As expected, the Congress was one of worst performers in this latest election cycle, and as expected, (justifiable) demands for the removal of the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka Gandhi trio from the helm of affairs have begun anew.
But much of the analysis, which conflates the collapse of the Congress with the growing distaste amongst Indian voters for dynastic politics, misses the mark.
The Congress’ crisis runs much deeper than simply family-run leadership.
While there can be little doubt that the Congress is unravelling under the (non) leadership of the Gandhi family, reflected in the party’s atrocious electoral graph (and a never-ending exodus of leaders), voters don’t appear to have a problem with dynastic politics per se. If anything, with the exception of the Gandhi family, the Indian voters’ appetite for dynastic politics seems undiminished.
Presently, at least seven Chief Ministers of major Indian states are dynasts: MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu), Navin Patnaik (Odisha), Uddhav Thackeray (Maharashtra, with another dynast – Ajit Pawar – as his deputy), Basavaraj Bommai (Karnataka), Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh), KCR (Telangana), Hemant Soren (Jharkhand). The list expands further if one includes family-run parties that have put up a strong showing, almost pulling off an upset in recent elections, from the Hoodas in Haryana to Tejaswi Yadav in Bihar. As and when elections are held in the downsized Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the Abdullah and Mufti families remain very much the main players in town, especially in the Kashmir Valley.
Separately, the narrative linking the BJP’s rise to its rejection of dynastic politics is looking increasingly shaky, not least because of its propensity to recruit a wide slate of dynastic defectors from the Congress – Jyotirarditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Rita Bahuguna Joshi and so on.
Then there is the BJP’s own gallery of in-house dynasts, nowadays routinely lampooned in WhatsApp-friendly pictorials showing BJP parent side-by-side with BJP child (Rajnath Singh/Pankaj Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal/Anurag Thakur, Ved Prakash Goyal/Piyush Goyal, Gopinath Munde/Pankaja Munde, to name a few.)
An analysis of parliamentarians by the website India Spend of the two decades prior to 2019 found the percentage of dynasts in the BJP’s parliamentary ranks not vastly different to that of the Congress. “Since 1999, the Congress has had 36 dynastic members of parliament elected to the Lok Sabha, with the BJP not far behind with 31”, the report said.
So what explains this apparent paradox of the persistence – even expansion – of dynastic politics vs the rejection of the family-run Congress?
Quite simply, competence.
As we have just seen, contrary to popular perception, dynasty is not a liability as such. It continues to remain an enabling tool, one that can lower entry barriers into Indian politics, much like wealth, or belonging to a politically-significant caste. But as with caste, or money power, the right pedigree is not an automatic guarantee of success, certainly not in the present hyper-competitive electoral environment. The dynasts who have crossed the winning line owe their political accomplishments not just to their family name but (often after considerable trial-and-error) to getting the basics right: appearing decisive and focused, building a ground-up party network, stitching up consequential alliances , and crucially, the ability to adapt to the new realities of how elections are fought in the Modi-Shah era.
In other words, dynasty can get you through the door. Maybe even ensure a few initial wins. But in the end, it is political competence that vastly increases the chances of getting you over the line.
Consider, for instance, Jagan Reddy, who, after the loss of his father was considered a political write-off as he battled his own inexperience, a raft of corruption cases, a break from his parent party (the Congress), and a politically-savvy opponent (Chandrababu Naidu). Against these odds, his comprehensive win is an example of the Dynasty+ approach: while his election pitch relied heavily on leveraging sympathy for his father’s death, his victory was powered by a deeply-plotted, hard-fought, Prashant Kishor-designed campaign with multiple moving parts that were not necessarily dynasty-centric: from non-stop padyatras targeting his opponent’s alleged misgovernance to laying the groundwork for a YSR Congress network to an intense social/traditional media campaign.
Optionally, there is the Stalin Model. The DMK heir’s father, M Karunanidhi, famously made his son work his way up the party ladder for five decades, appointing him minister only when Stalin was a youthful 53, a long slog which helped dampen potential criticism of dynastic entitlement when the time finally came for Stalin to wrest the throne (at the age of 69).
The Gandhis, on the other hand, appear to be following no discernible blueprint, gradually squandering their dynastic capital with a surreal, dilettantist approach to politics, demonstrating no urgency for drastic remedial measures despite crisis after crisis. With each unaddressed crisis, each electoral defeat, each mysterious ‘vacation’, the dynastic sheen fades ever further, the negative shadow of entitlement deepens and lengthens.
Some in the Congress ecosystem argue that the party’s decline is less to do with dynastic drift and more with the BJP’s electoral malpractices. No one can stand up, it is argued, against the combined might of the ruling party’s money power, the rampant misuse of agencies, the strident communalism, etc. While the use (or misuse) of the political dark arts has escalated under the present BJP, the argument does not entirely hold given how non-Congress opposition parties from Mamata Banerjee to AAP hold their own, even handing the BJP a defeat or two.
Which is why it’s lazy analysis to suggest that simply appointing a non-Gandhi will dramatically alter the Congress’ dwindling fortunes. While replacing the Gandhis may help deflect some of the anti-dynasty backlash, the Congress’ troubles run much deeper – so profoundly is the party out of touch with the realities of modern-day political contests that there is no guarantee that a non-Gandhi successor will fare much better.
It’s hard to think of a single Congress leader, at least amongst its national spectrum, who has the appetite for the 24×7, relentless work required to rebuild the party from the bottom up, the kind of effort needed to take on the Modi-Shah electoral juggernaut. Much of the party is trapped in an electoral time warp where fighting elections still entails a wait-for-your-turn approach, of waking up in the last few months before the polls, holding a series of rallies and roadshows, and hoping the electorate will flip the vote in the Congress’ favour.
Curiously, the Gandhis themselves appeared to have acknowledged this acute in-house deficit, briefly flirting with the idea of bringing in a complete outsider like Prashant Kishor to (presumably) galvanize the party’s creaky election machinery; that effort, like much of the family’s sporadic interventions, has come to nought for reasons that still remain hazy.
Now, with a fresh set of election losses, the party faces an acute dilemma: stay with the Gandhis and risk more drift and the continuing attack on parivar-vaad, or appoint a non-Gandhi, possibly defuse some of the dynasty backlash, but also lose the last vestiges of dynastic sheen with no guarantee that the successor comes with the competence or drive to rescue the party. Frankly, it’s unclear whether the party even realises the existence of such a choice.
(Sreenivasan Jain is Group Editor, NDTV)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.