That the Nehru-Gandhi family completely dominates the Congress party is indisputable.
That position is not going to change with Rahul Gandhi owning responsibility for the party’s crushing 2019 Lok Sabha electoral defeat and giving up its presidency. Sonia Gandhi’s election as the Congress parliamentary party chairperson, Priyanka Gandhi’s continuance as a party general secretary and, finally, Rahul Gandhi himself making it clear in his resignation letter that he will continue to be an active party member all show that the party will remain family controlled.
Thus, will Rahul’s successor be expected to perform the same role for the family that Manmohan Singh did as prime minister leading the UPA government – manage affairs but accept the family’s primacy and its intervention whenever and wherever on whatever issue it choses?
Viewed in this light, there would be ‘accountabilities’ of different kinds for different sets of party persons. Rahul Gandhi would lose party presidency but not his determinant, if for some time maybe recessed, influence in party affairs.
However, if the chief ministers of the three states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – give up their offices and senior party persons give up their party posts, their influence will drastically decline.
All this can be ascribed to the basic nature of the party in its present avatar and this itself can be traced back to five decades ago – to the tumultuous year of 1969 when the Congress party split.
Indira Gandhi was expelled by party veterans but she succeeded in projecting her group as the true Congress, the vehicle of the National Movement which, after independence, under Jawaharlal Nehru, laid the foundations of modern India.
Indira Gandhi also gradually made it a completely family centric organisation. During the Emergency, she allowed Sanjay Gandhi to play a pivotal role in party affairs and also intervene in government processes at will.
It is true that lobbying for children began much earlier; Motilal Nehru proposed to Mahatma Gandhi that Jawaharlal Nehru should be considered to preside over the Lahore Congress session in 1929. That session became historic for the party adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution under Jawaharlal’s leadership and inspiration.
Like his father before him, Jawaharlal agreed to make Indira Gandhi the president of the Congress. She became head of the party in 1959. This was a time when there were innumerable party veterans who could have been accorded the distinction of leading the party.
Certainly, Jawaharlal was the tallest leader of the party yet it did not then become an entirely family centric affair for then there were leaders who had gone through the baptism of the national movement and had large followings and national status because of their political work.
Thus, at Nehru’s death the party chose Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister. The decision to make Indira Gandhi prime minister after Shastri’s death in 1966 was determined more by a desire of party veterans to keep Morarji Desai out then get Nehru’s daughter in.
The situation became completely different after the party split in 1969. The majority of the group that remained with Indira Gandhi became her personal loyalists and after the 1971 election victory no one came forward to credibly challenge her. The imposition of the Emergency too witnessed no opposition from within the party and even senior leaders let Sanjay Gandhi ride roughshod over them.
It was only after the declaration of the 1977 elections that Jagjivan Ram and Hemavati Bahuguna among others revolted that the situation changed. They had read the writing on the wall regarding the popular revulsion in the north against emergency excesses.
Some Congress members left the party when Indira Gandhi was in the wilderness after her defeat in 1977 but she continued to be its leader as did Sanjay Gandhi. The party returned to power in January 1980.
When Rajiv Gandhi filled the vacuum left by Sanjay’s sudden death in an airplane crash that year the party demonstrated that it had become a total family centric affair. After the reverses of the 1989 election Rajiv Gandhi did not leave the field. He did not accept responsibility the way Rahul is doing now.
What happened after Rajiv’s death is fresh in popular memory to need to be recalled. The significant lesson that emerges is that the party continued to centre around the family legacy even if Sonia Gandhi had distanced herself.
That family centeredness has only increased in the past two decades. It will not go away unless the Gandhi family completely disassociates itself from the party, indeed, from politics itself.
Even if some party members were to revolt or leave, as some are currently doing, it will not change the family’s position.
Rahul Gandhi has eloquently stated his commitment to the party’s ideology and his determination to carry on the struggle against the political principles of the BJP and the Sangh parivar.
Will his resignation assist the party in this struggle?
This is unlikely for the party will still look to the Gandhis, especially Rahul for final signals on all significant matters. The family will have to decide on the manner of how to take on the government. Yes, day-to-day party affairs may be left to a non-Gandhi party president but he/she would hardly be able to decide on fundamental issues – especially those connected with the party ideology or electoral strategy.
Will Rahul be able to bring in a culture of accountability by resigning himself? The people will remain sceptical for they would feel that his stepping down is a formality and that he will retain the substance of authority even if he gives up the position of party president.
Does all this place Rahul Gandhi in a difficult situation? The answer is in the affirmative. But then this situation itself is inherent in the nature of all family centric enterprises. Rahul Gandhi wants the party to radically transform itself. But the question is: has Rahul Gandhi thought through all aspects of his resignation especially if his resignation would assist the party’s transformation.
It does not appear to be so.
The great reverse of 2019 provides him an opportunity to show that the transformation in his political persona is not illusory.
Vivek Katju is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, Ministry of External Affairs.