Haryana shows that Congress’ high command is best kept symbolic
The Haryana results bring home the importance of strong regional leaders, something that has sustained the Congress in the Sonia years. The era of a single leader steering the Congress throughout India had ended with Rajiv Gandhi.
What the future holds for the Congress is to an extent dependent on how one reads the recent history of the party. And in this reading lie lessons for the party’s future.
The Haryana elections came at a time when Rahul Gandhi had suddenly quit the party president’s post, leaving it to fend for itself. His sudden exit also started a power struggle within the party, which was looking powerless to observers and doomed to a long phase of political irrelevance.
The Haryana elections suggest that his exit turned out to be beneficial for the party.
Rahul’s undoing was not just that he was seen as a part-time politician, a dynast and an ordinary orator. Nor was it just the propaganda war that he had been subject to for years on the social media.
Perhaps a big mistake on the part of Rahul Gandhi was that he – in the name of democratising the party and ensuring a leadership churn – made himself the de facto fulcrum of its activities.
There are reasons why this was a bad idea. And these reasons are to be understood through a fundamental rereading of the Congress’ recent history.
The popular belief is that the Congress was a high-command based party since the days of Indira Gandhi – with a brief Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesari interlude – and that the Nehru-Gandhi family was what kept it a fighting force. Even this writer subscribed to this view till days back.
However, this view misses the detail, as it stands independently of the varying degrees of electoral heft the party has exercised over the decades.
A better formulation would be that the Congress was synonymous with the family only from the times of Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi. After that, the nature of the Congress changed. The family, however, stayed like symbolic glue strictly for organizational purposes. In the minds of the people, the Congress existed in pockets of regional influence, which added to substantial numbers to stitch together a ruling coalition at the Centre. And it had a skilled central bureaucracy of sorts for governance. This was at the heart of the Congress’ survival from 2004 to 2014, a period that is erroneously seen as synonymous with the overarching power of Sonia Gandhi.
Let me spell out why I say so.
The Congress was synonymous with the family only when the family could ensure convincing victories like Indira Gandhi could and Rajiv Gandhi did once, during a sympathy wave for Indira in 1984.
These phases had a unique characteristic that showed the family’s power: Uttar Pradesh, the home of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s political legacy, would be in the Congress’ lap, but for the 1977, post-Emergency, election.
Once the Congress lost UP from 1989 due to a social shift towards Hindutva and Mandal politics, the family was just the glue to ensure that the Congress’ regional satraps and bureaucratic central leadership could pay it symbolic obeisance and keep things running.
Let it not be forgotten that even in 2004, Sonia Gandhi was not seen as a match for Atal Behari Vajpayee in stature. What really turned the scales in favour of the Congress that year was the Andhra Pradesh surprise. NDA-ally Chandrababu Naidu bit the dust when the state went to Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls in May 2004, and the Congress swept the state, which stood witness to the rise of a powerful regional satrap in YSR Rajashekhar Reddy. Reddy had walked across the state on foot in the Andhra summer in 2003 to build a groundswell of support for his party. The Andhra Pradesh result put the NDA tally back and gave the Congress and UPA tally a boost, making the Congress edge past the BJP in its individual tally.
After that, YSR became a brand in Andhra Pradesh. And he stayed so till his death in an air crash in 2009, after which the Congress could neither find his able replacement nor accept his son Jaganmohan Reddy as his successor.
The point here is that Sonia Gandhi’s name could not make the Congress win – not even in UP, except for her own seat Rae Bareli. And even in Amethi and Rae Bareli, non-BJP parties have in recent years spared the Congress a contest, which has made these seats easier for the Congress. It is a different matter that Rahul Gandhi lost Amethi in 2019 despite this, but it is an open question whether Sonia can herself retain Rae Bareli if the SP and BSP field candidates there.
The Congress stayed relevant as a political force in the Sonia years, not on the basis of her influence in UP – she had hardly any influence there – but on the basis of regional leaders like YSR in Andhra Pradesh, Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana, Tarun Gogoi and Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, Amarinder Singh in Punjab and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan.
Sonia Gandhi acted as a facilitator for this, standing above the fray as a symbolic head. Her refusal to become Prime Minister in 2004 had further cemented her symbolic status. Rarely was she seen on TV delivering too many speeches. Her speeches never stood out in the Congress and were reported matter-of-factly.
The rise of Rahul Gandhi disrupted this delicate balance, with the young leader trying to play an Indira or Rajiv, thus laying claim to the status of the Congress’ de-facto national leader. In the name of democratisation of the party, he tried to promote his hand-picked leaders. None of these leaders has to date been able to become a mass leader. Let alone a state, none of them have even been a sure winner on his/her own seat.
Rahul also started touring the country in the last one-two years, trying to become for the Congress what Narendra Modi is for the BJP today. He tried to develop an aggressive style of oratory, which was different from that of his mother. But, this centrality of Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the Congress was at odds with a ground reality: his party had no base in UP, where he himself came from. And this was exposed most brutally when he lost his own election in Amethi in 2019.
The exit of Himanta Biswa Sarma from the Congress – and the Assam strongman proved to be a prized catch for the BJP, helping it make deep inroads into the north-eastern states for the first time – was also in part because of Rahul. Congress insiders say that when Sarma had sought an appointment with Rahul, the latter seemed so utterly disinterested in addressing his concerns about his position in the Assam Congress that Sarma decided to leave the party and join the BJP.
The Haryana result is an opportunity for the Congress to realize that the only role of the Nehru-Gandhi family today is that of symbolic glue for the party. None in the family today is an Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, who lived and died as the country’s most influential leaders by a distance.
The new Congress has to stand on the strength of its regional leaders. They already have some, like Amarinder Singh and Hooda, in place and have to groom some others. It is only a sum total of state tallies that will ensure that the Congress tides over the days of BJP hegemony under Modi. And whenever that begins to fade, the Congress will have regional leaders to help it claw back as a major force in politics. And it is these regional leaders who will be able to take up governance issues, like farm crisis and unemployment, in ways that make an electoral impact.
The Congress would do well to remember that its high command in the past two decades was just a symbol to hold the party together. And it would do well to realize that Rahul’s attempt to steer things single-handedly has backfired badly.