View: Is it time for Gandhi parivar to exit and Congress parivar to emerge?

With Jyotiraditya Scindia’s departure, there are predictions of the imminent demise of the Congress. But it’s not the Congress that’s about to die — it’s the Gandhi family’s political authority that has evaporated.

As the son of Madhavrao Scindia, Jyotiraditya after all is very much part of a dynastic feudal culture that has nurtured the Congress’ first family. The glamorous Gen Next Scindia is undoubtedly a powerful orator but the fact is he lost an election nine months ago to his own election agent. In the Madhya Pradesh elections of 2013, when he was the Congress face, the party was wiped out. He is not exactly a mass leader, his rise and clout due in large part to his proximity to the Gandhis. When even such a close family friend ups and leaves after a bitter exchange of words, it’s clearly a resounding vote of no-confidence in the Gandhi parivar. Ironically though, the precipitous decline of Brand Gandhi is an opportunity to revive Brand Congress.

For too long, Brand Gandhi and Brand Congress were seen as inseparable — it was thought Congress would splinter without the family “glue”, and it was the family that was bringing in the votes. Now Congress is falling apart despite family control, and the family isn’t able to garner votes either. Rahul Gandhi has lost two consecutive national elections, and it’s only strongman local leaders like Amarinder Singh or Bhupesh Baghel who’ve been able to craft the occasional Congress victory in states.

Sonia Gandhi diligently held together her inlaws’ party for a decade, but now seems too frail to make the same effort. Priyanka Gandhi continues to flit in and out of active politics. In India, most political dynasties shrink by the third generation: no Gandhi has been PM after Rajiv, Deve Gowda’s grandchildren have had little impact, Jayant Chaudhary is a shadow of his grandfather Charan Singh. Being fifth generation dynasts, Rahul and Priyanka are facing seriously diminishing returns of the family name.

The rapidly falling graph of the Gandhis leaves open an intriguing possibility: a Congress sans the Gandhis at the top. Whether we like to admit it or not, Congress still remains a potent brand. Travel anywhere in India and you’ll find many who will proudly declare themselves lifelong Congressmen. Even in its disastrous 2019 showing, Congress got 12 crore votes. The party is in power or in power sharing agreements in six states, and Congressmen/women are now dominant regional satraps. Former Congress stormy petrel Mamata Banerjee rules West Bengal, a former Congress stalwart’s son Jagan Reddy helms Andhra Pradesh and the former Congress veteran Sharad Pawar presides as paterfamilias in Maharashtra. What if there was to be a grand family reunion of this larger Congress parivar on the debris of the Gandhi family? The downfall of the Gandhi parivar has left a vacuum that could be filled by the real Congress parivar, which doesn’t lack talent.

If the big lacunae in the Congress now is its lack of connect with young urban aspirational folks, who could be a better magnet for this class than the photogenic English-speaking, self-made Shashi Tharoor, former UN diplomat, Sahitya Akademi winner and a three time MP on his own steam? Another talented face is the 42-year-old Sachin Pilot, who has shown far greater stomach for grassroots politics than Scindia. Pilot shunned the drawing rooms of Delhi and has toiled in Rajasthan politics. Scindia was unable to create a pan-Madhya Pradesh identity for himself, but Pilot, having spent six years in Rajasthan, could well emerge as Congress’ young north Indian face. A re-united Congress parivar minus the Gandhis could be jointly led by Mamata in the east, Pilot in the north, with Tharoor as the face for the urban middle class, and Pawar providing the connect with the older generation.

With the departure of the Gandhis, the drawing room-based, Rajya Sabha berth-craving unelectable Congress worthies must stage a departure too. Indira Gandhi destroyed her party’s mass leaders, but it’s possible to turn the clock back to the pre-Indira era when there were leadership elections and party came above family. In the 1950 leadership elections for example, even a presidential candidate supported by Nehru-JB Kripalani was defeated by Patel’s candidate Purushottam Das Tandon. Today, CWC elections haven’t been held for 20 years. Congress has rejected Nehru’s principles and forgotten that in democracies parties elect their leader.

A plural, centrist, freedom-championing, liberal Congress is waiting to be born as the dynasty fades. That’s why the exit of the Gandhi parivar could be an opportunity for the entry of a re-energised Congress parivar to challenge the domination of BJP.

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