When will the Congress party realise that its dynasty is running out of charisma and its political ideas are running out of steam? Reactions to the electoral drubbing last week indicate that the answer appears to be never. No sooner did it become evident that the party was losing its governments in Assam and Kerala than venerable Congress leaders started telling TV pundits that it was time for Priyanka Gandhi to enter politics. This proposition has been made often before, but in recent days more definitely by the overhyped electoral genius who supposedly won Bihar for Nitish Kumar and India for Narendra Modi.
Mrs Vadra’s political experience is limited to campaigning for her Mummyji and brother in Rae Bareli and Amethi. During these campaigns she has shown a natural affinity with ordinary people, a sartorial sense reminiscent of her grandmother and an ability to speak Hindi fluently. These are good qualities but she brings with her the baggage of Mr Vadra, and has so far not expressed a political idea that suggests that she can save the Congress party at so critical a moment.
Can she win Uttar Pradesh if she is projected as chief minister? When I asked myself this question, I remembered a hot evening in Papu’s chai shop in Banaras during the 2014 election campaign. Local intellectuals had gathered in this rickety teashop for some ‘chai pe charcha’ and were discussing whether there was any possibility of the Congress defeating Modi in Banaras. They concluded that Priyanka could give him a tough fight. Then silence fell over the gathering until someone said, “But, the Congress party will only bring Priyanka if they have decided that Rahul has flopped completely.”
Has this happened? It is hard not to conclude that it has if we consider the number of state elections that the Congress has lost under his leadership since 2014. And if you keep in mind that under his leadership India’s oldest political party has acquired an unserious quality.
In the Lok Sabha, Rahul sits surrounded by a small noisy gang of MPs who like him come from political dynasties. To use Himanta Biswa Sarma’s charming expression, they are all ‘blue bloods’, and like their leader appear not to have a single new political idea in their heads. So they make a racket over issues that change daily before either walking out or jumping into the Well of the House. Outside Parliament they use tactics that seem copied from the Aam Aadmi Party, so there have been marches to Rashtrapati Bhavan and more recently there was that effort to ‘save democracy’ by courting arrest in Jantar Mantar.
These tactics easily get 15 minutes of publicity but usually do not win elections. For the Congress party to revive its waning fortunes, it needs to come up with a new idea of its future role. So far Rahul Gandhi has shown that he can do no more than imitate old economic ideas that failed to rid India of poverty under his grandmother and political strategies that date back to the freedom movement. There is no point in saying that you stand on the side of the poor and downtrodden if you cannot come up with an idea that helps them escape being poor and downtrodden.
Jibes about the Prime Minister working only for ‘a handful of rich people’ are not exactly a political idea that can be discussed seriously. The ‘gareebi hatao’ slogan is from a time when most Indians were poor and downtrodden and could not dream that it was possible for their lives to get better. Today the poorest Indians aspire to being middle class and are impatient to become upwardly mobile as soon as possible. They vote for political parties who talk of development and prosperity and not those who glorify poverty.
They also notice when political parties make unholy alliances in the name of saving secularism. The Congress party’s credentials on this score are in any case dubious since they have no hesitation in allying with communal parties of the Islamic kind. Remember that Rahul famously told an American ambassador that India was more threatened by Hindutva terrorists than the jihadi kind.
At a time when jihadi terrorism has proved that it is the biggest threat to the world as we know it, whipping up fears over Hindutva terrorism is absurd and has a hollow ring. Yet this continues to be the Congress party’s only weapon against the BJP along, of course, with the vaunted charisma of the dynasty that has ruled India for most of her years as a modern nation. If the Congress party’s strategists can only offer Priyanka as a solution to an existential crisis, we are going to need to look elsewhere for a credible opposition party. Democracy, as we know well, becomes authoritarianism when opposition parties become weak.