Recent by-election results have induced a great sense of euphoria among those opposed to ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s autocratic style, which they consider threats to the foundations of India’s constitutional democracy. While some of this euphoria may be justified, much of it is misplaced for several reasons.
No time for complacency
First, a repeat of the recent by-election results assumes Opposition unity and two-way contests between Opposition and BJP candidates. Both these assumptions have been proven wrong over and over again. India is a vast and complex country. Its politics is equally diverse and convoluted. Much of the political contestation is determined by regional factors and forces. Parties that may be allies in one part of the country can turn out to be bitter opponents in another. In this context, multi-cornered contests are the norm.
Second, most of the Opposition consists of regional parties that are primarily interested in protecting their own regional bases and are often willing to sup with the devil to achieve that end. To them, New Delhi is a remote capital and their relationship with the Centre is frequently based on what they can extract from the latter in order to bolster their own standing in their States. The party governing at the Centre, currently the BJP, has great leverage in such a situation.
Third, Opposition unity, and, more important, the persistence of such unity, can only be assured if there is a national party that can act as its anchor and around which the other parties can coalesce. Also, such a national anchor must be able to convince the regional parties that it has the capacity to give the BJP a run for its money and when elected to office will have the capability to reward its regional allies.
Fourth, the only party that, despite its dwindling fortunes, has some residual national reach and can act as such an anchor is the Congress. Unfortunately, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, the Congress is currently not in a position to perform this role. How much the Congress’s standing is depleted is evidenced by the fact that it is now more than willing to act as a junior partner in anti-BJP alliances and accept crumbs from the allies’ tables. This has been proven true not only in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but recently in Karnataka as well where it offered unconditional support to Janata Dal (Secular) that has half the number of its seats in the State Assembly. Unless the Congress is able to rejuvenate itself and once again project the confidence and drive that it possessed even until the 1980s, it will not be able to act as the national anchor for an Opposition coalition capable of defeating the BJP.
Fifth, there are many reasons for the Congress’s decline, including the absence of inner-party democracy, lack of a vision that can attract voters, a culture of sycophancy that has reached absurd limits in the past two decades, and its incapacity to act as an ideological alternative to the BJP (which is an ideological party). However, there is one feature that lies at the basis of all its other shortcomings. This, in one word, is “dynasty”.
Unless Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are marginalised in the party, it will not be able to rejuvenate itself. There is no lack of intellectual acumen and political talent in the party but those possessing such attributes are normally sidelined for fear that they may challenge the dynasty. By holding on to the dynasty the Congress is digging itself into an ever wider hole and providing Mr. Modi and the BJP the space to subvert the foundations of India’s secular democracy.
A parliamentary convention
The Gandhis have hung on to the leadership of the Congress despite the fact that there is a convention in mature parliamentary democracies, such as Britain and Australia, that when a party loses power in an election its leadership promptly resigns to make way for fresh blood.
Ms. Gandhi should have done so immediately after the Congress debacle in 2014 and refrained from imposing her son on the party as her political heir. “Dynasty” has now become a dirty word in Indian politics, and most Indians find transferring power from mother to son extremely distasteful. In fact, this trait has become the Achilles heel of the Congress party.
Senior members of the Congress cannot afford to wait for another debacle in 2019 before addressing this issue. The time is now.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University
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