Rajmohan Gandhi, historian and MK Gandhi’s grandson, traces the dynastic origins of the Congress party’s leadership to well before Independence. In his book The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi, he dwells on what happened in 1928 when Motilal Nehru’s term as the party president was nearing end. The air was thick with anticipation of either Vallabhbhai Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose taking over the reins of the party. But Motilal’s wife, Swarup Rani, pleaded with Gandhi to ensure a dynastic passing of the baton to her son, Jawaharlal Nehru. Rani wished to “see a king passing on the sceptre of the throne to his logical successor”.
Gandhi’s decision had unintended consequences, Rajmohan notes. “Gandhi, champion of the rights of the halt and the lame, the last and the least, had unwittingly launched a dynasty,” he argues. Perhaps it sowed the seeds of what would come to be seen as the Delhi darbar culture in the power arrangements of the capital.
In his on the making and working of India’s power elite, Sanjaya Baru observes that the Congress internalised the darbar culture. “The metaphor of a Delhi darbar presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru and his family, and including its Nehruvian courtiers, was not just an inheritance from India’s feudal past nor a legacy of the British empire. It was an idea intrinsic to the evolution of democratic leadership within the INC,” Baru writes.
Post-Independence, except for brief spells of challenge in the 1960s and the 1990s, key decisionmaking in the Congress has largely been the preserve of the dynastic darbar in Delhi, with Pradesh Congress Committees acting as pliant outposts. Over time, other political parties replicated the high command culture of the Congress while most regional parties became dynastic fiefdoms as well. Even now, when the Congress has been reduced to a pale shadow of the hegemon it once was, the conduct of its darbar politics finds way to the news cycle in multiple ways.
Take, for example, two recent developments.
First, Sonia Gandhi’s decision to appoint Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Congress chief amid his tussle with chief minister Amarinder Singh can’t go unnoticed on the very day that the party’s MPs from the state expressed their opposition to Sidhu’s leadership. Moreover, in a seemingly faction-ridden state unit of the party, the four working presidents – Sangat Singh Gilzian, Sukhwinder Singh Danny, Pawan Goel, Kuljit Singh Nagra – are seen as Rahul Gandhi loyalists. The balancing of social equations could have also shaped the choice of the working presidents in the poll-bound state as a Dalit Sikh, an OBC Sikh, and a Hindu Jat find place in the revamp.
However, the chain of events leading up to Sidhu’s appointment show that the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – as well as Sonia adopted the trademark centralized approach to make the squabbling voices fall in line. After the weeklong show of consultations, persuasion and even signaling mediation through poll strategist Prashant Kishor, the decision suddenly had the thud of a sledgehammer. More so when the top brass of the Congress was seen riding roughshod over a large section of the party’s local leadership. While the relative merits and strategy of backing the base of an old warhorse like Amarinder over Sidhu could be debated, there wasn’t much to show a groundswell for the latter. The impulse of stamping the authority of the high command and cutting regional satraps like Amarinder down to size was once again visible.
In the bargain, it isn’t clear what the party gained from placating a leader who joined the party as late as 2017. The Congress playbook of keeping a tight leash on regional stalwarts seems to have used the inputs of a few disgruntled elements for making the case for a generational shift. Some would even argue for the possibility that the party might have weighed in the appeal of personality politics that the new party chief in Punjab is believed to carry. Be that as it may, the decision seems difficult to fit in any larger organisational goal except the ad hoc responses from the high command.
Some observers have drawn a parallel between how Amarinder persuaded the high command to replace Partap Singh Bajwa as the party’s Punjab chief in the run up to the 2017 election. The perception is that Amarinder got the support of local leaders then because he was the better bet to lead the party to power. That doesn’t seem to be the case now when he faces anti-incumbency. However, the key difference is that unlike Amarinder, Sidhu seems to be running on his own steam, and except the chance to retain power, he doesn’t offer ground accessibility to the sitting legislators or the aspiring ones.
In accommodating Sidhu’s wishlist and tantrums, therefore, the party runs the risk of making its decisionmaking look more arbitrary without even the solace of pragmatic gain. “Neither the press, nor it seems party bosses, are asking what Sidhu stands for apart from himself. More so because pursuits such as Sidhu’s come at the cost of hard-won party structures. This is not merely a moral question or one limited to Sidhu and the fate of the Congress in one state of Punjab,” Shruti Kapila, Cambridge historian and political commentator. But one could also see how in the past decades the top brass of the party has cast those “ hard-won structures” in its own image and perspective.
Second, the decision of the Congress president to rejig the party’s parliamentary groups in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is also a sign of how possibilities of revamp and reform don’t have a long run in the set-up. Even if there hasn’t been any change of Congress leadership in either House, the two – Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari – have been included in the parliamentary group which has been tasked with strategising its position in the parliamentary proceedings. In a way, such adjustments seem to suggest where the possibilities of major changes exhaust themselves and the high command-guided accommodation works. It isn’t much different from the style guide that the Congress has used to make any idea of innovation or change a top-down prerogative, rather than the other way around.
It has been decades since the dynastic glue of the first family in the Congress outgrew the absorptive pull of the famed “Congress system”. In the meantime, the grand old party saw its political capital define itself with a one-dimensional turn where the conduct of 24 Akbar Road has largely been shaped by the mood of 10 Janpath. This is the long and short of the Delhi-scripted abrupt denouement of the squabbling show in the Punjab Congress. It, however, isn’t the last of such feuds. But what’s also foreseeable is that the party isn’t going to look beyond the first family anytime soon to offer alternative solutions and political creativity.