Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi at a party meeting before the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year

The Indian National Congress (INC) quite clearly finds itself in an unenviable position – after getting routed in the second successive general elections, it’s now facing its worst existential crisis. And if that wasn’t enough, the announcement by its dynast president to stick by his decision to abdicate the position seems to have only further sent the party into a tizzy.

Not that the incumbent party president managed to win the confidence of voters, evident in the INC’s loss in the recent Lok Sabha elections for the second time on trot, but it definitely served as a glue that held disparate elements together thus far. No wonder, Rahul Gandhi’s stand to stick by his decision to step down as Congress president announced immediately post announcement of Lok Sabha polls results has shocked most Congressmen. The issue has also understandably drawn national attention.

Having been founded in 1885, this is without doubt the worst patch the party had had to encounter in its entire history. It had briefly been out of power in 1970s and 1990s, and for a full term only in 1999-2004 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the NDA government. However, this is for the first time that the Congress will be out of power for an entire decade. And also for the first time – and second time in a row – that it has not lost to any ragtag anti-Congress coalition, but to a party that’s clearly an anti-thesis to all that it stands for.

And though it’s too early to predict, there’s no indication either at the moment that the Congress will get its act together before the next general elections to overthrow the ruling incumbent. So, no doubt, some have already predicted a doomsday for India as a thriving democracy – a single-party rule system sans an opposition. But, be that as it may. The electorate is wise enough to decide what best suits it, and it has proven that umpteen number of times. So, let’s not doubt the wisdom of voters or waste time pondering over it.

What, however, is surprising is that many “experts” and supporters of the grand old party didn’t saw it coming despite the writings clearly on the wall for quite some time now. Actually, as if founding itself on the wrong side of people’s mandate in 2014 was not enough, the party’s woes compounded with a weak and inept leadership unable to chalk out a clear political strategy – it was fumbling and often not in sync with popular mood of the country. It appeared to lack in confidence to take on the Modi juggernaut, and the rest is history.

Actually, the crisis that the Congress is facing is its own making. Over the years, it has killed the democratic institutions within and converted itself into more of a private enterprise, even as sycophancy replaced ideology. The fulcrum of the party began to rotate around Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, instead of an explicitly stated ideology. Other than being perceived as “left of the centre” and “liberal and inclusive” as its cornerstones, there’s no stated clear objective that the masses know or identify with in terms of ideology, unlike its more illustrious bête noire BJP, which has an explicitly stated ideology besides a well-oiled party structure, or even parties like CPI or CPM.

The founding fathers of the Congress must be surely turning in their graves now at having seen the fall from public grace an organisation, if not an institution in itself, that they had so carefully started to serve as a platform for the “natives” during the colonial era, and being converted into a family-centric business – an entity where ideology and democratic institutions within have been subverted and replaced by loyalty to Nehru-Gandhi family alone.

It served as a major nationalist force and brought together some of the greatest minds of the country during the Freedom Movement. But post-Independence, the Congress metamorphosed into a full-fledged political party, like any other. While there was nothing wrong in that, the rot actually started when sycophancy to Nehru-Gandhi family became its pivot and the party essentially became a family-centric enterprise.

In fact, quite like Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra reading out “early signs of fascism” in Parliament recently, senior Congressman and parliamentarian Mahavir Tyagi too saw early signs of sycophancy and had warned Jawaharlal Nehru of such a scenario in 1950s. Tyagi had on 31 January 1959 reportedly written to Nehru how the latter was increasingly being surrounded by sycophants, who were also lobbying to make Indira Gandhi the next Congress president. But instead of addressing the issue, Nehru apparently dismissed Tyagi’s concern and replied that he won’t have any objection if the party decided to have his daughter at the helm, even as he expressed confidence on Indira’s leadership qualities. The ball of sycophancy was thus set rolling in the Congress by none other than Nehru himself.

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Of course, during Nehru’s tenure, the INC still had institutional mechanisms within to serve as balance in the pull-and-push between ideology and sycophancy. But post Indira’s takeover, the party degenerated into a purely Nehru-Gandhi family-centric enterprise where the practice of inheriting leadership from among the family members was formalised, if not legitimised, as pedigree took over merit. And senior Congressman Dev Kant Barooah’s infamous one-liner “India is Indira, Indira is India” best encapsulated this key attribute of the party.

So, as the system of hereditary leadership formally began in the party, the baton of leadership from Nehru was passed on to Indira (with short pauses in between) and then to her son Rajiv Gandhi. The party had a chance to reinvent itself post Rajiv’s violent death when there was none from the dynasty at the helm between 1991 and 1998, but it was a case of historic missed opportunity as this was squandered without accrual of any tangible benefit to the party. As by that time the party was firmly cast in the mould of a family enterprise and infighting was rampant without anyone from the dynast acting as glue, it was only natural that Sonia Gandhi was anointed its chief in March 1998. And from her, the reigns were passed on to her son Rahul Gandhi. However, as Rahul miserably failed to re-invigorate the party and having presided over two back-to-back electoral debacles, he did the wisest thing – put in his papers.

Now, while many in the Congress might be thinking that they have been virtually pushed into a dark alley at a critical juncture, fact is Rahul’s resignation has actually presented them another historic opportunity to recast the party – with a distinct ideology anchored on strong democratic foundations within, while unshackling it from the dynasty, which has of late started to give diminishing electoral returns.

Instead of pleading with Nehru-Gandhi scion to continue at the helm, the Congressmen would do well to revisit their strategy as entitlements through loyalty is unlikely to hold them in good stead any longer. And if they fail to seize this historic opportunity, the prophecies of doom will only be proved correct – the grand-old party will be consigned to the pages of history.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)

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