Dear Congresspersons—scarcely a day passes without a lofty lament by you about India’s impending destruction at the hands of Narendra Modi’s sectarian government. What you never seem to reflect upon, however, is your complicity in Modi’s ravages. You may regard yourselves as defenders of India. But you are, in actuality, the abettors of the effort to disfigure India. There is no greater threat to Modi than a rejuvenated Congress party. And there is no greater obstacle to the rejuvenation of Congress than the Gandhi dynasty. By failing to remove that obstacle, you help Modi entrench himself in power.
We are three years from the last Lok Sabha election, and two years from the next. Yet your party functions without a full-time leader. Instead, despite two successive historic electoral defeats in the past eight years, you continue to genuflect to the “high command” that has presided over your party’s devastation. And rather than a constitutionally ordered internal democracy, you operate by the divine commandments dispensed by the dynasty. When asked to confront this scourge, you parrot the dogma that Congress will collapse if the Gandhi family is ejected from its apex. But why should a Congress incapable of self-reform in this moment of existential crisis for India survive? What purpose does a Congress that cannot retool itself to rescue the country serve?
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Nehru did not suffer for this
Rahul Gandhi can shrug off every electoral defeat as a learning lesson because you have allowed Congress to be treated as an open university for the education of one hopeless mature student. The adult learner is not answerable to anyone. He seldom attends Parliament, raises few questions (he asked none in the 16th Lok Sabha), and routinely misses meetings of parliamentary standing committees. His only achievement is extracurricular: An average of five (known) foreign holidays a month between 2015 and 2019. Virtually every occasion on which Modi appeared vulnerable, Rahul Gandhi was holidaying abroad. In Modi’s first term of office, the Congress scion spent more time floating in the sky than discharging political duties on earth. Anticipating that the exhausted voters of Amethi would throw him out, he carpetbagged his way into Parliament from Kerala.
The disaster of Rahul Gandhi’s de facto leadership is aggravated by the dynasty’s determination to smother anyone they fear might eclipse him. This explains, for instance, why the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha is Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and not, say, Shashi Tharoor, who possesses the oratorical prowess and the pan-national profile necessary to dynamise and draw attention to its proceedings. Who profits by keeping Tharoor—more accomplished than anyone in the parliamentary party—on the backbenches? Everyone knows the answer and yet hardly anyone complains because the dynasty has secured its privileges by sowing mutual distrust among all of you. You are so intensely suspicious of each other that you will allow India to slip permanently into the swamp of religious nationalism than pull together to save it.
It is difficult to believe today, but there was a time when aspiring democrats from Asia to Africa revered your party as a model for their own nations. “In the upsurge of anti-colonial and freedom struggles that swept through Asia and Africa in the post-war period,” Nelson Mandela wrote from Robben Island in 1980, “there could hardly be a liberation movement or national leader who was not influenced one way or another by … the All India Congress.” You not only abase yourself when you submit to the dynasty. You also debase what was once a great institution.
Some among you seek consolation in the abject mitigation, pioneered by the dynasty’s longstanding overseas consigliere Sam Pitroda, that all political parties in India are dynastic. By repeating this argument, you amplify Hindu fatalism—this is how things were, this is how things will always be—and falsify the dynamism of your party’s history. Dynasticism was not in fact the norm until one family exploited the story of India’s freedom struggle to seize power in Congress, breed a culture of sycophancy, cultivate cults of personality, establish the precedent of hereditary rule, and bequeath the template of dynastic despotism for others.
Then there are those among you who invoke the “sacrifices” of the Nehru-Gandhis to justify their dictatorship in Congress. But Nehru did not suffer long spells of incarceration for you to invoke his life to sanctify the anti-democratic reign of his descendants. To do so is not to pay tribute to Nehru. It is to abuse his memory. It falls on Congresspersons of conscience—and that species is not yet extinct—to undo the damage inflicted by the proprietors of the party you serve.
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India’s saddest tragedy
This, of course, is a demoralising moment. Your party, repeatedly routed, now holds power in two states of the union that together account for less than 10 per cent of India’s population. But you cannot afford to yield to despair—or avoid addressing the cause of your party’s decay. Just over a century ago, when Mahatma Gandhi sailed home from South Africa, the British were raising a new capital in the wilderness of southern Delhi. An overwhelming majority of Indians lived and died in poverty and squalor. India, thoroughly vanquished, appeared destined forever to remain a colony. Politics was an esoteric fixation—the occupation of the tiniest minority whose concerns bore no relationship to the conditions of the underfed multitudes—and the idea of an Indian republic predicated on constitutionally guaranteed equality of citizenship was inconceivable. And yet within two decades, a reformed Congress under Gandhi’s supervision had succeeded in recruiting Indians of every background into history’s largest freedom movement, which proceeded to wrest India’s freedom from the British Empire in 1947.
Seventy five years on, as the republic inaugurated by Congress implodes around you, you cannot unite to emancipate your party from the pernicious grip of a self-serving family and suffuse it with a higher purpose. Even the prospect of annihilation in the next election—the most consequential in our republic’s history—is insufficient to provoke adequate numbers in your ranks to clamour for the party’s revival under a new leadership. This is India’s saddest tragedy.
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Time is now
Those among you with the conviction that Congress ought to serve more than the family’s interests now have an opening to make yourself heard. On Friday, some of you will be called on to elect new members to the Rajya Sabha. The list of Congress candidates was drawn up by the holy triune of mother, son, and daughter without any consultation with the local stakeholders: You. It was yet another decree from above in a party from which even the residues of deliberation and democracy are being purged. So deep runs the contempt for elected legislators and ordinary workers in the dynasty that Rahul Gandhi—holidaying in England under the guise of a lecture tour—was able to decide the fates of men and women with decades of service to the party over a short zoom call before breakfast. You, the men and women who toil in the trenches, had no say in the matter.
And yet it is you—in Chhattisgarh, in Maharashtra, in Madhya Pradesh, in Rajasthan, in Haryana—who possess the power to shape the outcome. If you are a democratically inclined patriot with a modicum of self-respect, this is the moment to affirm your voice—to demonstrate the force of democracy to a dynasty steeped in self-entitlement. Cast your vote for any non-Congress or independent candidate. If your conscience does not permit that, abstain from voting altogether. But no matter what you do, do not vote for any candidate foisted upon you by the dynasty. And do not succumb to the terror of the whip being withdrawn: The party as it exists needs you more than you need it. Over the past two years, you have witnessed a concerted harrying and humiliation of a series of senior and junior leaders for the sin of not kowtowing properly before the dynasty. The quickest route to India’s reclamation goes through the Congress. Now is your moment to respond to the dynasty and launch the democratisation of your party. For India’s sake, do not squander it.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Views are personal.