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3 Jun, 2019

The clock ticketh for India’s under-performing Congress Party

Exclusive to Travel Impact Newswire by Mark Deane

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!”

Pune, India — Uttered while booting out the ‘Rump’ Parliament of England in April 1653 during the constitutional upheaval that had cost King Charles I his head four years earlier, these chilling words of Oliver Cromwell strike at the heart of the crisis of relevance that has bedeviled both, the Congress Party and its leadership post 29th May 2019 – harder in fact, than it did five years earlier on 16th May 2014 when the party’s comprehensive rout at the hustings swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power.

The electoral results this time, are a clear case of Control-Alt-Repeat. Five years on, the murky waters have parted to reveal a party that has truly lost its compass in the febrile game of Indian politics. Be it in the critical areas of strong and charismatic leadership, internal cohesion, strategy, damage control and reconstruction, the party has failed on all parameters. Either the nettle is yet to be grasped or the mettle to do so is missing. In its 134 years existence, most of them at the helm of Indian politics, India’s Grand Old Party has never faced a more severe leadership crisis than it does today. Indeed 2014 now appears to be a mere curtain raiser to the narrative of this inexorable fall from grace of one of the oldest political parties in the world.

The question that has persistently done the rounds since May 2014 – initially dismissed as mere murmurs from a few disgruntled elements, but now with increasing resonance up and down the party hierarchy, besides observers and commentators, political adversaries and the general public is, can the party bite the bullet and seriously look for leadership beyond the Nehru – Gandhi dynasty?

As things stand at the moment, clearly not. It has – albeit for public consumption – taken Rahul Gandhi as party president and scion of The Family, five years to acknowledge his irrelevance to the equation by seeking to resign – but without actually doing so. The ripple effect of the groundswell of resentment, ire and frustration with the present dispensation is steadily expanding. Doubts about his competency and commitment abound, as do questions about the need for The Family to continue its reign.

Petulantly sulking in his proverbial tent hasn’t helped matters when the heightened crisis really demands firm resolve and a final decision. One wonders who the party apparatchiks – the Family loyalists – think they are fooling by stating that Rahul Gandhi’s continuance as party president is a must and at least until such time as a suitable candidate is found from outside The Family to take his place. What if the candidate is not found? Setting timelines for such an exercise is definitely not a priority.

For most of the last 100 years the dominant position of the Nehru-Gandhi line in the party was unquestioned. What began as an organisation welded together to fight for the country’s freedom, morphed – not without reason – into a family run firm. Like all dynasties, this one too made a strong start, providing leadership to the country at critical times in that struggle and thereafter both in war and in peace. The baton of succession was successfully handed down from one generation to the next. A string of victories helped bolster its reputation and quell opponents. Occasional failures were accepted, glossed over and deemed inconsequential. Even the Emergency of 1977 and the subsequent, albeit, short lived exile to the political wilderness were seen and forgotten. The Family Name was absolute.

But like all dynasties, time has clearly run out with dramatic changes in internal and external dynamics. As inhibitions and the awe factor are cast aside, as central authority inexorably crumbles, more and more old servitors and satraps will emerge from the woodwork and the shadows of political oblivion, with memoirs and salacious tell-all tales for a national audience, a few coins of the realm and a passing moment in the sun. While none of these literary efforts are likely to fly off the bookshelves, each is at the same time, another nail in the dynastic coffin. Other, possibly less literary endowed faithful are opting for the time tested approach of jumping ship to the glee and satisfaction of beneficiary parties.

Clearly the Inheritors – particularly the current baton holder – failed to measure up to the eminence of their forebears. With credibility lost, the leverage of the legatees lies in ruins. While a night of long knives is still not on the cards, the door to political oblivion for a party unable to adapt is steadily creaking open. A leadership struggle would be the final nail.

To live on, the party has to swiftly adapt to changed circumstances and reinvent itself. This begs the further question about the party’s ability to do so. Can the Congress survive without the Dynasty?

In the longer term, to paraphrase Barack Obama circa 2008, yes, it can. Countries that were at some point or the other in their history ruled by dynasties, survived and prospered by outliving them. The death of the regent did not necessarily spell the extinction of the realm. There is no reason to believe that the Congress is any different. It remains in the party’s best interest in the long term, to remove the millstone of the Family from round its neck as quickly as possible and recalibrate its approach to remain relevant to Indian polity and a demographically youthful nation.

Allan Octavian Hume, the architect of the All-India Congress in 1885 and its first general secretary, recognised that what the country needed most desperately, was its own homegrown leaders. In a letter to graduates of Calcutta University in March 1883 he wrote that “only fifty men, good and true” would do for starters. Imbued with the zeal and fervor of a generation of young patriots this ideal was largely met. The party came first – its agenda to strive for the greater good of the nation was unambiguous. The individual ego and persona was subsumed in the interests of the greater good of the collective effort for a common cause.

Sadly, with the party having surrendered its all to The Family, that original ideal has since been lost. Hume’s fifty good men have vanished into the history books and the lodestar of “country before self” has been extinguished. The inexorable descent of India’s GOP into a cesspool of self-seeking sycophants, sheltered and protected by being in the good books of The Family, out to line their own pockets with pelf and garner power without accountability to anyone but themselves, is the reality of the day.

The earlier a non-Family successor with the essential attributes of unclouded vision, honesty, selfless determination, decisiveness, and the ability to coalesce the various conflicting elements into a single purpose emerges from the quagmire, the better for the party, the better for the rejuvenation of an effective opposition at the centre and in the states and for the re-emergence of healthy democratic tendencies in what is morphing worryingly into a one party state.

For even one of Hume’s fifty good men to make an appearance, The Family must go.

Even Cromwell would have been pleased.

(The author is a former international banker and spectator of Indian political theatrics from the sylvan groves of academe)