Never mind the substance, the Congress Party does seem to care for the form (though under the dictate of the Election Commission). Despite the fact that there is a solitary candidate for election as Congress President, there shall be no announcement of the outcome until all the 89 nomination papers in favour of the Crown Prince are scrutinized. And the date for that earth-shaking announcement is set for December 11. There are some inflictions in the name of democracy which Indians must suffer. The fiction that the succession in the grand old party from the mother to the son is meant to bear witness to its democratic credentials. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. But, then, if the party has become hostage to the whims and fancies of one family, it is, in the final analysis, nobody else’s but its own fault. Clearly, there is no one brave enough in its ranks who can offer a credible challenge to the Gandhi scion. The likes of Shehzad Poonawala are too insignificant to count bar a few newspaper headlines. Admittedly, there is a kernel of truth in the argument that without the Gandhis at its helm, the party would disintegrate into rival factions due to the clashing ambitions of its leaders. Yet, such a process eventually might throw up a genuine leader who shows the promise to win back the trust of the people. The Nehru-Gandhi brand, having lost much of its capital, now depends on the failures of the non-Congress parties. If after thirteen years as an MP, Rahul Gandhi appears to be acquiring some traction, it is essentially because there is a lack of option in the States where the Congress still enjoys pockets of influence. For instance, in Gujarat. Elections in the State have all along been a two-horse race and, therefore, the benefit of anti-incumbency of 22 years is bound to redound to the credit of the Congress Party. But the bigger challenge for the newly-minted Congress President would be to make the party relevant in the Hindi heartland. Unless the party can make headway in UP and Bihar, a positive turn in its fortunes is bound to prove elusive. Given that he had been the de facto boss of the party even when Sonia Gandhi was the formal head, his own elevation in her place ought to suggest a mere symbolic change.
The relatively young leaders, though at 47 Rahul is middle-aged rather than young, should expect to be rewarded for loyalty. People like the 46-year-old Jyotiraditya Scindia, a true blue-blooded raja until Rahul’s grandmother in a populist move snatched his ancestor’s princely title, having played second fiddle to the Congress’s hereditary prince, will now expect, at the very least, to be anointed the party’s chief-ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh. Never mind how Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh will react to this firman from the new Congress boss, but Scindia’s elevation could be on the cards. Likewise, in a couple of other States, the scions of old Congress satraps are waiting to be blessed by the Congress’s regent-turned-emperor. The charge of dynastic rule in the Congress may have lost much of its sting after a large number of regional parties began to ape the GOP, with their founders handing the party to their children, but it still militates against the democratic spirit. Aside from the BJP and the Communists, there is hardly any major political party which is free from the taint of dynasty, though even in these parties, a number of MPs and MLAs seem to have taken over from where their family elders had left off. Indian politics cannot seem to be fully insulated from the pull of dynastic succession.
Meanwhile, the formal switch from Sonia to Rahul Gandhi after 19 years can have some meaning if only the new chief consciously tries to democratize the working of the party, by constituting through an electoral process various panels of the party, including the Congress Working Committee and the Parliamentary Board. Also, as the leader of the main Opposition party, it would be fruitful if the party displayed less lung power and more intellectual heft inside Parliament. Disruptions and blind opposition to government cannot earn it new converts. Constructive criticism of government is always welcome but obstruction inside and outside Parliament is not. Meanwhile, whether Rahul Gandhi is loved by all Congressmen, as the former PM Manmohan Singh – reminding one of his assertion that all Indians loved George Bush while he was on a State visit to the US – or it is an Aurangzebi succession, as the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar said in an elliptical manner, every Congress member is obliged to accept the inevitable. The real challenge for Rahul Gandhi is to prove that he can be far more than a mere hereditary leader.