Ramchandra Guha, one of our most highly respected historians and political commentators, recently suggested that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi “quit politics immediately” in order to save the Congress and democracy. Although many other political commentators have come to seriously question the vote-catching ability of the three Gandhis, Guha has gone to the far end, concluding that they have totally lost their ability and by being there in the leadership of the Congress are only helping Narendra Modi and the BJP grow stronger. In essence, Guha sees the Gandhi family as a tumour the Congress must get rid of quickly in order to prevent the malignancy from spreading through its body leading to its death.
Guha bases his conclusion on three grounds. One, dynasty is no longer acceptable to Indian voters. In politics, as in other professions, he says people are witnessing the rise of self-made men, such as Narendra Modi. Two, the Gandhis have failed in election after election to defeat the BJP and get the Congress back to power. The Congress vote share has been going down and down. Three, Rahul Gandhi the heir does not have the ability to attract votes, build a robust organization and offer a strong challenge to Modi.
We shall examine each of the three grounds one by one to judge the correctness of Guha’s prescription for saving the Congress and democracy.
Is dynasty really no longer acceptable to Indian voters? Facts point otherwise. Out of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha in 2014 as many as 114 belonged to political dynasties. Their number rose to 162 in 2019. The chief ministers of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand are from political dynasties.
It is not just the Congress which is led by a political dynasty. There are several parties led by political dynasties—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Shiv Sena, the YSR Congress Party, the Telugu Desam Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Indian National Lok Dal, the Jannayak Janata Party, the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, the Nishad Party, the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), the Apna Dal (Sonelal) and so on. They have substantial vote share. How can Guha presume that the Congress is destined to die owing to its dynastic leadership when many parties with dynastic leadership are politically thriving?
The power and pull of the dynastic parties is such that even the party led by a self-made politician Narendra Modi cannot do without alliance with them. Modi’s BJP allied with the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Telugu Desam Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, the People’s Democratic Party, the Nishad Party, the Apna Dal (Sonelal) and the Jannayak Janata Party. It also enjoyed the backing of the Biju Janata Dal and the YSR Congress on several issues.
To say therefore, as Guha does, that dynasty is a dinosaur in Indian politics is erroneous. It still holds a considerable territory of the political space and does not seem like going. The reason is India as a society is in transition. We are coming out of the feudal era. We have not come out of it yet. We are sort of midway. There is as much revulsion against dynastic leadership therefore as there is fondness for it.
No wonder, the political scene presents a hybrid picture: we have both kinds of politicians—dynasts as well as self-made ones. And because society is in transition it is not just true of politics. Industry, trade and professions too are characterized by a hybrid picture. Guha mentions Bollywood as one of fields where self-made persons rule. However, even in Bollywood we have a hybrid—if you have the Ranveer Singhs, you have the Ranbir Kapoors too.
Guha’s second ground is the successive failure of the Gandhis, particularly Rahul Gandhi, to win elections. Can we dismiss someone after repeated failures? There are a trillion examples of individuals who have succeeded after humiliating defeats in whatever they were doing. Such individuals can be found in ancient, medieval and modern histories and in all parts of the world and in all fields of human activity—in wars, politics, business, sciences, arts, sports, mountaineering.
Guha’s third ground is the lack of ability in Rahul Gandhi to revive the Congress and lead the fight against the BJP. There again Guha makes an error. How can we forget that in the first Lok Sabha campaign that he led as the party president in 2014 the Congress got 19.3 percent share of the vote? In the second LS election in 2019 the party got 19.6 percent vote. It was a very marginal increase, but one cannot ignore the fact that whereas the party’s vote share had dipped by nine percent compared to 2009 in 2014, it did not dip any further in 2019. In terms of numbers, 10.69 crore Indians voted for the Congress in 2014 and 11.86 crore in 2019. A man under whose leadership the party can attract 11-12 crore voters cannot be pricked off like a bubble. It is unfair to ask him to immediately retire.
It is true that Rahul Gandhi cannot fight Modi alone. But nor can a coalition of regional parties without him. He has about 12 crore votes. He may have a million weaknesses, but the situation in the country is such that even the smallest kiln is needed to burn, bake and dry bricks to build a thick, massive wall to protect democracy from the incessant attacks of the BJP.
The BJP is redefining nationalism. It is making people believe that nationalism is Hinduism and Hinduism is nationalism. There is a witch hunt for liberals and leftists across the country. There is a dual rule of law according to which persons of different religions and political ideologies are treated dissimilarly for the similar nature of crime. There is an ubiquitous terror of mob. A large part of the media promotes the view of the Modi government. The language of the political discourse has turned toxic. The Indian state is no longer neutral to religion. The Prime Minister openly participates in the renovation and rituals of Hindu places of worship. Never before had a ruling party used the central investigating agencies so unrelentingly to weaken the opposition. Never before had a ruling party so inexorably poached opposition MLAs to gain power in states.
In such an extraordinary situation even a non-charismatic Rahul Gandhi and a weakened Congress should be a part of the collective resistance.
(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and author)