Three Reasons Why Rahul Gandhi Should Step Down
The party has to fix accountability at the top, if it wants people to take its claim of being modern and inclusive seriously.
After the poll debacle of the Congress for the second time in a row, there is much debate over whether party chief Rahul Gandhi should step down.
There are edits that seek to know whether the grand old party – now a shadow of its former self – is ready to hold the leadership coming from the Nehru-Gandhi family accountable.
This is a question the party may have to address sooner rather than later, if it wishes to be a relevant political force.
Rahul Gandhi himself said at the Congress Working Committee meeting on Saturday that he wanted to step down. He also said a person from outside the family could take charge, as the party chief did not have to be from one family.
However, predictably, an emotional CWC refused to accept his resignation. NDTV reported that Gandhi was insisting on stepping down even after this, even as reports came in that his sister Priyanka Gandhi was of the view that this was not the correct time to resign.
While many have wondered for decades why the Congress became a family-centric party since the days of Indira Gandhi – with the brief interlude of the Narasimha Rao years – there are people who argue that the party cannot stay united without the over-arching influence of the family.
The logic: unlike the BJP or the now-defunct left, the Congress is not a cadre-based party. It has been an organisation that has been a network of relations of patronage, and its leaders and cliques may drift apart if the Nehru-Gandhi family does not remain as the fulcrum.
This apart, one argument offered in support of the status quo within the Congress for decades was that it was not really “dynastic”, as members of the family were also sure vote-catchers. It was argued that since the people of Amethi and Rae Bareli always voted for leaders from the Nehru-Gandhi family – even when the Congress had declined in UP – there was a democratic basis to the family claiming leadership of the grand old party.
Critics saw it as nothing else but a Congress culture of sycophancy.
It’s true that the only electoral defeat the family suffered in its pocket boroughs was the 1977 defeat of Indira Gandhi to Raj Narain in Rae Bareli, and this too came after the Emergency, when Mrs. Gandhi suspended liberties, jailed opposition leaders, gagged the press and concentrated powers in her own hands.
The defeat, therefore, was in extraordinary circumstances.
No democratic basis for family primacy any longer
However, the defeat of Rahul Gandhi in Amethi this time is different. He had won from Amethi three times in a row. The SP and BSP had not fielded candidates against him. In other words, Amethi should have been a cakewalk for him. Yet, Smriti Irani – who had been defeated not just by Gandhi but also Kapil Sibal in the past, despite being a television celebrity – defeated Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. And it wasn’t even a question of anti-incumbency. Gandhi has never been a minister, and his party is not in power either at the Centre or in UP.
The writing on the wall seems clear: the Congress’ dismal Lok Sabha performance and Gandhi’s own defeat from Amethi is a sure sign that he – and perhaps the Nehru-Gandhi family, by extension – is not attracting mass support as the leader of the Congress.
The argument of a democratic basis for a family staying at the helm of the Congress is now weak. And the only basis for shielding the Congress chief from accountability is a party culture that refuses to accept that leaderships should emerge in a democracy not through pedigree but through measurable success in taking the party’s vision to the people.
Fifteen years after he first became active in politics, Rahul Gandhi has not succeeded in doing so. Not that there are clearly identifiable problems with him – in fact he has a remarkable ability to keep his cool even as he is relentlessly ridiculed – but mass politics is a field that requires greater traction with people than he has been able to generate.
If the Congress insists on accountability being fixed at lower levels and not at the highest level, it should be ready to be criticised for treating accident of birth as the only qualification for democratic politics. This may not work in an aspirational society. And the task ahead for the Congress is all the more difficult because there is a mass shift in public opinion towards the right. The party should also remember that a barrage of propaganda against Gandhi over the last decade has reached the last man, and many believe that he is “incompetent”. His stepping down will send a good message; his continuation may fuel the propaganda further.
A modern party should have open leadership
The Congress is still the best bet for an idea of India different from that of the BJP, as the left has been decimated.
And the Congress, and Gandhi himself, never tire of telling people that the party stands for a modern, pluralistic, inclusive India, while the BJP stands for a polarised and majoritarian India.
The grand old party would do well to remember that secularism is not the only attribute of modern politics. It is very crucial, as the modern state needs to maintain a distance from organised religion, particularly in today’s multi-religious, multicultural societies. Religion is a personal matter in a modern setting, and cannot colour public spaces in its own hue.
Yet, modernity is also an outreach to the citizen. Democracies are successors to hereditary, monarchical systems. Modern democracy promises individual as also social mobility. Its inability to look beyond a family in the most trying of circumstances does dent the Congress’ claim of being a modern, democratic, party.
With the Amethi loss, all arguments that the people themselves want the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead the grand old party ring hollow.
The Congress as the prime platform of anti-colonial struggle in colonial times saw vibrant ideological debates and a diverse leadership. Even after independence, there was a democratic depth to the way it functioned.
The turning point was the foundation of the Congress (Requisitionist) by Indira Gandhi in 1969 after she marginalised the Congress old guard, called the Syndicate, with whom she was involved in a running feud in the early days of her Prime Ministership.
The Congress (R) experiment – with which most Congress leaders sided – was the beginning of the party becoming synonymous with the leader and a family.
Apart from the brief Narasimha Rao-Sitaram Kesari phase after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination – and this is a phase most Congress leaders do not prefer to talk about – the party has been associated largely with the family in popular imagination.
The Nehru-Gandhi family has been at the helm consistently. And even if one of them offers to step down, there is a competitive emotional outburst from the rank and file of the party to hold the leader back. The same happened on Saturday.
This repeat pattern may not work any longer with voters.
Countering the establishment logic
Whether the Congress likes it or not, Narendra Modi has successfully projected himself as an “outsider” to the establishment who rose from scratch. In a country that is still underdeveloped – and where quality education and employment are still a distant dream for millions of aspiring young people – the argument that the establishment needs to be dismantled is seductive.
For millions, the establishment means the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, and not the all-powerful Prime Minister of India. The fact that influential, articulate, voices in the intelligentsia still prefer the Congress as a secular party to the BJP, which is seen as majoritarian, makes people believe that the Congress is still the party preferred by the articulate elite, nationally and globally. Modi comes across to them as one among them: he has no fancy degree and purportedly sold tea as a child.
Rahul Gandhi, unfortunately, has become a symbol of the disparity in opportunities in the country. The only way to counter this conviction in the minds of millions is by setting an example: the Congress must be seen as a party with individual mobility and accountability right to the top. This is perhaps the only way the inexplicable mass anger against the Congress – including against Jawaharlal Nehru, an ace freedom fighter and institution builder – can be countered.