Central & South Asia

Why Is India’s Opposition Congress Party in Crisis?

Even as Rahul Gandhi accuses Narendra Modi of appeasing China, his party faces revolt, a focus on its past blunders and questions about its patriotism.
Atul Singh, Manu Sharma, Indian National Congress, Congress Party, INC, Indian opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Indian politics, Narendra Modi

Rahul Gandhi in Dubai, UAE on 1/11/2019. © Abie Davies / Shutterstock

September 17, 2020 09:07 EDT

Allan Octavian Hume, a sidelined official of the British Raj, founded the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885. Born in Kent, UK, Hume was the quintessential gora sahib (white master) who had gone native. He took the initiative to create a modern political platform in a newly colonized and deeply divided land. The INC went on to become the default political movement for Indians of all hues and led the country’s freedom struggle.

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By the 1920s, the INC was firmly in the hands of brown sahibs. Even though Mahatma Gandhi led a mass movement, the Harrow and Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru came to personify the Congress party. When India became independent in 1947, Nehru emerged as its first prime minister. For a time, he dazzled not only the country but much of the world. Nehru’s family ruled India for most of its post-independence history and Sonia Gandhi, his grandson’s Italian widow, continues to be the president of the INC.

Narendra Modi’s Twin Blows

Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2014 election was a tectonic shift in Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was back in power after a decade in the opposition. Modi’s reelection in 2019 was historic. For the first time, a non-INC party won a second full term since independence in 1947. The BJP’s parliamentary tally went up from 282 in 2014 to 303 in 2019. Prime Minister Modi’s BJP had knocked down the grand old party of India a second time.

The aura of the Nehru dynasty survived Modi’s 2014 victory but has been fading after 2019. It has been an open secret that Sonia has been keeping the seat warm for her son, Rahul Gandhi, who has displayed little aptitude for or interest in politics. The unwritten rule of the Congress party since the days of Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and Rahul’s grandmother, has been that the leadership is the monopoly of India’s first family.

Naturally, such a situation irked many upcoming Congress leaders. In the past, the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao left the INC. Both have created their own regional parties and are chief ministers of important states. For the first time, a mass rebellion, instead of an isolated revolt, seems to be brewing. No less than 23 senior INC leaders wrote to Sonia asking for a “full-time leadership,” a euphemism for a leader other than Rahul

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Despite leading the INC from one disaster to another, Rahul has been deemed the uncontested successor of his mother. For years, many people in the party have murmured about Rahul’s ineptitude but have accepted him as a monarch. Finally, the Congress leaders have done the unthinkable by asking the Nehru dynasty to hand over the reins of power to someone else. 

Retribution has been swift. The INC high command has dismissed calls for introspection and dismissed leading leaders from posts. One of them is Ghulam Nabi Azad, a top Muslim leader who was once chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Azad has been a loyal servant of Congress for decades and is known to be a clever political strategist. The high command purged other senior leaders like Mallikarjuna Kharge, Ambika Soni and Motilal Vohra. A veteran INC leader, Sanjay Jha, a former spokesperson of the party, appropriately tweeted, “Last night the deck chairs on the Titanic were rearranged.”

Rahul Gandhi Reacts

Even as INC leaders have been raising the banner of revolt against Rahul, Nehru’s heir has been attacking the ruling BJP over its China policy. He has questioned the Modi government’s border management and claimed, “Narendra Modi is Surrender Modi.” Such a charge is incendiary but has not set mass emotion alight. Part of the reason is that few take Rahul Gandhi seriously. As the BJP pointed out, the INC leader had not attended a single meeting of the parliamentary committee on defense.

Recently, Rahul finally showed up and launched a broadside against the army by asking India’s chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, why soldiers were served a diet different from their officers. Tilting at the windmills, Rahul seemed to be taking on the injustice of food discrimination in the army, which leads to soldiers eating an inferior diet. Rawat robustly refuted the charge of such food discrimination, pointing out that there is no difference in quality or quantity of food served to soldiers and officers. As per Rawat, differences in diet are based on the dietary preferences of soldiers and officers.

Rahul has a point in his line of questioning. Like all of India’s pre-independence institutions, the Indian army retains a colonial hangover. Officers often act as brown sahibs. Their medium of communication is English, while their troops communicate in Hindi or their regional languages. Officers tend to come from urban areas while soldiers have rural backgrounds. While it is true that discrimination exists, it has decreased over time as India has democratized. Officers increasingly hail from lower-middle classes, not posh social echelons. Affluent Indians pack off their children to cushy environs of Harvard or Yale, not icy Himalayan heights on India’s borders.

