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Lounge Opinion | A shipless rudder

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-05-2014 Indrajit Hazra

How many Congressmen does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: ‘What light bulb?’ if one goes by the Congress Working Committee (CWC)’s postprandial assertions on Monday. So the other question that now arises is: What does it take for the Congress to get the Nehru-Gandhi family from getting off the wheel and have someone else take over a stranded but still seaworthy ship?

Before election results were announced last week, party speculations were centred round the number of seats that would be adequate for vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the face and kurta-sleeves of the Congress Party campaign in Elections 2014, to be anointed as the air bag that saved the car crash. Reaching low triple digits was seen as just about right to protect the Private Holding Co. from liquidation. Now with 44 seats not dire enough for the buck to stop at the proverbial ‘here’ of the party president and/or of its evangelical vice-president, it seems that extinction is the only coffee that Congressmen can smell and wake up to. Perhaps, a loss at Amethi and Rae Bareli could have forced hands. But we will never know, shall we?

It turns out that party president Sonia Gandhi as well as chief evangelist Rahul offered to resign. Sonia is “prepared to relinquish (her) position”, Rahul wants to “set an example…and be the first to quit”. Manmohan Singh did his bit by accepting responsibility for the “shortcomings of the government” and also offered to throw his body off the cliff (although one is slightly unclear what a prime minister who has already tendered his resignation from the job was offering to resign from). While Sonia’s statement that Manmohan’s resignation would serve no purpose was perfectly logical—leading to an all-round agreement that Manmohan’s resignation would serve no purpose—her own willingness to step down only served as a trigger for a show of loyalty. Despite all the talk of private mutterings about ‘Sonia-Rahul Fail’, CWC members saw the resignation offers as a test that would determine their own precarious future. The ghost of 2000 Sonia-challenger Jitendra Prasad hovering around the CWC table.

Now, for a person who has no qualms announcing in public that he wants to tear up an ordinance that his own party’s government has proposed, a resignation could have simply entailed walking out. But in the wonderfully bipolar world of the Congress where consensus magically descends on demand, such unilateralism can be frowned upon. But instead of going into the theological aspects of what makes for a Nehru-Gandhi step-down, it is necessary to ask what purpose such a move will attain.

The fervent belief that without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm, the Congress will shrivel and die is not as ridiculous as many have presumed. If the ‘glue’ metaphor has become a cliché, it is because it has stood the test of time, both as a shiny bait for voters in the past and, far more importantly, to keep the behemoth of the Indian National Congress from turning into atomized satraps. Ideologically, the prospect of one family holding a party together and being its USP may be abhorrent for many of us, but in a world where ‘anything that works’ works, ‘dynasty’ has been as useful as other arrows in India’s political quiver such as ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Mandal’.

It is Rahul Gandhi’s misfortune that his appearance on the scene as the bearer of the coat of arms has coincided at a time when such an appeal has been on the wane. While Congress leaders were at pains to explain the 2004 elections as a mandate for Sonia Gandhi, she provided to be a successful alternative to the National Democratic Alliance’s bluster of ‘India Shining’, and not simply as Indira Gandhi’s more loveable bahu. Even as general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi sounded like historian Bipan Chandra as he valiantly read out how the party is defined by the values and ideals of the Indian freedom struggle, outside in the rest of India, the future was getting ready to be put on a test drive with Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi at its wheel. It was not dynasty politics that people had rejected. It was Modi’s ability to pursue a developmental agenda with a ‘My daddy strongest’ tagline that people believed in. Rahul Gandhi was simply seen to be not up to the job and the Congress had no alternative but Rahul Gandhi on offer. This would have remained unchanged even if their names were Rahul Modi and Narendra Gandhi. So the brand equity of the Gandhi name, usually enough to launch a political career if not to sustain it, having lost its seductive charms, was no longer able to compensate Rahul’s unworthiness as a Congress leader, never mind a leader.

Which brings us to the matter of finding leaders out there in the non-Gandhi melee who can lift the Congress out of the wreckage. A new leadership that can throw out the creaking arrangement between ‘High Command’ and state leaderships —that was erected by Indira Gandhi to contain any challenges from the ‘regions’—to a non-anachronistic hub-and-spokes model where state leaders can take decisions that they think fit without having to sound out the Janpath people for the political equivalent of canteen and stationery requisitions. Gentle authoritarianism behind closed doors and orders on post-its have run its course not because of anything else but because it stopped working.

“Far-reaching changes” have been promised and there will be Congressmen, including state chief ministers, who will be “held accountable” for the damage. Rahul Gandhi leading any such change is bound to send out a signal across the party structure that would be as insane as a bird teaching a fish to swim. The heads that will survive the axe will slowly but surely start their nudge-nudge wink-winks again.

Loyalty is an evolutionary product of adapting to harsh conditions. When the functionality of being loyal to a particular entity has expired, sheer existential terror should force the Congress to get out of the old manufactured ‘chicken-and-egg’ (non-)conundrum of there being no one within the party to replace the Nehru-Gandhis. Nature, when beset with disaster, actually doesn’t abhor a vacuum at all.

Indrajit Hazra is a Delhi-based writer and journalist

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