In Congress, the Old Normal is the New Normal

A political party cannot be in perpetual paroxysm if it has ambitions of being a credible competitive idea. The ‘monarchy’ must look at the Queen’s kingdom and learn to democratise.

By Shankkar Aiyar |Published: 19th July 2020 04:00 AM |

In 1963, journalist Welles Hangen authored a book which asked ‘After Nehru, who’. The echoes of the chorus which followed signalled the morphing of the party from being a collective with political purpose into one of convenient ambiguity.

Shorn of the piety and nostalgia of the Independence movement, the Indian National Congress has largely been an idea, with a leader in the quest for power. In 2020, Congressmen are in a desperate hunt for an idea to revive the leader and a rapidly disintegrating party.

The saga of young Sachin Pilot, denied his due after he rebuilt the party, and his outrage at what he terms as being stabbed in the back is neither unique nor unprecedented. In 2003, the party made Sheila Dikshit, who single-handedly won a second term for the party, sweat it out for 10 days before re-nominating her as Chief Minister.Whether it is Kamaraj in 1970s, Vasantdada Patil in 1980s or P V Narasimha Rao in the 1990s, the old normal is the new normal in the Congress.

The cause of the convulsions, the bouts of fight or flight political epileptic fits are located in the structural decay and the absence of inner party democracy — last seen when the enigmatic K Kamaraj ensured the anointment of Lal Bahadur Shastri as Nehru’s successor, thwarting Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi.

Grass roots activism within the party is visible only when sponsored or fertilised by the high command. For three decades, between 1967 and 1990, first under Indira and then Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress followed the familiar model of election by selection wherein the high command would choose who gets elected to lead the party.

The substitution of merit with loyalty and popularity with sycophancy is best symbolised by D K Barooah of the ‘Indira is India’ fame. The consequence is manifest in the electoral record of the party. Following its losses, the Congress has not returned to power in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat for decades. The slide continued in the nineties and the new millennium — with losses in Odisha, MP, Jharkhand, with the Congress rarely repeating terms.

What happens in the States does not stay in there but creeps into the Centre. Its loss in 2014 was most eloquently described by Sanjay Nirupam who said ‘even Modi would have lost had he contested on a Congress ticket’. Worse was to follow in 2019 when the party scored a duck in over a dozen states and Union Territories and won just one seat each in nine other states.

Market share in business or the business of politics depends on product and dealerships. By the 1990s, the Congress had national reach but no product. In 2004, it crafted a franchise model to acquire market share and came to power in the Centre. However, while management of power was professionalised with the adoption of the CEO route chosen by family enterprises, little was done to modernise the party or its management.

In the real world economy, the success of the enterprise — whether listed, privately owned or a family business — depends on how it operates in the market. Would an enterprise appoint juniors or nobodies to assess markets or divisional heads? The Congress persists in appointing rootless wonders as overseers to states. The fate of entrepreneurs who stacked boards with family retainers is known yet the Congress nominates non-entities to its highest decision making body.

The chasm between the anointed and the elected has widened disconnect between the idea and the market. And this explains the absence of a viable product line and the shrinking market and mind share.

Every failure is followed by the standard promise of ‘introspection’. If the party has ‘introspected’ — in 1998, in 2014 or in 2019 — it is largely a secret to its members. The 1998 A K Antony report on ‘whether reforms are anti-poor’ could qualify for an archaeological dig.

Succession in the Congress has followed a pattern. Indira Gandhi slowly but surely got rid of Nehru’s people. Rajiv Gandhi, pitchforked into politics after the death of brother Sanjay, grasped the connotation of carpe diem and brought his own team from Arun Nehru to Arun Singh. Sonia Gandhi used a mix and match approach to craft her core group even as she inducted advice from left of centre NGOs.

Seven years since Congressmen applauded the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as successor in January 2013, the leader to be is yet to be. The successor continues to be the young leader and remains surrounded by generations of geriatric leaders.

Authority in the party is diffused and decision-makers are divorced from accountability. He could have implemented his own structure — the primaries model, the politburo model or seized the idea signalled by his mother when she appointed Manmohan Singh as PM in 2004 and chosen the CEO and board approach. However, Rahul Gandhi or RaGa as he is pitched on social media is yet to compose his own raga.

A political party cannot be in perpetual paroxysm if it has ambitions of being a credible competitive idea. As a young traumatised leader put it, the ‘monarchy’ must look at the Queen’s kingdom and learn to democratise.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’ which is releasing in May, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.