The challenge with Rahul is that his party is utterly out of touch with the grassroots. Like Marie Antoinette who liked to get a taste of rural life by milking cows and playing the shepherdess, Rahul enjoys tilting at the windmills of injustice for the common man. Some of it is plain political theater but part of it seems genuine. The irony of Rahul’s situation is that he fails to realize how, like the ill-fated French queen, he represents the very injustice he tilts against.

Sadly for Rahul, the Nehru dynasty is still identified with India’s disastrous defeat in 1962. Nehru’s acquiescence of the Chinese conquest of Tibet, his disastrous choice of a hardline, pro-communist defense minister and his bungling of negotiations with the then Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, have left a dark stain on his legacy. Since 1962, the INC has consistently followed a soft policy on China and shied away from confrontation. Therefore, Rahul’s attacks on the Modi government for being soft on China are out of character for both his party and his family.

A Question of Competence and Loyalty

There is another wrinkle in the narrative. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991, the INC has lurched leftward under his widow, Sonia. A part of this lurch since the 1990s has been to go very soft on Pakistan and even China. The overriding assumption has been that the resulting peace dividend was worth any short-term pain or military strategic setback. Under Sonia, Congress has encouraged left-leaning parties in the near-neighborhood. In Nepal, this pro-democracy policy has led to the election of a pro-China communist party. 

Nothing captured the utter incompetence of the INC on national security than the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The party neither acted resolutely nor swiftly when the attack was on. It meted out no punishment for the Pakistan-based terrorist group that carried out the attack. The INC-led government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh continued its soft policy against Pakistan. In contrast, the Modi-led BJP government launched an airstrike on Balakot in Pakistani territory after the Pulwama attacks in 2019. The Modi government also removed the Nehru-era Article 370 that gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, earning the prime minister much political capital on national security.

Even if Rahul and other Congress leaders were to make valid points on Modi’s defense or foreign policies, Indians would not trust them. Today, the Nehru dynasty is seen as weak, vacuous and ineffectual. Many deem its policies to be appeasement. A belated focus on Nehru’s mistakes on Kashmir and Tibet is riling up increasing numbers of Indians. It is for this reason that the INC is trying desperately hard to paint Modi as the new Nehru and take the sheen off his prestige on national security, a key reason for the BJP’s reelection in 2019. 

For the INC, the best scenario would be India’s humiliation at the hands of China. The party could then say that Modi and the BJP had turned out to be no better than Nehru and the INC. In any case, the Congress party is beating a relentless drum that Modi has appeased China, lost Indian territory and lacks the courage for a fight. The left-leaning media, both at home and abroad, is singing from the same hymn sheet.

In interviews conducted for The Wire, Karan Thapar, a brown sahib dressed in a bow tie, has constantly attacked the Modi government on one ground or another. There are plenty of reasons to question and indeed criticize the government. However, Thapar clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding about basic facts. More importantly, he typifies a strong bias against the BJP in general and Modi in particular because of ideological reasons and class consciousness. As a result, few pay attention to India’s anglicized, left-leaning, Delhi-based media. Such is the public’s loss of trust in this clique that their attacks might be boosting Modi instead of damaging him.

Another unexpected phenomenon might be boosting the Modi government. Many Indians suspect that the INC is actively leveraging its contacts in American media and the Democratic Party to push the narrative of the BJP as a Hindu fascist party that is repressing Kashmiris, marginalizing Muslims and wrecking the economy. At a time when nationalism is rising, such a perception is damaging. 

The American media often forgets that Sonia Gandhi was an Italian before her marriage. For many Indians, her rise and continued occupation of the top post in the Indian National Congress is nothing short of a national humiliation. Senior BJP leaders have alleged that Rahul Gandhi is known as Raul Vinci in Italy and the UK. Popular sentiment suspects that American and indeed Western media backs the INC and criticizes the BJP, in part, because Sonia is European. The loyalty of the Nehru dynasty to the Indian nation is increasingly in question.

For a party founded on the principles of self-determination and self-rule, a perception that its European-born leader is beseeching her foreign allies to interfere in India’s domestic politics of foreign interference outrages many Indians. For them, it reflects the INC’s decay from a virtuous party of the freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi to a degenerate one under Sonia. This perception of political, moral and ideological bankruptcy is proving toxic to the INC. The idea that it is placing loyalty to the Nehru dynasty over loyalty to the nation could prove fatal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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