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G23 isn’t a 1969 moment for Congress and Rahul Gandhi is no Indira

Indira Gandhi was one of the shrewdest politicians India has ever seen. She created a new Congress. Rahul Gandhi is destroying the one he inherited.

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It was Karl Marx (perhaps paraphrasing the German philosopher Hegel) who told us that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.

The Congress has proved Marx wrong. It is repeating its own history. But it has skipped the tragedy part and gone straight to farce.

If you listen to what Rahul supporters are saying on social media in the aftermath of Ghulam Nabi Azad’s resignation, you will find that they talk about throwing out the oldies. These oldies, they suggest, are responsible for the mess the Congress finds itself in. It is time to rid the party of these discredited old fogeys and to create a new, more youthful Congress.

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G-23 the new Syndicate?

We have heard all this before. It was exactly the same kind of rhetoric that marked Indira Gandhi’s decision to split the Congress in 1969. At that stage, Indira was in deep trouble. She had been nominated as Prime Minister by a group of old Congress leaders, many of whom had been around for decades. By 1968/69, they had tired of her and begun to look for ways to remove her from the prime ministership.

Her solution was to go on the offensive. She plotted to get the official Congress candidate running for President of India defeated. When she succeeded (VV Giri who had stood as an Independent, was elected with Indira’s tacit support), the Congress leadership — known then as the Syndicate — reacted with fury and expelled her from primary membership of the party.

That should have ended her career and forced her to resign as the Prime Minister. But Indira was too smart for the Syndicate. She refused to resign and split the Congress. Because she could only take a fraction of the Congress parliamentary party with her, she no longer commanded a majority in the Lok Sabha. But she survived with support of such allies as the Communists and later called an early midterm election (till then, all General Elections had been held on schedule).

The Syndicate held on to the Congress organisation, called itself the Congress (O) and aligned with other parties (Swatantra, the Jan Sangh, etc.) to fight her. But Indira won a landslide victory and buried the Syndicate once and for all. After that, she acted as though the Congress was her personal property to bequeath to her children.

It is that episode that Rahul Gandhi’s supporters cite — some consciously, many subconsciously or ignorantly — when they talk about the need to create a new Congress that is rid of all the oldies. In their minds, the G-23 is the new Syndicate. Men like Ghulam Nabi, Anand Sharma and the rest represent an old, out-of-date avatar of the Congress. Like his grandmother, Rahul will create a new Congress with new leaders.

This is farcical on so many levels that I don’t know where to start.

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Just no comparison

First, there is no comparison between Rahul Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. The latter was one of the shrewdest politicians India has ever seen. She was able to create a new Congress. She had her finger on the pulse of the Indian republic. When she got it wrong (as she did during the Emergency) and was persecuted by the Janata government, she knew how to win over India again. In 1980, less than three years after her post-Emergency defeat, she forced a new General election and won it easily.

In contrast, whatever else Rahul Gandhi is, he is certainly not shrewd. Far from being able to create a new Congress, he is destroying the one he inherited. He does not have his finger on the pulse of India; he consistently misreads the public mood. And where his grandmother led the Congress to landslides, he leads it to defeat after defeat.

Second, Indira did not pick a gratuitous fight with the Syndicate. She acted because the old men who ran the party wanted her to function as their puppet. In today’s Congress, such is the Pavlovian obedience the Gandhi name commands that even now-disillusioned Congressmen hesitate to speak against Rahul. The G-23 eventually spoke out because it believed — with some justification — that the Congress was about to fall off a cliff. There is no parallel at all with Indira’s problems with the Syndicate.

Third, Indira was smart enough to frame her battle against the Syndicate in ideological terms. They were capitalists, she said. She stood for socialism. It may have been insincere but it worked.

Rahul and his coterie, on the other hand, have not been able to come up with one point of principle that separates him from the so-called oldies. The only issue the two sides disagree on is whether Rahul knows how to lead a political party. Judging by the results of so many elections, the evidence is on the side of the G-23.

Fourth, Indira knew when to give up. In 1977, after the post-Emergency defeat, she was content to retire. The Congress tried to reorganise itself without her and she let it do so. Only when the Janata government began its vendetta against her and tried to send her to jail, did she re-enter active politics and fight back.

In Rahul’s case, the opposite is true. He should have thrown in the towel and gone off on a sabbatical (at the very least) some years ago. Instead, he hangs on, pretending to shun party office while continuing to call the shots. The BJP has made no serious attempt to put him in jail (as Janata did with his grandmother). In fact, the longer he remains the face of the Opposition, the easier it gets for Narendra Modi.

That is the truly farcical nature of what is happening in the Congress today. There are no real parallels with Indira Gandhi and her re-invention of the Congress, no matter how much Rahul’s people abuse the ‘oldies’.

Sonia Gandhi kept the Congress in power for a decade and made a valuable contribution to the party. Her children have not. In fact, they have damaged the Congress. It is time for the Gandhis to accept this and let the party move on.

Otherwise, the only thing we can say about today’s Congress is that it has re-ordered Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.

This time around, history is first repeating itself as farce. The tragedy, that Marx had predicted would come first, may have been skipped. But there is no doubt that it is coming: it will follow this farce as a once great national party is destroyed.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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