India’s Congress party faces crisis after crushing election defeat

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Rahul Gandhi has long been seen as a reluctant politician, whose only real claim to leadership of the 134-year-old Indian National Congress party was his illustrious political pedigree, as the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Indian prime ministers.

Now, after the Congress party’s humiliation in India’s recent general elections, the 48-year-old is adamant about renouncing his political inheritance, insisting he will step down as Congress president to pave the way for new leadership, according to a person with knowledge of the party’s internal discussions.

Mr Gandhi – who is the fifth generation of his family to lead the Congress but has few tangible achievements to his own credit – has never seemed comfortable in politics, and has struggled to sell himself, and his ideas, to a young population striving for better lives than their parents.

The question now is whether the party that has become accustomed to having a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family lead its rival factions will let him go quietly – and if it does, whether it can survive his departure, agree on new way to run itself, and serve as a constructive opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascendant Bharatiya Janata party.

“People cannot imagine a Congress without the Gandhi family, but the existence of the Gandhi family itself is a profound disadvantage to the party and the Congress,” said Kapil Komireddi, author Malevolent Republic, a new book about India’s political culture.

“Rahul Gandhi is seen as the embodiment of privilege and entitlement, and no one is attracted by that any more,” Mr Komireddi said. “Modi has been able to use the Gandhi family as a totem of unearned privilege and elitism in India, and the existence of this dynasty [in the Congress] has enabled and accelerated Modi’s rise.”

Founded amid the fervour of India’s anti-colonial struggle – and for decades after 1947 when India gained independence considered the country’s “default party of governance” – the Congress party is today a pale shadow of the thriving organisation that once boasted proud, loyal party workers in virtually every town and village.

In the 1970s, Mr Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi – whose father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s first post-independence prime minister – crushed internal party democracy. She took over all decision-making power, including the choice of state level leaders, turning the party into an elaborate patronage network.

That stifling command-and-control system has remained intact ever since, as the party was led by a succession of Mrs Gandhi’s heirs: her son, Rajiv; her daughter-in-law Sonia; and Rahul, who took over the presidency from his mother in December 2017. In this authoritarian internal culture, a coterie of politicians close to the family pushed the narrative that the Gandhi dynasty was the necessary glue that held the Congress together.

But independent analysts say the family’s total domination has sapped the party of the energy and dynamism needed to compete for power. “Internal democracy was one of the sources of vitality in the Congress party,” said Louise Tillin, a professor of politics at King’s India Institute at King’s College London. “It allowed an infusion of new blood, and provided an outlet for factional feuds.”

On entering politics, Mr Gandhi had spoken passionately about trying to end dynastic control over Congress, so that family lineage was no longer the basis of leadership. But his tentative experiments with internal democracy – including party primaries to choose parliamentary candidates – petered out.

“It was a very half-baked attempt, and it was kind of emblematic of Rahul Gandhi’s general M.O. [modus operandi] – more talk than action, and a lot of new initiatives that later just kind of flounder,” said Milan Vaishnav, author of several books on Indian politics. “I chalk it up to his perpetual state of being a part-time politician.”

But the party’s second consecutive drubbing in national elections – it won just 52 of the 543 parliament seats – has brought on an existential crisis. Mr Gandhi is reportedly determined to relinquish his role as party president, though he has yet to make any public announcement. The Congress old guard is urging him to reconsider.

Party spokesman, Randeep Singh Surjewala has refused to comment on Mr Gandhi’s intentions and released a statement that cautioned against “conjecture or speculations”, while the party charts its future course. But Ms Tillin said the party had to start imagining itself without a member of the family at the helm.

“This is surely a moment where the Congress has to reckon with the utility of continuing this dynastic hold over the party,” she said.

Even if Mr Gandhi steps aside, the future is fraught, with no guarantee that the party can revive its fortunes. But it is clear that running the Congress as a family fief can no longer be a sustainable path to eventual electoral victory.

“Everyone is worried that if you remove the family, the party falls like a house of cards,” said Mr Vaishnav. “On the other hand, if they don’t have some kind of internal rejuvenation, they risk perpetual irrelevance.”