Sonia Gandhi's move to take up Congress chief's post in the interim indicates measure of honesty in decision-making

  • One hopes that internal elections for the post, which may not take place for another year, will eventually throw up a talented leader that may give Congress some direction

  • For that to happen, the basic structure of Congress as a family business needs to change. At this point, it seems to stiff a hope.

  • The Nehru-Gandhi family serves as the glue that holds the party together

Sonia Gandhi's return as interim president of the Congress is probably the most honest decision the beleaguered party could have taken. The ensuing implosion in the party since Rahul Gandhi's resignation tells us that the Grand Old Party remains incapable of surviving as a political entity without a Gandhi at helm. If one were to draw a Machiavellian conclusion from the drama that unfolded in Congress since 23 May, it may be said that Rahul resigned as party chief and remained steadfast on his decision despite desperate pleas from rank and file because the dynast was keen to reinforce the family's indispensability in the Congress universe.

Let's stretch this argument a little. If the above surmise is correct, why did Rahul feel the need to do so? For that, we need to understand the symbiotic relationship between the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family. The family serves as the glue that holds the party together. But that's not its only job. Members of the family also remain, by far, the party’s biggest vote-catchers. In fact, the family wields its authority over the party by drawing power from these twin functions. In return, it demands unquestioned allegiance and holds its position as the party’s final arbitrator and highest authority — the ‘high command’.

 Sonia Gandhis move to take up Congress chiefs post in the interim indicates measure of honesty in decision-making

File image of interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. PTI

This command-and-control structure that remains the pivot on which Congress revolves took a first major hit in 2014. Yet, the Congress could not understand the true nature of the crisis — both in terms of its own increasing irrelevance and the rise of BJP as the pole of national politics. It tried to describe the 2014 debacle as a ‘Black Swan’ event — a never-to-be-repeated coincidence of circumstances. The debilitating blow in 2019 — despite a marginal increase in seats it was in reality a more soul-crushing defeat for the Congress — it could offer no such excuse. For dynasty-driven parties such as the Congress, a long hibernation from power is a recipe for disaster. It was faced with many questions, but no answers.

This is where the ‘command-and-control’ structure that runs on the Nehru-Gandhi family’s writ came unstuck. It suddenly dawned on many Congress leaders — lower, middle and even top-rung — that the Gandhi family, the old aristocracy in New India, is terminally losing its mass appeal. Contrary to what the Congress Working Committee has been claiming and some family retainers have been propagating, the 2019 result thoroughly exposed Rahul as an inept, incompetent leader whose brash personality, shallow grasp of politics and propensity for fact-free bombast was rejected unambiguously by the public.

The Congress president chose his strategy, his generals and even threw the kitchen sink at Narendra Modi during campaign. He ended up losing his family bastion in Amethi. His ability as a leader — in an electoral campaign where he was pitted against the prime minister — was called into question. It is here that Rahul’s gambit to quit as party chief and make it appear as some sort of a supreme sacrifice was a clever manoeuvre. Leave alone reviving the Congress, Rahul ensured an even greater defeat for his party. His resignation should have been inevitable and a non-event. Instead, Rahul made a virtue out of necessity and dragged on the conversation over his resignation in public space over a three-month period where Congress’s structural flaws and inherent weaknesses were exposed.

Even as senior leaders begged for Rahul to withdraw his resignation, the dynast rebuffed all overtures and it soon became evident that the party needs the family more than the family needs the party. It is in this context, with the family's primacy firmly reestablished, that the eight-hour drama played out during the CWC meeting.

According to reports, along with the 54 CWC members, nearly every Congress leader from all corners of the country balked at suggestions of different names doing the rounds — such as young leaders Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia or veterans Mallikarjun Kharge or Mukul Wasnik — and pleaded with Rahul to continue.

The Times of India notes in a report that Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar apparently told the CWC sub-group that none but Sonia may replace Rahul and "threatened to sit at home if every Tom, Dick and Harry were appointed. Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa warned some have left and others too would leave the party if the organisation continued to be rudderless". Hindustan Times notes in a report that Sonia, who initially was averse to return to the post after relinquishing it in favour of her son in 2017, insisted that a line be inserted into the CWC resolution that read that Rahul had refused to withdraw his resignation. "Consequently, the CWC unanimously resolved to request Sonia Gandhi to take over Interim President pending the election of a regular President by the AICC [All India Congress Committee]".

While the charade followed a pattern and had an anti-climactic end, the larger point isn't to be missed. It would have been easier for the Gandhis to appoint a titular head as party president whose role would be little more than a seat-warmer or a place holder. Since the Gandhis remain the real power centres of the party, the president would have been a puppet with responsibility sans power. That arrangement would have suited the Gandhis well since further failures could be blamed on the party chief.

The fact that Sonia eventually took up the responsibility (even if interim) speaks of a measure of honesty in decision making. One hopes that internal elections for the post, which may not take place for another year, will eventually throw up a talented leader that may give Congress some direction. For that to happen, the basic structure of Congress as a family business needs to change. At this point, it seems too stiff a hope.

Updated Date: Aug 12, 2019 08:38:22 IST