The Congress has been reduced to a miniscule Opposition party in Parllament, the lowest in its history.
India’s proud Congress Party which led the country’s struggle for independence from British rule, and which has been in power for most of the last 73 years, is on the verge of breaking up. The revolt of 23 senior Congressmen, as articulated in a letter that was leaked to the national daily the Indian Express a few days ago, signaled the split. The letter asked for a “leadership change” and “internal democracy”. The obvious target was the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul.
In effect, the dissenters were asking that Sonia Gandhi step down as interim president of the Congress and make way for a new, elected leader within the party. The implication was that she and her son, Rahul, had failed to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) juggernaut which had rolled over the Congress in two successive general elections in 2014 and 2018. The Congress has been reduced to a miniscule Opposition party in Parllament, the lowest in its history, and thereby unable to provide a national alternative to the BJP. In the different Indian states as well, the BJP is now mostly in power. It has been a humiliating decline for the Congress. The BJP leader and Prime Minister for the last six years, Narendra Modi, has put Rahul Gandhi in the shade, outshining him as a spell-binding speaker and outstanding communicator. Modi is able to successful put a positive spin on even the most negative initiatives, like the disastrous demonetisation. Rahul Gandhi is no match to him.
In all the major democracies, once a leader loses a General Election, he or she gives way to a new leader, with the Opposition party coming to power. This happened even to the great Winston Churchill, when his Tory party under his leadership, lost to the Labour Party under Clement Atlee, following the Second World War. Churchill had to go. In the USA, though both Al Gore and Hilary Clinton lost by the narrowest of margins (they both won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college), they had to give way to another leader of their party.
In India, however, dynastic rule has prevailed, to the dismay of a growing number of Indians. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was followed, by his daughter, Indira Gandhi (except for a brief period when Lal Bahadur Shastri was Prime Minister). Her son, Rajiv, succeeded her after her assassination in 1984. Rajiv’s rule was cut short by the Bofors gun kickbacks scandal. Just when it looked he would be re-elected, he was also assassinated. Since Rajiv and Sonia’s son, Rahul, was considered too young to succeed, P.V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister. But Sonia was the power behind the throne, grooming her son to take over. The BJP was at the helm for a short while but was surprisingly defeated by the Congress in 2004. Sonia was unchallenged, and she then made the smartest move in her political career, by making the much respected economist and former Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister.
Dr Singh’s first term was an outstanding one, with the Indian economy being further liberalized and recording a high growth. But the second term from 2009 to 2014 was mainly a disaster, with one corruption scam after another, though Dr Singh himself was untouched by them. Meanwhile, Modi was building up his image as a successful and “clean” Chief Minister of Gujarat. He took over the leadership of the BJP and together they trounced the Congress and Rahul Gandhi in 2014 and repeated it last year.
It was evident to every thoughtful Indian – and many in the Congress as well – that the duo of Sonia and son had failed lamentably, and it was time for change. The present revolt is the result. The dissenters include big and respected names, such as Shashi Tharoor, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad. The so-called “loyalists” to the Gandh, on the other side, are also key players in the Congress, like current chief ministers, Ashok Gehlot and Amarinder Singh. Dr Manmohan Singh is also among the “loyalists”. Sonia Gandhi has said she has been “hurt” by the revolt. But she and her son have decided to dig their heels in and not give into the call for a “leadership change”.
The pity of the split in the Congress is that there is so much that has been going wrong lately with BJP rule that a more vigorous and united Opposition could have exploited. Some of the more extreme forms that Hindutva is taking makes many Indians, even in the BJP, uneasy. Communal Hindu fanatics have increasingly targeted Muslims, whether it is over the cow slaughter ban and the eating of beef, or the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which is seen to be discriminatory against Muslims. The lynching of Muslims and the killing of dissenters are poorly investigated by a police force that is becoming increasingly communal and under the thumb of the ruling party. In elections, the BJP puts up very few Muslim candidates. Little wonder that they feel they are being marginalized, even though they number around 200 million, 15 percent of the Indian population. The building of a new Hindu temple on the site of a demolished mosque, the foundation stone of which was recently laid by the Prime Minister, amidst great ceremony, are an indication of how even the Central government is entirely Hindu-oriented. Nehru, for instance, would never have laid the foundation stone of any religious place of worship.
The “Idea of India”, as enunciated by people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad, and Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, was an inclusive nation in which all castes and communities would live in peace and harmony. That idea is being imperiled by a narrow, exclusive ideology. The Congress intrinsically has those values of inclusiveness. It would be a great shame if they go by default for a dynasty whose time is up.
– The writer is a former Editor of Khaleej Times
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