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Can the Congress survive without The Family?

By Aditi Phadnis
March 05, 2016 19:38 IST
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'The family is the final court of appeal, the first among unequals.'
'If there is no family, all leaders are equal.'
'If all leaders are equal, anyone can lead the Congress.'
'So every time the family has stayed in the background, the Congress has split.'

Aditi Phadnis on the Mother and Child Party.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son, party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, and daugher Priyanka Gandhi.One of the most important political forces in the world's most populous democracy will always be run by one family. And only that family has the power to divest itself of that responsibility.

What is it about the Congress that makes it so family-dependent? Is it the way the party is structured? Is it the personality of the Congressman, so conditioned by the party's spoken history that it refuses to countenance a leadership other than the Nehru-Gandhi family'? And is this the way it is always going to be?

This was the central issue in the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President's address that concluded in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi advised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to listen to someone in the party besides himself: there were many other equally capable leaders.

Modi’s response was: 'And what about you? How come talented leaders in the Congress are never allowed to flourish for fear that they might outshine the family?'

Wake up a Congressman in the middle of the night and ask him why he tolerates a regency. His unguarded, spontaneous response will be: 'The family has made sacrifices for India that no one else has.'

The answer to this comes from critics of the Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party says: 'Our party is also a family. We too have sacrificed: The founder of the Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, was assassinated; Deendayal Upadhyaya was killed. Do you hear of anyone from the family of these leaders making a claim to head the BJP, just because they are related to them?'

Interestingly, this perpetuation of family in the Congress has provoked a counter narrative from the opponents of the Congress. Recently, when former finance minister Yashwant Sinha tore into the government's economic management, top BJP leaders told Business Standard it was because he was disgruntled: "He wanted to become the chairman of BRICS bank -- and the PM said he would not give him that position while his son was in government (Jayant Sinha is minister of state for finance). If we also started doing what the Congress does -- accept the principle of family rule -- what would be the difference between the BJP and the Congress?"

The paradox is, the more the BJP criticises the Congress on the grounds that it is a family-run enterprise, the more it serves to reinforce the dominant discourse in the Congress that The Family must be protected from assault at all cost. Correspondingly, the leadership has now decided it has to choose the battles it needs to fight

At one stage, for Rahul Gandhi, replacing internal systems so that the Congress was welcoming of all kinds of political opinion, not just a place for inherited leadership, was the most important mission. But today, internal rectification so that the Congress looks less like a Mother and Child party is a project to be undertaken later.

Witness the decision to name Tarun Gogoi the chief minister of Assam if the party comes to power in that state after the forthcoming assembly elections: it was in protest against promotion of his family by Gogoi that a man like Himanta Biswa Sarma left the Congress and joined the BJP.

And thinking firmly in the box, the Maharashtra Congress, on its Facebook page, has welcomed image manager Prashant Kishor's suggestion that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra play a greater role in Congress politics! This is tacit acknowledgement that Rahul Gandhi's leadership has been underwhelming, but that the alternative must come from within the family.

The past tells us about the present. The family is the final court of appeal, the first among unequals. If there is no family, all leaders are equal. If all leaders are equal, anyone can lead the Congress. So every time the family has stayed in the background, the Congress has split.

The breakaway group calling itself the 'real' Congress has split further: Whether it was the Congress-S formed in the aftermath of the Emergency that broke away to call itself the Samanantar Congress in Maharashtra under the leadership of Sharad Pawar in the 1970s; or the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress launched in 1986 by Pranab Mukherjee after the assassination of Indira Gandhi when he mistakenly thought the party had become a republican animal and would prefer him over Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister; or the Congress in Tamil Nadu, which split in 1996 when Sonia Gandhi was still in mourning (she formally joined the party only in 1997) and P V Narasimha Rao was running things along with Sitaram Kesri as party president.

True, there were other reasons for the split -- but ultimately an Indira Gandhi loyalist like G K Moopanar broke away from the Congress because the family was not a compulsion.

A rebellion against Narasimha Rao in 1994 was led by N D Tewari and Arjun Singh and called itself the All India Indira Congress. But the 'convention' held by the party kept waiting and waiting for 10 Janpath to endorse it -- and when the message from 10 Janpath came it was that Soniaji would never bless a faction of the Congress: So that was a non-starter.

This then leads us to the somewhat unsettling conclusion that one of the most important political forces in the world's most populous democracy will always be run by one family. And only that family has the power to divest itself of that responsibility -- which it does not seem to be inclined to do at present.

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