When Rahul Gandhi offered to resign as the president of the Indian National Congress at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on 25 May (two days after the party’s devastating defeat in the 2019 general elections) most Congress leaders and most people outside the party, especially in the media, didn’t believe him. Though Rahul Gandhi kept reiterating that he was serious about resigning, they thought it was all drama, a ploy to escape blame for the party’s poor performance in 2014 and 2019 and to marshal support for his continuation as the party president.

The critics thought it was matter of time before Gandhi would be persuaded to take back his resignation and the party would continue with business as usual. But they were wrong. They seriously underestimated his determination to quit and also underestimated the fact that he is a strong-minded person, once he makes up his mind he is unlikely to waver or compromise.

By resigning, Rahul Gandhi has in a sense accepted that the 2019 verdict was a vote against dynastic politics. It is arguably also an attempt on his part to insulate and protect the Congress from the criticism that it is little more than a family fiefdom. His resignation would undoubtedly upset the calculations of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and will weaken the BJP’s unrelenting attacks against the Congress as a family enterprise. By giving up his post, he has neutralized the campaign that Narendra Modi and the BJP have assiduously built against him as a “naamdar" enjoying the privilege of being a dynast. This line of attack against the Congress will not work in the next election campaign.

The abysmal performance of the Congress has raised questions over Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and many blame him for the dismal state of the party. It is true that a series of strategic and tactical blunders and poor messaging played their part in the two big defeats of the Congress. But this is not the only reason for its crushing defeat. The Congress ran a decent campaign, its manifesto and programme was progressive and liberal. But it still lost badly because a combination of Hindu nationalism, anti-elitism, economic populism, and the retaliatory Balakot air strikes against Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack, proved unbeatable.

Nonetheless, political challenges facing the Congress are formidable. Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has thrown the Congress into a crisis, especially as the party is out of power at the Centre and in most states. The Congress party for the first time finds itself in a situation where the party will be out of power for ten years (2014-24) and no one from the Gandhi family will be heading the party. By sticking to his decision to quit, Rahul Gandhi has thrown a challenge at his colleagues to build the Congress outside the shelter of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The revival of the Congress now lies squarely on the shoulders of senior leaders who are desperate to avoid elections.

Actually, the Congress faces three major challenges in this unprecedented situation: the party has to agree or elect a non-Gandhi leader who can keep the Congress united; restructure and reconstruct its organizational structure across the states; and, finally, project an alternative ideological narrative to the BJP.

Wither Rahul?

First and foremost, can the Congress survive and revive itself without a Gandhi at the helm? His resignation will pose an existential question about whether Congress can unify around a common agenda and set of values instead of a dynasty. Till date, the party’s first family has acted as the sole power centre. The over-dependence on the Gandhi family has discouraged the emergence of a strong and credible second-tier leadership capable of mounting effective state-wide mobilization in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat or Karnataka.

Rahul Gandhi has insisted upon having an outsider (non-Gandhi family candidate) as party president. Moreover, he has taken a decision to remain active in politics even after relinquishing the post.

Under these circumstances, the big question remains about his role in the party and how much authority he will exercise. One thing is clear—he will not be an ordinary Congressman, notwithstanding his resignation. In fact, his resignation will augment his status in the party. Rahul will continue to be its most important leader regardless of whether he is the president or not. As the party’s pivot, he will define the ideological contours of the party. His influence cannot be wished away in defining the political narrative of the party.

Rahul will continue to take on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its ideology. This is evident from the stand he has taken in the two defamation cases filed by RSS sympathizers, one in Maharashtra and the other by the deputy chief minister Sushilkumar Modi in Bihar, against his comment in a 2014 campaign rally that “RSS people were behind Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination". He appeared personally in both defamation cases. Outside the court, he reiterated that he will continue to fight the RSS’s and the BJP’s idea of India. For him, opposition to the RSS is indeed an ideological issue.

The resignation gives Rahul Gandhi the opportunity to be a mass leader and establish mass contact, which have been neglected, to build the Congress into an instrument of social transformation. The responsibility for this kind of transformation cannot be left solely in the hands of the senior leadership. In his resignation letter, Rahul stresses the need to jump-start the reorganization of the party: “Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party."

Lessons from past inaction

The two staggering defeats have brought the dire state of the Congress organization to the front and centre of the debate. At the core of the Congress’s problems is the fact that the party machinery is in shambles. The party as an institution has collapsed. The party’s institutional pillars have given way to centralized command and control and loyalty has replaced ideology. There has been no change in the top-down structure despite the numerous committees set up by Sonia Gandhi to invigorate the organization. She had set up at least three major committees to review and reorganize the party. The first was the task force headed by P.A. Sangma and the second was the A.K. Antony Committee entrusted with looking into the reasons for the worst-ever Congress performance in the 1998 elections. The report was accepted but none of the recommendations were ever implemented.

