19 years later: What next for the Congress?

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The Indian National Congress is an institution well-seated in India’s history. However, they have had constant periods of stagnation with regard to their policy-making, especially due to their constant obsession with dynastic politics. These periods of stagnation, like the one seen following the Bofors scandal of the 1980’s under the Rajiv Gandhi administration have led the party to engage in purges within their systems to reform the party. Many political commentators believe that a similar situation has plagued the Congress party stemming from the nation wide unrest against the UPA government. In a way to try and uplift that situation, the Congress is trying to bring about change by promoting Rahul Gandhi to the position of party president. 

Following the UPA years, the political landscape of India has immensely changed. With a relatively weaker central coalition government, regional parties like the AIADMK and the Trinamool Congress rose to dominance in their respective states, which led to the polarization of the masses popularly termed the Modi wave. The only possible sign of a dent in the Modi wave since his election as prime minister has been recently when corruption allegations against BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah have arisen. This moment has effectively been seized by Gandhi and the Congress party to relaunch the Congress. The basic medium for this expansion and launch of Rahul Gandhi as party president has been social media – a tool that was increasingly used in the 2014 general elections and after by Modi and the BJP. 

Leaving all this aside, it is important to first consider the question; is it enough? The strongest charge against the Congress party has been that of its dynastic brand of politics. Sonia Gandhi has spent 19 years as the president of the Indian National Congress; more than some of India’s greatest politicians like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and even Indira Gandhi. This lack of circulation amongst leadership and concentration of power has led many to question the basic party structure of the Congress. I will examine the long-term decisions and implementations potentially required by the Congress to reform itself before the nation.

A major question at this point will be the future of the party’s leaders. On the one hand you have seasoned politicians like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, the current leader and deputy leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, while on the other side of the spectrum you have younger, more vocal figures like Shashi Tharoor and Jyotiraditya Scindia – figures who can very easily step up and take charge of different sections of the party. However politically, it does not seem likely for Rahul Gandhi to allow the existence of other potential power centres. Power within the party has been concentrated in the hands of the mother and son duo of Sonia and Rahul. Of course, a major entry into this political dynamic will be the addition of Priyanka Vadra to the forefront of party politics, however the circumstances of that, though probable, are yet to be confirmed.

For now however, the real litmus test for Rahul Gandhi in his new role, lies with the upcoming state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In Gujarat we have already seen a strong anti-Modi rhetoric emerge from the Gandhi camp, with him critically looking at the government’s policies, with him accusing the Prime Minister of selling false promises to poor farmer, preying on their naïveté. However the reality of the matter is that Gujarat from a BJP perspective is a relative stronghold. It seems unlikely to expect a non-BJP government occupying the treasury benches in the state, however what is possible is a significant rise in the Congress share of seats in the state’s Vidhan Sabha. Such an event would act as a huge boost to other state elections and to the Rahul Gandhi party presidency. Himachal on the contrary proposes a different set of possibilities. Virbhadra Singh has created a strong place for himself in the state’s history, with him being at the helm of affairs for some decades now. However unrest in the form of corruption scandals and a slowdown in parliament pose an actual threat to his re-election. The BJP have strong state leaders like JP Nadda backing their rhetoric and it will be a close call between the two parties regarding who forms government.

The coming months, as can be observed from above, will determine the fate of the Rahul Gandhi party presidency. The one handle holds the possibility of reforming and absolving the Congress party of its ‘single family rule’ tag, the other could take the Congress below their current low point.

Dhruv Johri is a staff writer at India Ink. You can reach him at dmj41@georgetown.edu.