Rahul Gandhi has decided to step aside as the Chief of Indian National Congress after the party’s debacle in the Lok Sabha elections. His mother, father, grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were all Congress presidents. For almost half a century, the Congress has had few power centers outside the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The party’s institutional pillars have given way to centralized command and loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family that holds a central position in the party. While this isn’t unusual for Indian parties, it usually leads to just one outcome. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the death of a powerful chief minister a few years ago has led to her party apparently withering away, even though it had a much stronger presence on the ground than the Congress has in most of India.
Would the Congress — a party more than a century old, which led India’s struggle for freedom — die just because a single family stepped away from power? It might. When for a brief while in the 1990s there was no Gandhi at the center of power, the party almost dissolved amid infighting and dissension.
The Nehru-Gandhis have served an important purpose: As long as they ran the party, nobody else fought to do so. Loyalty to the Gandhis was almost as strong as the ideological commitment. At the same time, a party with an agenda to nurse leftist sentiments and centrist policies was also a broad tent that could include second-rung leaders who strongly disagreed on other issues. Almost everyone in the Congress itself understands this, which is why they are so shell-shocked at Gandhi’s exit and so unwilling to let him leave.
Gandhi said that he had to take personal responsibility for the defeat and that the party needed to “radically transform” itself. It would be truer to say that he has now left the party with no option but to radically transform itself.
Rahul Gandhi’s decision doesn’t change the facts, he was never the problem. The Congress ran a campaign in the general election that lacked vigour not from the top leadership but from the advisors and workers; its manifesto and commitment by top brass of the party was well-considered and its energy commendable. It still lost by an enormous margin.
The problem is that the Congress’ ideology, such as it is, would have gained traction with Indian voters if it was conveyed to them with full effect. India is a young and impatient country. Many of the hallmarks of global populist authoritarianism are visible here, often in more virulent forms. As in Turkey, there is a widespread belief that India is a great civilization that is not being given its due. As in Russia, there is a suspicion that NGOs and liberals are instruments of external meddling. As in the U.S., fake news and online echo chambers have enhanced tribalism and division. As in Brazil, many voters are convinced that the center-left establishment’s links to corruption are indissoluble.
Most importantly, the BJP appears to have won its decades-long battle to create a large group of voters that view themselves through the prism of their religious identity. In a country with an overwhelming Hindu majority, that makes the party very hard to beat.
Gandhi’s Congress is the only national alternative to the BJP. Many liberals have long been loudly hoping that it will die, claiming that another and better political force will emerge to take its place. That supposition is fatally flawed, however: It assumes that a national two-party system is inevitable and that another dominant contender will somehow fill the opposition space. This wishful thinking will only lead the country towards an abysmal abyss of communalism, religious fundamentalism and anarchy. While INC is the party that led India to Independence, under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership it can lead India on the paths of progress and development, an India sans hatred, communalism and religious fundamentalism.