Waiting for Priyanka, the Congress Contemplates Its Future

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra arrives in Rae Bareli to pay tributes to veteran Congressman Umashankar Misra, DCC president who died following prolonged illness on Monday. Credit: PTI

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra arrives in Rae Bareli to pay tributes to veteran Congressman Umashankar Misra, DCC president who died following prolonged illness on Monday. Credit: PTI

Those who claim to be knowledgeable have breathlessly informed us that Priyanka Gandhi is about to venture beyond “Amethi and Rae Bareli.”

The buzz is that she will be the face of the Congress campaign in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll next year. We are assured on good authority that all Congressmen, in and out of UP, are excited about this impending baptism. However, no one seems to be sure whether Mrs Vadra is being dragooned into this enterprise by some newly-empowered strategist(s) or is herself finally ready to joyfully plunge into the hustle-bustle of a full-time political life. And, once she does move out of “Amethi and Rae Bareli,” will she remain confined to UP?

All this spiel is somewhat familiar. Some would even say boringly familiar. Once there was a compact between the Nehru-Gandhi family and Congressmen. The compact was based on a principled commitment, on the part of the family, to public service and political values; Congressmen, on their part, were happy to pretend to be loyal, showering affection, approval and adulation on the family-as long as the “Leader” could help them make it to parliament, state assemblies and other avenues of power and patronage.

This compact over the years has degenerated into conceit: both the family and Congressmen have come to believe that all competence and imagination reside exclusively in the Gandhis, and that the partymen’s salvation rests with those with a particular kind of DNA. The Congress is entitled to its own internal working philosophy.

If the sister is to have an “extended role,” what about the brother? Will she be just happy to play the tabla while the brother strums on the sitar? What kind of division of labour would take place in the family? And, which model of family control would be preferred? There is the Mulayam family way of a four-way division of power in UP; then there is the DMK model; the Lalu Prasad family format; and the father-son duality in Punjab.

Serious Congressmen are entitled to ask the question about Priyanka’s role – and, more importantly, share – in the power structure. It is not a question that can be sorted out within the four walls of the family. It would have serious consequences – for the health of the party, its efficacy and its effectiveness.

There is no getting away from the fact that the party’s performance is already getting affected by the duality between its president and vice-president, who also happen to be mother and son. Now if the sister is to provide the third leg of a tripod, this could be an elaborate invitation to organisational disarray and confusion among the surviving but shrinking cadre of party activists.

A game with no rules

If these issues do get sorted out, the questions that cannot – and must not – be avoided are: What does she represent? What does she believe in? Obviously she, like her family and everyone else in the Congress, does not like Narendra Modi, the BJP, the RSS and the communal ideology, etc. It may also be safely assumed that she stands committed to the Congress ideology – ‘secularism’, ‘socialism’, etc.

And, of course, the assumption is that she has made the commitment and that she will not run away at the sound of gunfire. Politics is not a playground game. It is brutal and nasty, increasingly with no rules. The Modi-Shah regime has set new and low standards in partisan politics. Their is the politics of persecution and prosecution. It must be understood very clearly and unsentimentally that politics in India today is a soul-sapping pursuit.

Still, why should the average Congressman, or for that matter the average voter, get excited about the sister? As Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, told British prime minister David Cameron after the recent Brexit referendum, “we’re politicians and we shouldn’t be detained for too long by sorrow”. Similarly, it can be suggested that Congressmen cannot allow themselves to be detained for too long by indignation and secular righteousness. They can keep on bemoaning the rise of Hindu right-wing fascism, but the critical question remains: How is the party going to roll back Modi-led Hindutva? Is Priyanka capable of providing the catalyst for that fight? Does she bring any extra heft in this battle?

It is possible to suggest that the sister may have qualities which are not easily identifiable in the brother. Precisely because her only claim to the affection and allegiance of Congressmen is “the family”, it is possible that she may have a capacity for calmness and conciliation, or an ability to look composed and in control. She may be able to exhibit qualities of measuredness and discipline. Above all, she may have an instinctive gift for understanding that politics is all about harmonising incompatible values.

It is no rocket science to argue that a diverse polity like ours will not be able to retain its equilibrium for long  without a centrist party like the Indian National Congress. The BJP is trying its best to imitate the Congress but will falter because it is held back by its institutional bondage to the Nagpur brotherhood. So, in a few years’ time the polity will be inclined to experiment with a Congress-type arrangement.

Unfortunately, the Congress has allowed itself to be judged entirely in terms of its electoral success or failures. Because Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi (at least once) proved to be ‘winners’, the very criterion for judging a leader has been reduced to his/her ability to encash his/her ‘charisma’ at election time. Rahul Gandhi has been groaning under this burden. And, now, Priyanka Gandhi is in danger of being seduced into walking into the same trap.

Her (relative) freshness should allow Priyanka to do things differently. Provided she gives convincing evidence of having a sturdy moral compass and plain common political sense. It would be naïve to assume that those very forces and processes which have saddled her brother’s leadership project with ‘Pappufication’ would be any kinder to her; she would need to be fully prepared for the frontal onslaught of ‘Vadrafication.’ Anyone who aspires to be a leader of the Congress party in these exceedingly partisan times must be geared up for hostile scrutiny from a hostile government. No quarters will be given, or should be expected.

Even if a Gandhi can stand up to inspired vendetta and vengeance, there would still remain the challenge of changing the party as a political instrument, relevant to the needs and temper of the changed times, of a changed India. If the Communist Party of China can undertake drastic organisational and ideological refurbishing, there is no reason to assume that the Congress would remain a prisoner of its past. As a dynasty fundamentalist, Priyanka can bring in an attitude that was once attributed to VS Naipaul: “a conservative vision but a radical eyesight.”

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune

Courtesy: The Tribune