“We deliberated on it for nine hours. Yet, when the time for reorganization came, all the PCC chiefs were retained and the AICC posts were filled up by ageing leaders," one CWC member told India Today in 2000. When the UPA first came to power, Sonia Gandhi set up a third committee known as The Group to Look into Future Challenges headed by Veerappa Moily to examine the same issues: party reorganization and intra-party reforms. As before, no progress was achieved because the top leadership remained divided on holding elections to the various decision-making bodies of the party. The Group on Future Challenges, in line with the reports of previous committees, identified the lack of internal democracy as one of the reasons for the growing disillusionment with the organization.

After the defeat in 2014, Sonia Gandhi appointed another Antony Committee but that report was never made public and there is no evidence that any action was taken on its recommendations. The two Antony Committees (1998 and 2014) and Veerappa Moily Committee (2004) reports were shelved for fear of upsetting the status quo.

If implemented, the recommendations of these committees could’ve contributed to the party’s reorganization. Sonia Gandhi has been the longest-serving president. The coteries surrounding her advised against it. They have no interest in democratization because most of them lacked a mass base or grassroots support, and their influence was dependent entirely on their closeness to the party president. The absence of internal democracy impeded accountability. Consequently, there was no chance for the party to reform and the high command system remained entrenched.

The immediate steps

It’s not surprising that Congress doesn’t have much of a presence on the ground in most of India. It has no ground game because it lacks cadres and workers at the booth level which is essential for winning elections. The BJP, in contrast, has a well-oiled political machine at its disposal led by the RSS and its affiliated organizations. It is true that it is not easy for a loosely organized mass-based party to recruit cadres, but at least the Congress can start with a genuine membership drive across the country.

The Congress has to get on with the process of election of the new president. Elections are essential for ending the culture of nomination. Nominated PCCs, CWC, or the Congress parliamentary board cannot function as effective forums of debate and conflict resolution. It is now left with no option but to regroup and radically transform itself.

The only way it can revive is to shift from the dynasty model to the democratic model of party building. In addition to the president, the top decision-making bodies—the All India Congress Committee (AICC), CWC and the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC)— must also be elected.

In fact, the PCCs of the 17 states where the party failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat in 2019 should be disbanded. Or else the top-down model conjured by backroom specialists and Rajya Sabha MPs (who currently dominate the CWC) with a disinclination to engage with the risks of mass politics will continue to hold sway at the cost of internal democracy. The sole objective of these leaders is to keep their respective fiefdoms intact—irrespective of whether they face the electorate or not.

Rahul Gandhi is said to have been fighting a battle with the old guard since he took over and even before that. He was aware from the moment he entered politics that it was important to democratize the party set-up and prise open the system but the democratization project was stymied by senior leaders in his party.

His father Rajiv Gandhi’s address at the Congress party’s centenary celebrations, famously declared it a party of power brokers, but he did not do much to change that. Rahul Gandhi too hasn’t succeeded in liberating the party from the clutches of power-brokers. This became evident during the selection of chief ministers in three Congress-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018. The process of lobbying by these leaders became so intense that it took days for the party’s top leadership to come to a decision and eventually settled for the status quo.

The ideological divide

It is of course necessary to reaffirm the ideological position of the party and a willingness to promote it. Congress as a big-tent party could present the public with an ideological template of cultural pluralism and social equality. But this is not enough to fight the BJP. The Congress has to espouse a clearly defined position on the big issues of secularism and nationalism.

The party has been criticized for its shaky conviction in secularism. During the past five years, secularism has been pushed to the margins, Congress needs to defend it forcefully, which it hasn’t done lately. Even more problematic was its reluctance to join the ideological battle on Indian nationalism. It has allowed the BJP to appropriate nationalism and redefine it as Hindu nationalism.

The Congress has also allowed the BJP to appropriate the leading icons of the freedom struggle (despite its complete absence from this struggle) with the exception of Nehru. As the party which led the struggle for freedom against British colonial rule, nationalism is the calling card of the Congress which it must reclaim.

Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has provided the Congress party with a historic opportunity for a dramatic reinvention as an institutionalized modern political party. If the absence of a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm was a precondition for the reconfiguration of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has created the situation for the party to break away from the anti-democratic notions of dynastic entitlements. Onus is now on Congress to reinvent itself to challenge the notion that the party cannot survive without the dynasty. This is a chance to rebuild India’s oldest political formation and the only nation-wide force opposing the BJP.

Zoya Hasan is professor emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and distinguished professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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