Can Rahul Gandhi stop Congress’ slide into oblivion?

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Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, center, is seen with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah second left, and state ministers in Bangalore. Photo: AFP

As initial results in the Karnataka state election rolled in across TV screens showing the BJP as the largest party, Congress leaders went into a huddle, fearing they may have to ward off an existential crisis.

With the low numbers, Congress reached out to the regional party, the Janta Dal-Secular (JD-S), and offered them the chief minister’s post, in return for a coalition that will keep the BJP at bay. While this may prevent a BJP government in the southern state, the Congress is now in very choppy water.

For the first time since it was founded in 1885, the party that was known as a key part of India’s independence struggle has now been reduced to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the national Parliament, which is directly elected.

Among the 29 states, it only holds Punjab. In many of the others the Congress has ceased to be an entity and depends largely on regional parties to retain a semblance of relevance.

Rahul, the destroyer?

In December last year, the Congress Party elected Rahul Gandhi unopposed as its president. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, made way for her son to finally take over. The Karnataka election was his second-test, following the Gujarat state elections, which the BJP won narrowly.

At that time, there was some hope that the Congress could still pull off a credible show in the coming months. Gandhi was finally seen as emerging from the shadows and taking charge, and also becoming more confident as an image began to be built by his public relations teams. But while the change was visible, it was more cosmetic than real.

As several Congress leaders admitted to Asia Times in private, the time for a family-led party had ended in India. “The lack of inner party democracy is killing us, and we will continue to falter to a point where we will cease to exist,” a senior leader, who was a cabinet minister in an earlier government, said. The claim that Gandhi was elected “unopposed” added to an illusion that he was the party’s undisputed leader.

In sharp contrast, the BJP has managed to throw up leaders without any lineage or family advantage for decades. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, is its greatest leader yet, having taken the BJP to unprecedented heights electorally. Under him, the party managed to win in 21 states out of 29 and ushered in a majority federal government for the first time in 30 years.

“Modi was a nobody till he was plucked up from the ranks and made the chief minister of Gujarat,” another Congress leader told Asia Times. “In the Congress party there is no scope for a Modi or even his trusted lieutenant and party president, Amit Shah,” this leader said. For many, Gandhi is now viewed as its greatest liability. “Ever since Indira Gandhi took charge in 1967, regional leaders have never been allowed to grow. This was religiously followed by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia and now her son, Rahul. They refuse to concede power and this has killed all aspirations within the party. If there is no aspiration left within, how will we cater to the aspirations of the voters?” this senior Congress leader posed.

Regional leaders rudderless

For decades, anyone seen as a threat to the Gandhi family’s hold over the Congress party has been quickly cut to size. The treatment meted out to prime minister PV Narasimha Rao is a case in point. Rao took over after the party won the election following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. A leader and former chief minister of the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh, Rao’s legacy included the landmark liberalization of the Indian economy following a balance of payments crisis.

But Rao’s legacy was systematically overlooked and he was ignored in subsequent years. This was a clear message to everyone that any regional power hoping to take center-stage would not be tolerated. It led to a massive weakening of the party in states where it had a presence. It ceased to become a political entity in two of the largest – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar nearly two decades ago. In states like Assam, it continued to ignore ambitious leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma, who switched over to the BJP. Subsequent electoral victories in Assam and neighboring states in India’s northeast were largely credited to him.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress went into a death roll with the son of a former chief minister, who split and created a regional alternative. In Maharashtra, a sitting chief minister was unceremoniously ejected to ensure a family loyalist took over. As state after state succumbed, leaders continued to be weakened to a point where the party began to implode. As things stand, two major elections loom in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, states currently ruled by the BJP, but chances are Congress lacks the firepower to win. In sharp contrast, even though local leader BS Yeddyurappa had been charged with corruption, the BJP embraced him and appointed him as their chief ministerial candidate. This immediately consolidated the dominant Lingayat caste votes behind the BJP.

“We are a divided house and we have no idea how to manage the old guard or the new emerging leaders. The Congress does not even invest in helping leaders nurture their constituencies. Everything is focused on what one family wants or thinks. That has proved to the undoing of the Congress party,” another mid-ranking party leader told Asia Times.

An uncertain future

When Rahul Gandhi finally embraced Twitter he used the handle @OfficeOfRG. It immediately faced derision as yet another example of how unsure the young scion was for a crucial leadership position. It changed recently, when he finally used his name on Twitter and began adopting an aggression than what was seen earlier.

But like most other initiatives, the Congress was way behind. Modi, a charismatic speaker understood that in alternative-truth universe, convenient distortions of history serve to feed biases that work. His deliberate distortions of history during speeches fed into a narrative that fed the anger of the voters. While Gandhi continued to claim the “good guy” tag, Modi went for the jugular where it mattered. The electoral aggression has been enough to convince voters that he is a decisive leader. This belief has translated into massive electoral victories and will continue to serve the BJP well in 2019.

And finally, Modi and the BJP are open to the sentiments of their core base, as well as the aspirations of the fence-sitters. The party appointed a regional Karnataka leader like Anant Kumar Hegde as a minister in the federal government, a man known to make provocative statements and even question India’s Constitution. The more Hegde outraged, the more the debates became polarized, helping the BJP shore up more votes.

For a long time the Congress banked on the assumption that it would continue to be the center for the opposition to consolidate. But the bells have tolled and they ring a vastly different tune for 2019.

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