A lot is being read into Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's statement that a non-Gandhi ought to be Congress president; she made it in the context of Rahul Gandhi's resignation after the 2019 electoral debacle, echoing his assertion that no member of his family should take up the reins. Raking up the issue a year after Sonia Gandhi became de facto party chief may be intended to scuttle the hopes of the Priyanka-for-president faction, but the overall effect is to underline the party's inability to imagine a future without the family.
The abject dependence of the Indian National Congress on the Nehru-Gandhi clan is intriguing, for two reasons. First, it is a fairly recent phenomenon and second, it is inversely proportional to the erosion of the party's support base. The more the clan has failed to deliver, the closer the party has clung to them.
The dynastic claim to leadership was established as recently as 1998, after seven years of non-Gandhis at the helm. An internal revolt in 1999 failed to dislodge the family and the claim was sanctified. For the next 20 years, anyone who objected to the Nehru-Gandhis was shouted down or shunted out. Manmohan Singh's secondary position in the Congress hierarchy was all too obvious, even when he was Prime Minister.
The family was touted as a sine qua non for keeping the party together. An obvious fallacy, given that the price of keeping them at the helm was the exit of Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed also quit to form the PDP. Several others followed a revolving door policy, namely P Chidambaram and K Karunakaran.
The departure of the YSR Congress in 2011 was a big blow. It was YSR Rajasekhara Reddy who had scripted the UPA's two terms in power, giving the UPA a critical edge by delivering 29 and 33 Lok Sabha seats in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Sonia Gandhi was clearly failing to keep the flock together. In 2016, it was family loyalist Ajit Jogi's turn to carve an independent path in Chhattisgarh.
Nor could Sonia claim credit for the wins in 2004 and 2009. She deserved praise for forging a stronger coalition than the BJP's NDA in 2004, but in no sense did she lead the party to victory. The Congress had 145 seats to the BJP's 138, a wafer-thin edge obtained thanks to the relentless efforts of YSR. The 2009 win was more credible, but owed in large measure to high growth numbers and Manmohan Singh's uncharacteristic display of spine, in standing up to the Left. At the same time, the moribund sangh parivar was riven by internal differences and put up virtually no opposition.
By 2014, the BJP had its act together while the Congress was bruised and battered by allegations of corruption. Plenty of muck was flying around and some of it landed on the first family, notably Robert Vadra. But the main problem was Rahul Gandhi's obvious lack of charisma, in stark and embarrassing contrast to Narendra Modi. Five years later, the disparity between the two was even more marked and was reflected in the election results.
Something had to give. The Gandhi siblings decided on two things: first, to take the sting out of Modi's 'naamdaar' allegation by proposing a non-Gandhi party chief and second, to remain in active politics. Expectedly, the second trumped the first. As long as the Gandhis remained, party leaders were wary of putting themselves forward as presidential hopefuls. Willy nilly, leadership was handed right back to the family.
The very fact that Sonia assumed the mantle of interim president gave rise to speculation that Priyanka, too, would be amenable to taking the reins. She has long been regarded as the most viable candidate for Congress president. That seems unlikely now. Already, sly speculation on whether Priyanka 'Vadra' qualifies as a 'non-Gandhi' has popped up on social media!
The 2020 Delhi assembly election results should have been a tipping point for the party. Obviously, the regional parties, rather than the Congress, were benefiting from the BJP's mistakes. As usual, instead of change, the Congress opted for continuity. So what exactly do the Nehru-Gandhis bring to the table?
They no longer have the ability to enthuse electorates or the moral authority to discipline fractious state satraps and dynasty is clearly a liability. The party's rank-and-file still has an emotional connect with the family, but their numbers are greatly diminished. Yet, a Congress spokesperson who dared to bat for change was sacked. Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor's plea that a full-time president, be it a non-Gandhi, must be elected or selected, went unheard. The Congress has nothing to lose by taking Priyanka and Rahul at their word and electing an independent leader.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.