Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi (File) Image Credit: AP

When India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power six years ago, its electoral slogan was a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (India free from the Congress).

By the turn of the decade, as recent events clearly show, it seems that BJP does not need to do much on this front, the Congress itself seems quite efficient in hastening the process.

India’s GOP is painting a rather shoddy picture of itself these days. As the recent Congress Working Committee meeting unfolded last week, the party that led India to its independence from British rule, just could not decide for itself whether it could free itself from its long-nurtured culture of cronyism and inability to look beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family for leadership.

The future of India’s GOP is doomed unless the part manages to attract young blood. But for that to happen, the old order needs to move aside. Does the Congress and its leadership have the courage to do so?

- Somshankar Bandyopadhyay

The 135-year-old institution, which held sway on the national political scene for almost the entire latter half of the past century, had long ago bitten the dust.

It seems inconceivable that a party that produced leaders in the past of the stature of the Father of the Nation (this Gandhi was no Gandhi of the family), Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bidhan Chandra Roy, among others, today finds that it cannot look beyond the dynasty to lead it forward.

And it has been this way for the last 50 years or more. The Congress party is now become a private fiefdom of one family and its cronies.

More on the issue

Not a blade of grass moves in the party unless ‘Madam’ (the nom de guerre Sonia Gandhi is known by in party circles) approves. And so is the ‘baba’, the affectionate term for the son.

But ‘baba’ Rahul Gandhi started with some promise, at least. As he took over the reins of the youth wing of the party, he had a host of promising young leaders by his side — most notably, Jyotiraditya Scindia, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior, whose father Madhavrao was not only close to Rajiv Gandhi but also a most prominent leader in his own right, and Sachin Pilot, son of the late Rajesh Pilot, another prominent leader in his heydays.

Loyalists, cronies and yes-men

Now, Scindia has forsaken the GOP and crossed over to the saffron side, where his aunt Vasundhara Raje is already a top leader, as was her late mother. Pilot, after steering the Congress to a rare electoral victory in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, was unjustifiably not granted the Chief Minister’s post, which went to family loyalist Ashok Gehlot. The young Pilot recently rebelled, but that fire has been stymied somewhat, at least for the moment.

To be fair, Rahul initially did try to make amends to this culture, when he sought to hold ‘primaries’ to decide on party positions and prospective electoral candidates. The utter failure of this exercise became evident when most of those who won these primaries were found to be close to the family anyway. The exercise remains stillborn.

To look back into how the party has come to this state, it is worth looking back into the pages of history. After suffering the first electoral setback in 1967 and with personalities like Jayprakash Narayan, K Kamraj, Morarji Desai and increasingly others calling the shots, Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, split the party, forming the Congress (I), to ensure her grip on the party remained absolute. It was filled with her cronies, one of whom, DK Baruah, famously proclaimed: “India is Indira!”

A culture of sycophancy

And so started this culture of cronyism, which has eaten into the party, bit by bit, day by day.

It is worth noting that ‘Madam’ arrived in India in 1968 after her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi. A year later, her mother-in-law split the party. Thus Sonia Gandhi has never seen anything apart from the culture of sycophancy and cronyism in the Congress, where the writ of the family held sway.

Those who would not bow down were hounded out, the most famous probably being the case of Mamata Banerjee, who split the West Bengal unit to form her Trinamool Congress, and managed to unseat the Left Front after their 34 years of rule in the state.

Today, 23 of the party’s prominent leaders, notable among whom are Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor and Ghualm Nabi Azad, are seeking a way to pull the party out of the quagmire, the first step of which is to find a leader.

The party president’s post has been vacant since its rout in the 2019 parliamentary polls, with ‘Madam’ staying as interim president. The hasty compromise reached at the CWC meeting shows the desperation of the family and its cronies to stick to the status quo.

As its stands today, the Congress can only sing to its former glory. The party machinery is at a standstill, a complete ‘policy paralysis’ as was evident in its running of the country’s affairs between 2009 and 2014, mired as it was in coalition politics.

The future of India’s GOP is doomed unless the part manages to attract young blood. But for that to happen, the old order needs to move aside. Does the Congress and its leadership have the courage to do so?