Rahul Gandhi's resignation as Congress chief a conscious exercise of power, grudging acceptance that organisation needs to be rebuilt
One thing the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president will not do to him is to reduce his status to even that of primus inter pares or first among equals. He will continue to tower over other party leaders. It is to him they will turn for settling factional disputes, build consensus on contentious policy issues, and campaign for them during elections.
Tragedy of being a Gandhi – he or she has to either helm the party or consciously take a decision to retire from politics. There seems no other way out for them unless, obviously, they do not choose to enter politics
Rahul’s resignation as Congress president marks a break from the tradition of a Gandhi having to head the party. It can be seen as his acceptance of the 2019 verdict as a vote against dynastic politics
Bereft of the capacity to impose his ideas on Congress leaders, Rahul’s push for an ideological movement is aimed at mustering the support of the people
It is an acceptance that a significant aspect of the crisis that the Congress faces is its de-ideologisation. This route of reviving the Congress is a long, lonely and tiring one
One thing the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president will not do to him is to reduce his status to even that of primus inter pares or first among equals. He will continue to tower over other party leaders. It is to him they will turn for settling factional disputes, build consensus on contentious policy issues, and campaign for them during elections. It is inconceivable to think Rahul will now merely function as an ordinary MP, participate in Lok Sabha debates, highlight the problems of his constituency of Wayanad – and then return home for a cup of coffee.
This is the tragedy of being a Gandhi – he or she has to either helm the party or consciously take a decision to retire from politics. There seems no other way out for them unless, obviously, they do not choose to enter politics.
Take Sonia Gandhi, who kept out of politics for six years after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. Persuaded to overcome her reluctance to enter politics, she became a primary member of the Congress in 1997. Sixty-two days later, she was propelled to the party's top post. Few could have had such a spectacular rise in any party around the world. Sonia remained the party president until 2017 when she passed the baton to son Rahul in 2017.
The Gandhis personify the Congress, a process which began with the split in the party in 1969. It did not matter then because the Opposition, as now, was in disarray and the Congress was in power at the Centre and in most states. The Congress president was largely irrelevant – the grand old party’s prospect was linked to the charisma of Indira Gandhi, who as prime minister dominated Indian politics, the way Narendra Modi does today.
The year 1978 marked a watershed in its history. After the Congress was voted out of power in 1977, Indira became the Congress president a year later, a post she continued to hold even after she was swept back into power in 1980. Both Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao continued the tradition of doubling up as prime minister and party president. This arrangement tacitly recognised that power was the steroid on which the party survived. Neither the organisational structure nor ideological coherence was of importance for the party.
After eight years of languishing in the Opposition, the Congress returned to power in 2004, for which Sonia Gandhi was justifiably credited. Although she chose not to become the prime minister, she remained the party’s pivot, its real powerhouse. The autonomy of Manmohan Singh as prime minister was circumscribed. It was widely perceived that Singh's was a holding operation, a patient wait for Rahul to mature and succeed him. This calculation went awry as the Congress was drubbed in 2014 and, then again, in 2019.
From this perspective, Rahul’s resignation as Congress president marks a break from the tradition of a Gandhi having to head the party. It can be seen as his acceptance of the 2019 verdict as a vote against dynastic politics. It can also be construed as an attempt to insulate the Congress from the criticism that it is little more than a family fiefdom.
Yet it is one thing to not be the party president, quite another to become one of the leaders. Rahul hasn’t been dethroned because of internal party competition. His exit as party president is voluntary. And because he hasn’t retired from politics, his resignation, ironically, also becomes a conscious exercise of power.
The clues to the goals he seeks to achieve through his resignation can be gleaned from his resignation letter. There is a grudging acceptance of the limits of charisma and the pressing need to rebuild the organisation. As Rahul says in his resignation letter, "Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party."
His resignation letter, therefore, seeks to mount moral pressure on a clutch of leaders to follow in his footsteps. He had to resort to resignation because he lacks instruments to establish his writ over leaders possessing some kind of mass base. In the days of his grandmother, a hint of displeasure sufficed to secure the acquiescence of regional satraps. Their power was not independent of Indira. Power flowed from her to them. The equation between the centre and the periphery in the party has now dramatically altered to the latter’s advantage.
There have been furious media speculations regarding leaders who Rahul wants to be held accountable for the 2019 defeat and quit. His resignation is a prompt to ordinary Congress workers to show their allegiance to the Gandhis over regional leaders. Yet it is very unlikely they will relinquish the positions of importance they hold. Gandhi’s resignation can be decoded thus: ‘Why should I shoulder the responsibility and burden of leading the party when leaders are unwilling to listen and accept my suggestions/orders?’
This sentiment was expressed in his resignation letter: "I fought because I love India. And I fought to defend the ideals India was built upon. At times, I stood completely alone and extremely proud of it." Rahul felt he did not have the support of party leaders for his ideas and strategies of combating the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi. For instance, they did not amplify Rahul's ideas, perhaps unconvinced of their efficacy. To them, Rahul is communicating through his resignation, “If you know better, why have me lead the party.”
It is hard to tell whether the Congress will "radically transform itself", as Rahul says in his resignation letter, it is must to take on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its ideology. He spells out the contours of the radical transformation he has in mind. "It is a habit in India that the powerful cling to power, no one sacrifices power. But we will not defeat our opponents without sacrificing the desire for power and fighting a deeper ideological battle."
This is a belated realisation on his part that the Congress had become a vehicle to acquire power than to nurture and propagate an ideology. The idea of sacrifice privileges the idea of social-political movement. It is this course Rahul wants the Congress ship to take, a course which will invariably see some leaders desert the party and, perhaps, join the BJP, as is already happening in some states. It would seem Rahul thinks this is the price the Congress must pay to emerge as a dynamic organisation.
Bereft of the capacity to impose his ideas on Congress leaders, Rahul’s push for an ideological movement is aimed at mustering the support of the people. This isn’t to suggest that ideology has only an instrumental function for him. It is an acceptance that a significant aspect of the crisis that the Congress faces is its de-ideologisation. This route of reviving the Congress is a long, lonely and tiring one.
His resignation frees him from the burden of managing the party on a daily basis, of having to balance contending factions, of incessantly worrying about electoral fortunes. For sure, Congress leaders will seek his intervention. He will likely emulate his mother, whom party leaders often approached with their problems during the two years he had been the Congress president. They were told to approach Rahul as he was the Congress president.
Freed from managing the party, Rahul will remain the influencer in the party. His status of being a Gandhi guarantees that. His resignation letter is a pursuit of politics through other means.
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