As the Congress struggles to find a new chief, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s visit to Uttar Pradesh to meet the families of tribal farmers killed in Sonbhadra has predictably led to a flurry of suggestions that she should take on the party presidency in place of her brother. Though not a full-throated demand yet, the tentative proposal has only ended up exposing the party’s dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi family, and the leadership vacuum in the Congress given that it is unable to find a new chief even two months after Rahul Gandhi declared he was firm on stepping down.
However, any move to anoint Ms Vadra as the next Congress president will prove counter-productive. Besides the fact that she is inexperienced and has a long way to go before she grows into her new role as a politician, bringing in another member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to head the party will only provide fresh ammunition to the ruling BJP.
This will set the party further back as the ongoing leadership crisis in the Congress and the consequent erosion in its ranks has already rendered it oblivious to the bigger picture requiring urgent attention of its strategists and ideologues. The growing public revulsion to dynastic politics is clearly among the three major factors which have reduced the Congress to its present state, the other two being the visceral dislike for the Congress and its identification as a party of and for Muslims. These have contributed in no mean measure in diminishing the Congress, but have also dealt a deadly blow to the party’s identity.
Instead of addressing these issues, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s elevation will only exacerbate matters. As it is, the BJP’s well-planned campaign has ensured that the Congress has become synonymous with “dynasty” politics. Constant disparaging references to the Nehru-Gandhi family, describing Rahul Gandhi as a “shehzada” and “naamdar”, were all part of a script to fuel public anger against the Congress, which was increasingly seen as a party of “dynasts”.
The fact that the BJP also has its share of second-generation leaders was invariably overlooked as was the fact that its allies like the Shiv Sena, the Shiromani Akali Dal, and the Lok Janshakti Party are family-run enterprises. It’s to the BJP’s credit and the Congress’ ineptness that the Nehru-Gandhi family remained in the firing line while the others escaped attention.
With dynastic politics at political centrestage again, there will be little possibility of reversing the prevailing anti-Congress sentiment, which has been building up over the last five years and is showing no signs of abating. This was evident from the last Lok Sabha poll results and, as a senior party leader admitted, proved that anti-Congressism has now become an ideology.
The mood against the Congress changed in the United Progressive Alliance government’s second stint in office which was rocked by financial scams and complaints of policy paralysis. The massive response to the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement was a clear indication of how the popularity ratings of the Congress had dipped. The rest, as they say, is history. The grand old party was reduced to a paltry 44 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 polls, which were followed by a string of losses in Assembly elections.
It would be expected that after being out of power for five years, the public would be willing to forgive the Congress. But that was not to be. The BJP’s drive succeeded in keeping the focus on the grand old party’s misdemeanors, making sure that the electorate was never allowed to forget the Congress-led UPA government’s rule. As a result, the Congress was able to raise its Lok Sabha tally to only 52 in the last election.
This was accompanied by a simultaneous move to discredit Rahul Gandhi and portray him as a “Pappu”, who does not possess the skills to lead the country. This campaign will get a fresh impetus in case Priyanka succeeds her brother. As it is, the BJP’s offensive also focused on Jawaharlal Nehru, highlighting how his achievements have been over-hyped and that the country’s first Prime Minister had been unnecessarily put on a pedestal. Besides belittling Nehru, the BJP has highlighted how the Congress had glorified Nehru but not given due credit to its other stalwarts like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
And then there’s the issue of minority appeasement. As the BJP set forth to achieve its goal of uniting Hindus after coming to power five years ago, its “majoritarian project” was helped by the growing public perception that the Congress spoke out only for Muslims. The issue was flagged by none other than senior Congress leader A.K. Antony, who had publicly said this was one of the chief reasons the party did so poorly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and suggested that corrective measures be put in place. With the BJP accusing the Congress of playing votebank politics, the message was loud and clear: beware, emboldened Muslims will once again dominate over the majority community if the Congress is voted to power.
In a desperate effort to shed its “pro-Muslim” tag, a defensive Congress went to the other extreme with Rahul Gandhi embarking on a temple-hopping spree and the party spokesperson going out of his way to describe him as a “janeudhari Brahmin”. At the same time, the word minority, or Muslim, was literally banished from the party’s conversations. This attempt at playing the soft Hindutva card made little impact as the Congress was unable to convince the electorate about its ideological leanings, which clearly lacked clarity.
To say that the Congress owes its fall to the BJP’s persistent campaign is only half the story. It cannot run away from the fact that it is equally responsible for its current state of affairs. An ideologically confused and organisationally weakened party found itself incapable of countering the BJP’s superior propaganda machine. Whether it was defending Nehru’s achievements, enumerating the party’s contributions to nation-building or underlining its commitment to pluralism, the party was woefully bereft of answers.
And today, when there is an urgent need for the Congress to find answers to these raging issues, the party finds itself at sea — both leaderless and rudderless. But Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is not the right candidate who can pull a beleaguered Congress out of its present mess. “Uncle” Nelson Mandela may have told her that she should be in politics long before anyone else did, but Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s time has not come yet....