Rahul Gandhi’s long statement released on Twitter recently — which underlined in no uncertain terms his decision to relinquish the office of Congress president in spite of unbelievable pressure on him to stay put — is a document of historical dimensions.
In its long 134-year old history, the Congress has seen ideological contestation, bitter rivalries, and faction fights even when Mahatma Gandhi was its de facto leader, but never a resignation with a view to giving the party second wind.
Subhash Chandra Bose’s famous resignation not long after being re-elected president at the Tripuri Congress in 1939 had come in entirely different circumstances — on account of Gandhi’s dissonance with him.
In visible contrast with those times, the Congress has become a dynastic party and Mr Gandhi is a dynast through and through, although one with a legacy of service and sacrifice (unlike dynasts in other parties, including the BJP). His accession was unchallenged. So was his leadership even in a humiliating defeat after the recent Lok Sabha election.
In effect, Mr Gandhi has walked away from wielding inordinate and near-exclusive power within the Congress. He has turned away from the politics of dynasty without turning his back on ideology, a point he seeks to emphasise in his eloquent Twitter note.
Mr Gandhi gives the impression of fighting the notion of dynasty itself, not from within but by coming out in the open against it even if this hurts those with entrenched positions.
Mr Gandhi’s July 3 charter looks at the big picture. It spells out his aim for the country — to seek the “resuscitation” of national institutions — which in his view have been “captured” by the BJP and the Sangh parivar under the present dispensation (and subverted), and intimates us of his resolve for the “radical transformation” of the Congress Party. The Rahul Gandhi thrust could turn out to be the kiss of life the Congress in its badly weakened state is in need of.
But this is on condition that the party carry out the perestroika or restructuring Mr Gandhi adumbrates. The fundamental premise of the change is that the Nehru-Gandhis step back from their pivotal role and facilitate the passing of the party leadership to other hands — those of non-dynasts, a point made by Mr Gandhi at the May 25 meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in a speech that woke everyone up.
Will such a scenario lead to a tussle at the top to succeed the man who, for all practical purposes, has ceased to be president? It might — and that’s to be expected. But so long as there is no cloak-and-dagger stuff and no blood on the carpet, and the contest among aspirants derives from lobbying, bargaining and deal-making — preceding a proper vote, the exercise would have been worth it.
It would also be deemed legitimate and desirable by the country, and not just the Congress Party. Besides, it will show the way forward. It can give the Congress second wind.
Mr Gandhi is no Savonarola, the Dominican friar in Renaissance Florence — a moral tyrant if there was one — who sought to burn down the existing order in his “bonfire of vanities”. His expressed aim is to put life back into the Congress — using the principles of contact, communication, accountability and democracy.
Some signs of preparing for tomorrow are already available in the resignations of sundry senior office-bearers of the party, in particular, Milind Deora from Mumbai, who has voiced his desire to play a “national” role in the Congress. Apparently, others are also thought to be active, for instance, former presidents of the Youth Congress (who can potentially become a network), several of whom are prominent figures.
It needs to be understood that the scheme suggested by Mr Gandhi — whether it is followed or not — has a two-step design. In the interim, the CWC may name one or two working presidents, or a small collegium to step into the breach and deal with fire-fighting in the states. After Assembly polls in a clutch of states later this year, a meaningful meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) to elect a new president is envisaged. The new leader will obviously have a new CWC, part elected, part nominated, as per party rules.
The Rahul Gandhi manifesto is not in the nature of a letter — as is mistakenly thought — to an individual or a party forum. It is rather, in quite a distinct fashion, an address to the nation, with no privileged audience in view. It is this which lends it especial historical substance and significance. Therein lies its appeal. In it is made the assertion: “My fight has never been a simple battle for political power.” Mr Gandhi here does not speak the language of the renunciate. He says, “I am a loyal soldier of the Congress Party and a devoted son of India and will continue to serve and protect her till my last breath.”
This makes some uneasy. They are filled with dread that the Nehru-Gandhi scion, even after leaving office to repudiate the dynasty principle, will be ideologically active and engage in contestation with the RSS and its affiliates — including the BJP — which are now centre-stage.
They would have liked a smooth walkover for the Right, with all applauding and no one asking questions. Such quarters seek to discredit Mr Gandhi’s decision and his scheme by suggesting that in real terms these mean little as the Nehru-Gandhis, possibly on account of their charisma, will remain at the centre of things, especially ideologically.
Those harbouring such beliefs will perhaps only be satisfied if members of this particular Congress family are locked away or despatched on a long pilgrimage, never to return — the preferred mode to deal with dissidents and adversaries in the age of the Mughals.
Much media discussion centres on the Gandhi family “sycophants” or “loyalists” who seek to prevent change, as though there exists a faction of non-loyalists or Gandhi family opponents in the Congress whose attempt to shine is being suppressed. This light argument oversimplifies. It overlooks the fact that it is the dynast number one who is leading the charge for change, whatever may come of it.
It was long thought that Congress ranks gathered around the Nehru-Gandhis because the latter won them elections. But 2019 shows that Mr Gandhi is sought after even in bad defeat. (True, the Congress vote-share went up to 30 per cent in 2019 as against 37 per cent of the BJP.)
This is an unsolved mystery of our politics, and the Congress is a complex organism. If the change hoped for by Mr Gandhi succeeds, we will see magical realism unfold before our eyes — if not, then an interregnum of systemic disorder may be upon us....