From landslide victory to getting sidelined, from leading the United Progressive Alliance to splitting into two due to an internal conflict, the Indian National Congress has been through all the phases. And now in 2019 as the party stands on the crucial point of deciding who will be the next party president, it is important for party leaders to look back and learn from the experiences. As the historic event of the split of Congress in 1969 completes its 50 years, refreshing its memory becomes imperative because this event marked the conversion of a national party entirely into a family entity by Indira Gandhi. Although it is a very common phenomenon in the Indian political system, from SP and TMC in north and east respectively to DMK in the south that politics and bloodline remain closely related.
In 1969, Indira Gandhi was thrown out of the party by the then party president S. Nijalingappa. The long-prevailing rivalry between Indira and the Syndicate, which was a term used for senior party leaders can be one reason. But the major issue for the split was the Presidential election after the death of Dr. Zakir Hussain. The syndicate wanted N. Sanjeeva Reddy to be the president and issued a whip asking party members to vote for him. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime minister, along with her supporters requisitioned a special meeting of All India Congress Committee as they wanted the Vice president V.V. Giri to fill up the vacancy but the permission was refused. After this Gandhi called for a “conscience vote” in which every party member was encouraged to vote as per his/her wish irrespective of the party whip. The result was the appointment of V.V Giri as the President of India. Indira Ji knew that he will be malleable to her dictates but the Syndicate, before appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor of Lal Bahadur Shastri and rejecting the senior claimant Morarji Desai’s candidature, had no idea that the Goongi Gudiya will one day knock the wind out of their sails. She turned out to be the Shahjahan, who had his henchmen cut off the hands of builders of Taj Mahal, the masterpiece. This open rebellion and her expulsion from the party led to a division among party members. The group under Indira Gandhi emerged to be the real Congress because she was the lady of action and knew how to hold the reigns. This event was important in Indian politics because, after her appointment, Gandhis became claimants of top position by default. This had put ivory tower syndrome in place that seemed to have worked against the party in the last two elections.
If history is any good teacher then one can’t neglect the striking similarities that Indira Gandhi and her granddaughter share. Priyanka Gandhi not only looks like her but she is also a silent and close observer, obedient daughter, supportive wife and a devoted mother, just like her. She seemed reluctant to join politics at one point in time but the same was the case with Indira of the 1950s. Priyanka Gandhi’s fierce remarks overpowered the words of even the ace orator Atal Bihari Vajpayee and helped congress secure the seat of Rai Barelli. In another instance, the year that was to mark Sonia’s political debut witnessed Priyanks’s orange-red saree overshadowing her mother’s maroon green. Congressmen thought that they won’t face any leadership crisis for the next 50 years. But currently, Priyanka has so much to deal with. It is not just about reviving the party by giving a vision or standing against a charismatic leader like Modi, she needs to deal with corruption charges surrounding Vadra too.
Another strong candidate for the party president’s post is Ashok Gehlot. When one thinks of his loyalty and experience, we can’t resist drawing similarity between him and Morarji Desai. Gehlot supported Indira Gandhi in the election following the emergency while most withdrew support. He is the one who has worked with all the three generations of Gandhi.
Given his popularity, track record and achievements, if he is made the party president then voters’ expectations from the party would increase manifolds. But if he isn’t then history might repeat itself. One should not forget that “Loyalty and talent not rewarded can seek vengeance.” Morarji Desai, in spite of being the most eligible candidate, was denied the post because he had a mind of his own that challenged the ego of few. He befriended the opposition and formed a coalition to defeat Indira Gandhi in 1977. What if Gehlot along with his huge supporter base and a new vision of his own decides to get separated from directionless Congress. It would simply be another state going out of the party’s hands.
So the decision of choosing the president seems to be a choice of party members versus voters. The reason being, members are so used to seeing a Gandhi at the helm of the party that they fear the party’s endangerment without it. But the narrative of family members governing the parties irrespective of its incapabilities has to be changed. Thus putting a Gandhi in place again might not work. But if it is a Non-Gandhi then problems are no less. Firstly, that will lead to the creation of 2 poles of power, one where the virtual power exists and real power still lies in the hands of the family. Secondly, Congress party members are loyal to the Nehruvian family but once the hand to pick the leader comes into their court and someone amongst them is chosen, the support will get divided. The scene of Congressi coming on streets for making their respective leaders the CM in Rajasthan is still fresh in our memories. And the same veteran leaders are in the race this time too.
A strong leader with a strong vision and dream to sell is what the party is looking for. Now whether this will come from a Gandhi or a non-Gandhi is what nation has eyes on. Will the voters accept another Gandhi? What will stop Modi from calling it “Maa-Beti ki Sarkar”? Will the aura of Priyanka Gandhi overpower Modi’s? Many questions to be answered and most important among them is, Who will be the next party President?
(Written by Pratigya Singhal for The Connectere)