Cover Story

Rahul Gandhi has shed his cloak of the remote, arrogant, and unrelatable icon of the Gandhi dynasty and is reaching out to people from all walks of life, especially farmers.

By Nikhat Sattar | November 2023

The first general elections in India that were held in 1951-52 saw the Indian National Congress (INC) make an almost clean sweep, bagging 364 of the 499 votes of the Lok Sabha. Its President and Founder, Jawaharlal Nehru, became India’s first Prime Minister, paving the way for his party’s hold over the ballot box and government for the next two decades. With lapses in 1977, 1989, and 1996, it has won eight of the 17 general elections held so far and governed the country for over 54 years. Since 2014, however, it has consistently lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the latter winning on the rising tide in favour of the rhetoric of Hindutva and Indian nationalism that has left the famed Nehruvian secular Indian dreams far behind. The ideology vacuum left by the INC over past decades was easily filled up by Hindu religiosity and a poisonous nationalism that painted everyone and everything non-Hindu as an enemy and aberration.

Much has been written about the reasons for INC’s failures, among them being Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule, refusal to listen to dissent, clampdown on any suggestions to reform within its structure, and shunning of democratic principles both within the party and in the country. Her assassination in 1984 led to her son Rajiv Gandhi taking up the party’s reigns, but he turned out to be too weak and incapable of turning the party around, in particular, failing to re-establish and reinvigorate its original ideology that envisioned India as an essentially secular, liberal and progressive democracy. Instead, the INC gained a reputation of a dynasty clinging on to power at all costs, turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to attacks on minorities and rewarding nepotism and sycophancy. Even when the leadership mantle passed to Narasimha Rao after Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, the INC’s decline continued, and it lost once again in 1996. It was only when Sonia Gandhi took over and was able to carve out a coalition with like-minded parties that victory was possible in the 2004 and 2009 elections. But Sonia Gandhi, like her mother-in-law, was possessed with the desire to keep the leadership in the family and let her son, Rahul, manage its affairs, training him to take over.

When the BJP completely trounced the INC in the 2014 elections, it was clear to all that the party that had seemed invincible once was in total shambles. It had won a mere 44 out of 545 seats and only 19 percent of the votes. Not only did it lose at the national level, but it also lost in most of the states, even the ones traditionally its stronghold. As recently as September 2022, it was said that the INC was “in a terminal decline.”

Not anymore. Predictions about the possibility of Congress regaining its lost glory were dim early this year, but it has suddenly shone up again.

India has always proudly claimed its status as the world’s largest democracy, a claim that may have been true to some extent until about a decade ago. It has worked relatively well as a federation with self-governed states, independently administered union territories, and has held regular elections every five years. Neither the central nor the state governments have been dismissed, the only exception being Kashmir, whose independent and autonomous state was taken away by the BJP majority Parliament in 2021.

However, since coming into power, Modi and his saffron-clad parliament have adopted a repressive and authoritarian style that has resulted in an almost muzzled media and partisan judiciary. It was not a neutral court that acquitted all accused of the violent Gujarat riots in 2002, and it was not justice that caused the Supreme Court to order the building of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple on the disputed land of the destroyed Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Divisions have been both created and deepened between various sections of society, in particular, between Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, and the chasm between the poor and rich has widened. Critics claim that the BJP’s official economic figures are false and do not reflect growing unemployment and poverty.

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