Sonia Gandhi came in, put her foot down, took over as acting president, and has been acting president 900 days later with the view that if Congress somewhere wins at least one election, her son will come back as president. So, actually, though many are responsible for the mess Congress is in, as they are facilitators in small and large ways [to the rise] of Modi and the BJP. The principal culprit, I believe, is Sonia Gandhi.

Thapar: The principal reason she is the “principal culprit” is that she believes she and her children, just like her husband and her mother-in-law, have a sort of divine right to rule. That they were born to lead this country, and anyone else who steps in, as you said, is a “usurper” or like Sher Shah Suri to the Mughals.

Guha: Yes, and one footnote to that, unlike Rahul and Priyanka, Sonia knows about the electoral success [of the party] of 2004. She did play a role in bringing Congress back to power. This is precisely the reason why many senior leaders may not take her on when she promotes her children – knowing her role in bringing the Congress to power. This is even though they know what she is doing is disastrous.

Thapar: But she too has lost whatever political touch she had in 2004 or again in 2009. She also is incapable of reviving Congress.

Guha: That is because she doesn’t know how this country has changed, and clearly putting her children in charge is not the way forward. Maybe somewhere they care for the country, which is why I wrote that article. I hope that they care for the country. They can see where the country is going today, and the best they can do for the people of India is to retire from politics.

Thapar: So, this is not your language, but a bit like an incubus, the three have to be got rid of, or they must voluntarily leave. Otherwise, the party will never recover.

Guha: Yes, and Modi and the BJP will go from strength to strength.

Thapar: The interesting question is yours is not the first voice to have called for the Gandhis to leave though. Clearly, it is amongst the most recognised voices who have made that call, and you made it more forcefully than absolutely anyone else. And, I’ll add in this interview, you have made it yet more forceful than you did in your article this morning. But, you must have asked yourself this question, ‘why won’t the Gandhis go’, or rather let me rephrase it, ‘what is it that keeps them in politics despite their repeated failure’.

Guha: Well, this is pure speculation. I have no window into their brains and their hearts, as to how they think and feel. It could be that they control the money, or it could be – as I said – that Sonia Gandhi believes in the destiny of herself and her party. It could be their fear, of the legal consequences if they exit from politics, not just because of Robert Vadra but the kind of large properties that the National Herald owns and has acquired. There could be several reasons. I won’t speculate.

It could be an asset, could be control over the money of the party, belief in destiny, fear that they not only lose political relevance but be subject to legal harassment if they exit politics. It could be any of these, but that is mere speculation. What is the hard fact is that Gandhis are an impediment to the revival of the Congress, and the Gandhis are a blessing to the Modi-Shah and the BJP. And those are the hard facts.

Thapar: The amazing thing is that there are many voices outside Congress saying that the Gandhis should go in the interest of the party, in the interest of the country. No one in Congress says it unless they want to leave Congress first. Within Congress, the only voice you have are the voices of loyalty to the family. Serving Congressmen publicly express loyalty to the family; they never express dissent; they never question the family. How do you account for that?

Guha: Well, it has become a party of chamchas and sycophants. Some of them don’t want to [be that] and they grumble in private. But, they have two years of their Rajya Sabha or their Lok Sabha terms to run. Several people in private have agreed with me in the past also. They say ‘you are right, but we don’t need a revolt’. That’s what the Gandhis have done to the Congress.

To be fair to Sonia Gandhi, this process was started by her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, who was the person who converted a great political party into a family firm, with abject loyalty and chamchagiri. Sycophancy and leader worship have become intrinsic to the DNA of Congress. The Congress still has good leaders, still has some state units. The people in the state units do not want to challenge Rahul Gandhi, because they want to consolidate their place in the state.

So, Siddharamaiah and D.K.Shivkumar in my state, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh, Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan lack the reckless ambition that Modi had when he tried to move from Gujarat to the national scene. That may be the reason why they don’t want to challenge it. But, the only way Congress can revive is for the Gandhis to see that not just the writing on the wall but to recognise that it is in the interest of the party and the country, which they profess to love and serve. So, they must retire from politics altogether.

Thapar: That’s really what you’re saying to them? Aren’t you? To all the three Gandhis. That if you love the party you consider yours, and if you love the country that you say you want to serve, then the best thing you can do is retire from politics altogether.

Guha: Can I just say one last thing, Karan, that they can make a life outside of politics. Priyanka has children and Rahul has many interests, I am told, in the outdoors and sports and so on. Sonia Gandhi likes classical music and has her grandchildren. There are many things you can do outside politics to fulfill yourself. This is because clearly, they’ll never get in power in Delhi again. You know that’s a fantasy that Modi is Sher Shah Suri to their Mughals is fantasy.

So, recognise the reality, make a new life for yourself. And, as I said I have a little sympathy for the children because they are the instrument of their mother’s will. Rahul Gandhi could have been living abroad with the kind of romantic partner he desired, following the interests he wanted. Priyanka, I am told, is interested in religious literature, Buddhism, and she has children. Sonia has grandchildren. So, there is a life they can find for themselves outside politics. But, they should in the interest of the party and the country, both of which they profess to love, and leave politics.

Thapar: My last question. Though you have made an extremely forceful case for the Gandhis to go, there is a little chance, I suspect, of them packing up their bags and leaving, in which case what is the future for the Congress party?

Guha: Well, I think steady decline. There might be other alternatives that might come up. In state after state, where they won once were either prominent or a major challenger, have disappeared, starting in Tamil Nadu in 1967, then West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar. In Gujarat, they haven’t been in power for almost 30 years. In Uttarakhand and Goa, they can’t even regain power. Then the next state may be Himachal, and decline in Gujarat will continue. This will continue and so on and so forth. Congress is really bleak so long as the Gandhis are in control, which is very clear, and that should be clear to everyone, whether they are in the Congress party or outside.

Thapar: Ram Guha, thank you very much indeed. I don’t know if the Gandhis will heed your advice, but certainly, this will be something that will echo in all the drawing rooms of the country, and it is bound to reach their ears.

Guha: Not just drawing rooms, the streets, the factories and the fields.

Thapar: In which case the voices of the Indians will channel through the city who are more important cannot but succeed to reach the Gandhis. The only question is how will they respond to those voices. Take care and stay safe.