During the 1998 election season, with Sitaram Kesri as Congress president, the party was on the verge of extinction. Congressmen across India were already in mourning, stating that all that there was left to do was for them to come and sit at the roadside, with a begging bowl and jhola, hoping for some alms from passers-by. It could well have been a Congress-mukt Bharat right then.
As they waited for their eventual decimation, suddenly Sonia Gandhi stepped into the election campaign, electrifying the cadres and energising party workers. The Congress ended up just a few seats short of the BJP and Kesri stepped aside for her as party president.
Right or wrong, the Congress had needed the pull of a charismatic pan-Indian leader at the helm of its affairs at the time. And although Sonia was painfully shy and could not speak extempore, was much ridiculed as a reader (of speeches) rather than a leader, she nonetheless succeeded in uniting the restless party and steering it to victory less than a decade later in 2004.
Ever since then the Nehru-Gandhis have been the glue that has held the highly fractious Congress together. Today, despite calls for its death and disbanding, it is actually the only party that can keep the nation glued together and India from being pushed into a second partition.
For, from the series of lynchings of Muslims, Dalits and tribals within days of Narendra Modi winning a massive second mandate, it is obvious nothing has changed. For the moment these sections seem - *needs pun unintended -cowed down but, sooner rather than later, with no hope in sight there could be an uprising as these communities are pushed to the wall and strike back.
Over the past few days, there seems to be a consensus emerging that, despite dissenting voices, Congress president Rahul Gandhi would be foolhardy to give in to the clamour of the forces influenced by the RSS ideology - and even some socialists keen and eager to occupy the Congress space - to resign from his post.
Even the most sympathetic of individuals feel that would be like a captain deserting a sinking ship. Gandhi cannot afford to go down in history as a man who left the party in tatters and could not clean up the mess himself. If at all he quits as Congress president, the party must be handed to his successor at its peak and not at its nadir. That is simply not how courageous men conduct themselves and Rahul Gandhi, as we know, is no coward.
I too am firmly of the view that Gandhi, who has shown no lack of courage so far in shouldering the barbs and ridicule thrown at him by fascist forces, should dig in his heels and take the lead in resurrecting the party. Rahul should not take the easy way out by running away from the field. However, there are some things the Congress now needs to do to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes it seems to be buried under. These decisions will be hard ones which only a Nehru-Gandhi can pull off – with anyone else at the helm of affairs, the implementation of these decisions is likely to break up the party into factions with each leader rebelling against the other and trying to assert his superiority over others.
The first and foremost of these should be the ruthless retirement of the ‘syndicate" that grew around the ‘high command’. While Mrs Indira Gandhi had deftly dealt with the senior leaders of her time who wanted to manipulate her as a goongi gudiya, Sonia has had rather less success in putting the senior leaders of her time in place because of her western sensibilities.
They manipulated her into taking inadvisable decisions – for example, the sacking of Jaganmohan Reddy after the death of his father YSR Reddy when he could have been easily accommodated with a token post in party or government-to suit their own agendas. They passed those decisions off as something Mrs Indira Gandhi would have taken or as something better suited to Indian sensibilities which Sonia was too afraid to oppose even against her better judgment.
Rahul, however, has no such handicap and must deal with such self-centred stalwarts with a firm hand though rather more respectfully than Modi did with the likes of LK Advani. Like Advani with the BJP, these Congress stalwarts have received much from both the party and the nation. It is now time for them to step aside and make room for a younger generation. But not necessarily just their sons and daughters.
Ah, yes. Sons and daughters and sundry relatives. In the matter of the GenNext too, the Congress needs to set some hard, inviolable rules for all without exception. It has a precedent which must be restored and followed dutifully.
In 2006 and 2008 in Goa and Karnataka respectively, the Congress had been on the right track in formulating a rule that two members of the same family would not be allowed to hold electoral offices at the same time. So as sitting chief minister Pratapsinh Rane contested, his son Vishwajit did not get a party ticket. The same rule was applied to Margaret Alva in Karnataka in 2008 – she was asked to resign as union minister if she wanted a ticket for her son.
However, by 2009 the Congress lost its way on this excellent rule with exceptions being made for the children of Sushil Kumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh. Had this rule not been broken, the Congress would not have faced the peculiar and embarrassing situation of the son of the leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra legislative assembly joining the BJP at the eleventh hour when the seat he wanted from the Congress -Ahmednagar - went to the NCP.
Much more important than these organisational changes, however, is the need for a fundamental shift in its ideology from an overtly left-leaning one or soft Hindutva to the purest form of liberal democracy with the individual at the centre of its focus without any overt emphasis on caste, creed, sex or religion.
With unadulterated focus on the basic freedoms and fundamental rights of the individual in this country, man, woman or child, upper or lower caste, rich or poor, there is ample scope and space for the Congress to resurrect itself and bring the country back on an even keel.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s own)