Rahul Gandhi’s role as heir to the 137-year-old Congress Party is very apparent after the Udaipur “Nav Vikalp Chintan Shivir”. It was obvious long before and reconfirmed after political strategist Prashant Kishor’s firm but polite refusal of the party’s membership offer. The unsettled question, however, is what is his role, responsibility and accountability in a party that has pledged to restructure itself through a democratic dialogue which promises transparency, but is blithely opaque about the leader and how that leader will be elected or stealthily inserted.
After abdicating his post as party president following the dismal performance of the Congress in the 2019 general election, it is appropriate to ask, in what capacity did Rahul Gandhi address the assembled party leaders, the media and, by extension, India’s voters at the end of the Chintan Shivir? As a general secretary, he is just one of many. If his rambling address was as a member of the Gandhi family, it means the party has reinstated Rahul as the proprietor, which makes nonsense of the democratic exercise of engaging in a “conservation” or dialogue.
Like the Caesars, who established a dynasty over republican Rome, the Gandhis cemented their ownership of the run-down party through the Chintan Shivir. As long as the Congress and the Gandhis fail to achieve a separation and Rahul gets away by saying that from his perspective, “you are my family”, the prospect of revival and reconstruction is bleaker than ever before. The claim that the Congress is the only party that can hold a conversation with itself, where every shade of dissent is allowed, is fairly dubious. By his own admission, Rahul Gandhi proctored every officially scheduled conversation. An exercise in openness that was tightly controlled does not add up to a free and fair exchange of views, nor a business-like exercise in reconstruction.
The Congress, like all other political parties, including the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is an institution in a competitive electoral democracy. By that logic, members of political parties are not family. The BJP talks in the idiom of paternalism, describing itself and the hordes of organisations it has spawned as its “parivar”, or family. By reducing the Congress to his family, Rahul Gandhi is denying the party the status of a political institution and erasing the history of its leaders, unconnected to the Nehru family, including the Mahatma and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Azad, and many more.
The outcome of the intensive exercise in reflection produced no seismic shift on the crisis of leadership and strategy, and Rahul acknowledged that “this conversation is not new in the Congress”. Nor is his declaration “I stand with you”, and “all my life is dedicated to this fight”, meaning against the RSS-BJP’s divisive and incendiary ideology. That doesn’t count as a consequential change.
Even less illuminating is the realisation from the exercise in contemplation is the admission that the Congress has lost its connect with the masses. Voters have emphatically delivered judgment on the Congress as a party that has lost its credibility as the national alternative in 2019 and in multiple Assembly elections over the past several decades. The vow to re-establish the broken connection with the masses is just words; there is nothing transformational or inspiring in them.
The claim to foresight by Rahul Gandhi that India is on the brink of an inferno is not original; what is intriguing is that he didn’t call it what it could so easily become, a civil war. The spiralling tensions, the source of which can all be traced back to the BJP’s identity politics and hegemonist strategy that is committed to establishing a Hindu Rashtra on one hand and creating a One Nation-One Party State on the other, are in danger of sparking a conflagration.
The international community has articulated it in surveys and the media, the most recent being the Economist’s cover story summing it up neatly as “India’s moment: Will Modi blow it?” The magazine notes that “the biggest threat to all this is India’s incendiary politics”, that is the simmering religious tensions “stoked by the anti-Muslim chauvinism of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in power since 2014 under the strongman Prime Minister, Narendra Modi”.
Lofty declarations that it’s not the Congress’ goal to fight against one party but against the entirety of enemies embedded in every institution and the ideology of the RSS-BJP sound hollow, when there are significant elections coming up. The elections of the President and vice-president are due in July. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will vote at the end of the year and in 2023, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura and three other Northeast states will go to the polls.
With its back to the wall, almost no political capital, it wasn’t clever of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress to dismiss the regional parties as caste- based, parochial organisations that lacked the specific ideological ammunition necessary to take on an adversary like the BJP. At a time when these regional parties are already in conversation with each other about the forthcoming presidential election, possible collaborations and a collective strategy to take on the BJP in 2024, alienating potential allies and vote multipliers is a move that exposes Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, including Sonia Gandhi, as incompetent politicians.
Leisurely as ever, the Congress has decided it will begin the long-term fight first by going on a “Bharat Jodo Yatra” starting October 2. By then, the BJP will certainly have arrived at the final stretch of the race to win the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections.
If the Congress can’t juggle and strategise its long-term political tasks of fighting the BJP ideologically and the immediate target of defeating the party in some states in the elections due in 2022 and 2023, it should abandon its bragging as the only party capable of unifying India.
The Congress, it seems, has indulged in a pointless exercise in Udaipur. The purpose of reflection was not to settle the issue of the head of whatever remains of the Congress undivided family. The expectation was that the Congress would talk of how it would reorganise to take on the formidably effective machinery of the BJP and RSS by listing winnable fights and concentrating its depleted resources to make breakthroughs. Its failure to unveil a calendar of concrete actions is the outcome of proctored conversations by a leader, who is neither in as president nor out of office, using Sonia Gandhi as proxy and ducking accountability by talking about the Congress as a family.