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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 16 New Delhi April 7, 2018

The New President of Indian National Congress

Saturday 7 April 2018


by Martand Jha

Rahul Gandhi has been elected unopposed by India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress, as its President. His anointment as the party President brought no surprises to anyone as this was being expected for a long time now. Rahul Gandhi is the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to be holding the post of the party President following India’s independence.

His great-grandfather and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first in the family to be holding the post of party President many a times before and after India’s independence. After 1947, Nehru became the party’s President in 1951 and remained there till 1954. Nehru’s father, Motilal Nehru, also became the party President in 1919.

Other than that Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother Indira Gandhi, his father Rajiv Gandhi and mother Sonia Gandhi were Congress Party Presidents at some point of time. In fact, Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi has been the longest serving President of the Indian National Congress from 1998 till December 2017 for almost two decades.

Because of such a dominance of one family in the party, which once used to be hailed as an umbrella organisation of different political ideologies that co-existed together, the party and the Gandhi family have been accused of nepotism. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power, has always been highly critical of the Gandhi family’s absolute dominance in the Congress Party.

Their accusation has been that just by virtue of being born in a family, a member of that family can sit on the highest position of the party ladder irrespective of the fact that whether he/she was good enough for the post or not. That’s why Rahul Gandhi is often mocked at by his political rivals as ‘Shehzada’, which means Prince. This is because like a prince, who has the right to become the next king, just because of being born in a royal family, Rahul Gandhi also became the party President just because he is a Gandhi.

Recently, a Congress party worker, Shehzad Poonawalla, raised his voice against this dynastic politics and as a result was sidelined by the party. Poonawalla called Rahul Gandhi an ‘unconstitutional crown prince’ and said that he felt like Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, who was sidelined by the Congress Party the same way as he was today. Poona-walla got support from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Prime Minister Modi, while addressing an election rally in his home State Gujarat, said: “A youngster Shehzad has exposed the rigging that is taking place in the Congress President’s poll. And Shehzad is a senior Congress leader in Maharashtra. The Congress has tried to muzzle his voice and wants to even remove him from their social media groups. What tolerance is this?”

He further added, “”Those who have no internal democracy can’t work for the people. I want to tell this youngster Shehzad—you have done a brave thing but this is sadly what has always happened in the Congress.” With PM Modi’s entry into this issue, things got heated as Congress leaders called Shehzad Poonawalla an ‘agent’ of the BJP and PM Modi.

At the time when Rahul Gandhi has become the party President, the party stands at its weakest point in its long history of 132 years. Since 1885, the Indian National Congress has been a political force to reckon with. In fact, the dominance of the party was so strong in the first 20 years of India’s independence that the Indian political system was called the ‘Congress system’, signifying the hegemonic position of the party in the Indian political space at one point in time.

The party has made many comebacks after being thrown out of power in the past, but since the 2014 general elections, where the party’s total tally seats was reduced to just 44 in a 543-member Lok Sabha, the party has been losing almost every State election one after the other. Punjab was the only face-saver for the Congress where it won early this year in March. While its report-card in India’s largest State Uttar Pradesh was abysmal. The party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi got only seven seats out of the total 403 seats there.

These figures speak for themselves about the dismal state of the Congress Party. The party has not been able to get the popular support from the masses which it once used to enjoy. In fact the party has been outrightly rejected by the masses in the recent elections. Most of the political commentators and scholars say that the party is paying now due to the corruption by the Congress Party when it was in power along with its allies from 2004 to 2014.

During the second half of the party’s tenure in power under the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, a lot of big scams, worth many million dollars, were exposed one after the other in the Indian media. Scams like 2G, CWG, Coalgate etc. tarnished the image of party in the public. Since then the downfall of the Congress Party started and it continues to this day.

The party seems in no position to counter its biggest rival, the BJP, which is currently in power, either locally or nationally. In fact, a situation is being reached in Indian politics where voters are not being able to see a viable alternative to the BJP currently.

Though, Indian politics has seen many roller-coaster rides in its history where some election results have completely overturned the presumptions of political observers and commentators. One cannot write off the Congress Party whatever maybe its state, because it’s still the single largest party after the BJP and has the potential to challenge the BJP in future. A party as old as the Indian National Congress doesn’t just go into oblivion because the party always has a presence in the minds of the voters.

As long as a party is in voter’s minds, it has a realistic chance to win seats. Every political party wishes to make its presence felt at first, winning or losing an election is a different matter altogether. This means that if the Congress Party tries to get its act together and could challenge the BJP by taking them head on, by raising issues faced by the people, it can make a comeback in future.

Though with the next general elections just a few months away, the party needs to gain a lot of political ground. The party’s comeback to power in 2019 seems extremely unrealistic right now; but in politics nobody can be absolutely sure of the result until the last vote is counted.

As Rahul Gandhi has taken charge of the Congress Party as its President, the party members and well-wishers of the Congress look forward to a better future.

The author is a Junior Research Fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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