After Rahul Gandhi, what lies ahead for Congress
Rahul emphasised that Congress must "radically transform itself" to be the voice of the people.
Rahul Gandhi’s resignation letter, officially quitting the post of Congress president, has only deepened the crisis in the grand old party. It should have been the first step towards resolution. Instead, it has thrown up a host of questions which Rahul himself must answer if he genuinely wants to see the Congress live to fight another day.
The decision to step down is clearly an attempt to set new standards of political morality by owning responsibility for the Congress’s drubbing in the recent parliamentary polls. But accountability does not end there. As the person entrusted with the task of leading as its president, Rahul cannot simply walk away without so much as a backward glance just because he lost. It is incumbent on him to help with the transition process so that change is smooth and painless.
In fact, he has a double responsibility because the Nehru-Gandhi family is the core of the Congress that Indira Gandhi crafted after the great split of 1969. Rahul summarily dismissed pleas to reconsider his resignation, saying that a member of the Gandhi family need not be the party president.
He was being disingenuous. The Gandhis have run the party like a family concern for more than four decades. Only two non-Gandhis have headed the party since 1978. The first was PV Narasimha Rao after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and Sonia Gandhi declined requests to take her husband’s place. The second was Sitaram Kesri who took over from Rao after the Congress lost the 1996 Lok Sabha election.
Both times, the party started splintering as disgruntled Congress leaders sought their fortunes elsewhere. That’s when Sonia stepped in and became president. Her reasons for setting aside her reluctance and taking the plunge into active politics are revealing.
In a television interview some years later, she said that every day she would walk past life-size photographs of her husband and mother-in-law hanging at her 10 Janpath residence. “How can I get up every morning and have these pictures stare at me from the wall?” she asked.
She sugarcoated her decision by attributing it to her sense of responsibility and duty but her proprietary attitude towards the party was obvious. Only a member of the Gandhi family could run the Congress.
There’s little to indicate that Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra do not share similar sentiments of duty bordering on a sense of entitlement. There was a glimmer of it in the way Priyanka scolded party workers in Rae Bareli and Amethi for not putting in enough effort to win. She seemed oblivious of the fact that party workers need motivation and inspired leadership. They are not paid employees of a political organisation.
There were echoes of this in Rahul’s resignation letter as well. While saying he’s accountable for the defeat, he also spread the blame around. “As president of the Congress party, I am responsible for the loss of the 2019 election. Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party. It is for this reason that I have resigned as Congress president," he wrote and then added, "Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party."
Impressive words but what do they actually mean in real-time action? Is Rahul¡¦s retreat temporary till all those whom he blames for the defeat also quit? He named some in his outburst at the May 25 Congress Working Committee meeting: Kamal Nath, P Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot. These are all members of the old guard who, he feels, have not accepted his authority fully.
There was another salvo in his letter which has sent ripples of disquiet through the party. While elaborating on his fight against Modi and the BJP, he said, "At times I stood completely alone and I am proud of it." Again, he seemed to be pointing a finger at senior leaders who, he felt, did not back his campaign against Narendra Modi on the Rafale fighter aircraft deal.
Kamraj Plan 2.0?
Questions keep mounting. When Rahul talks of "hard decisions", is he indicating that the old guard, most of whom are members of the CWC, must quit too? A Kamraj Plan 2.0? Then what? Will a new, younger leadership take over?
Rahul emphasised in his letter that the Congress must "radically transform itself" to become the instrument to resuscitate institutions and be the voice of the people. Does he intend to be part of the transformation? Or does he want to call it a day and quit politics altogether?
Obviously, there is much more to Rahul's resignation than meets the eye. Sooner or later, he must take the questions head on and clarify his future role and plans. A Gandhi cannot be just another member of the party, a loyal foot soldier. He or she will always be a power centre with the capacity to undercut a new president. So, unless Rahul intends to fade away gently along with the rest of the Gandhis and leave the Congress to its own devices, he must step out from behind the wall of silence he has erected around himself.
That better be sooner than later, given the disarray in the Congress and the speed with which it is unravelling. The most telling sign of the confusion and demoralisation in the ranks was the listless body language of party MPs on budget day while Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was speaking.
Even when she announced a hike in excise duty on petrol and diesel, there was no reaction from Congress MPs. In better times, they would have been on their feet shouting in protest. Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy turned out to be the lone voice of dissent from the opposition benches as he asked Sitharaman why she had ignored the middle classes in her budget and given them no relief.
The writer is a political commentator.