Why Nehru dynasty cannot revive Congress party in 21st Century

A product of dynasty politics himself, can Rahul Gandhi salvage Congress from the ruins? Who is to blame for the condition of Congress today?

(Grab from video released on Twitter)

Amarendra Pratap Singh

Despite former Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot’s rebellion and attempts by regional Congress leaders to cut him to size, Rahul Gandhi, the merciful, is still ready to accept him with open arms. This forces one to ponder about a perennial and important question vis-à-vis post-Sonia Congress: Can Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, revive the ndian National Congress (INC) to its former glory, especially when contemporary leaders of the party are expressing their distrust in the party and its modus operandi?

The question assumes significance because Nehruvian Congress has depicted tremendous ability to revive and sustain in the past. Considering that past is a good predictor of future, it might seem that Scindia, Pilot, and others who have quit INC to join other political outfits, particularly BJP, have acted with a myopic vision of Indian politics. A related question which springs from this current political situation is: What if those who have quit INC, or are planning to do so, have read the political shift correctly and made a right choice?

These questions are of critical important when viewed in light of the fact that INC is presently the largest opposition party, and thus, its present condition demands an objective scrutiny. Here, I argue that Congress as a political organization died long before Rahul Gandhi became its leader. In the meantime, its adversary BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, has fine-tuned its political ideology and organizational structure according to the aspirational Indian society to a degree and extent which Congress cannot match under Rahul Gandhi.[1] In fact, under Rahul Gandhi, organizationally dead INC is becoming ideologically irrelevant to Indian people. In following paragraphs, I try to explain reasons behind my assertion.

At organizational level, the seed of dynasty in Congress party was sown by Jawaharlal Nehru and was perfectly consolidated by Indira Gandhi.[2] However, demise of Indira Gandhi and her sons within a decade weakened the grip of Nehru dynasty on the INC. Consequently, the second and third tier leaders within the INC consolidated their fiefdoms to convert it into dynastic and rigid organization by the time Sonia Gandhi took leadership. In fact, her coronation was the outcome of same process in which all leaders who challenged her leadership were sidelined. The catch in this process was that the Congress was bidding farewell to upward mobility by accepting birth-based entitlement at all levels in organization when Indian society was making efforts to ensure upward mobility in its social system through caste reservation.

This contradiction became visible when the Congress came to power in 2004. Despite witnessing historically high growth under its rule between 2004 and 2014, the UPA government created artificial scarcity of essential commodities and services e.g. LPG, houses for poor, bank accounts, loans to start small businesses etc. and continued with outdated trickle down mechanism to entice poor voters. Due to its dynastic and rigid structure, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi often acted like a provider instead of being an enabler. Besides, it became a party which was an unattractive option for any political aspirant. The obvious winners of this were other national and regional parties. It was this Congress that Rahul Gandhi inherited. Being beneficiaries of the dynastic tradition, the Nehru family scion cannot question local dynasts. If Rahul Gandhi brings new faces to replace old dynasts, newcomers will also try to consolidate their respective dynasties because Congress is too weak to keep them in check. Needless to say, there is very little chance that such system will sustain in aspirational India.

[Note: Table plots average and standard deviation of share of total Lok Sabha seats and percentage vote share won by Congress during three periods. Following points can be drawn from the table: First, it can be observed that average seats won by the Congress was continuously declining over time and ability to revival or bounce back (depicted by standard deviation) was the least in the third period. Second, average share of seats won by the Congress dropped drastically between first and second period; however, drop in average vote share of Congress in the same reference period was moderate to highlight that gain of opposition was merely tactical and short lived during second period. However, percentage seat share and vote share both dropped drastically between second and third period which indicates strategic fall of Congress. Third, drop in average vote share of Congress in third period was mostly due to emergence of regional parties who were partnering with Congress at regional level and low standard deviation in this period highlights that Congress never tried to win back its voter base to appease regional players. During this period, Congress used regional parties in North India to keep BJP under check. Source: Author’s own compilation using data provided by Election Commission of India.]

Even if Rahul Gandhi somehow manages organizational issues, addressing the ideological conundrums of the Congress is a herculean task. Despite eroding support base since 1989, the Congress maintained farce of power while the truth is that its ideological hegemony fell with the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya (see, Table 1). Illusion of Congress hagemony after 1990s was carefully manufactured and managed by the Congress ecosystem and regional caste leaders willingly contributed to sustain the same as it suited their own interests.[3] Post 1990s, Congress’ hegemonic illusion was based on twin pillars - Muslim appeasement under the garb of secularism and social justice. As Mandal identities began weakening with the implementation of caste-based reservations, the Hindu identity started consolidating and challenging Muslim-centric idea of secularism (see, Table 2).[4]

[Note: The table presents the mean of the caste gaps (non-SC/ST vs. SC/ST) across the constituent states, the dispersion of the caste gaps across the states as well as the max and the min for each variable for the 38th (1983) and 61st (2004-05) rounds of the NSS employment survey. Table shows the caste gaps for education, wages and consumption for 1983 and 2004-05 across all the constituent states. Two features are worth noting. First, the gaps, averaged across all the states, have fallen for both education years and wages while staying relatively unchanged for consumption, indicating a broad trend towards convergence in the country as a whole. Second, the dispersion in the gaps across the states (as measured by the standard deviation) has fallen for both the education and median wage gaps. Also, minimum and maximum values suggest that convergence has happened more at the lower strata of distribution irrespective of variable. This suggests a pattern of cross-state convergence in these indicators. Source: Hnatkovska and Lahiri (2012).[5]]

Ecosystem intellectuals either failed to acknowledge or deliberately ignored that constitutional reservation to OBCs and SCs/STs will eventually consolidate Hindu identity. If the ecosystem knew but ignored that possibility, it fooled Congress’ first family fairly and squarely. On the contrary, if they failed to foresee this possibility then the intellectual capacity of this ecosystem comes under question. Another possibility might be that they knew that falling caste disparity due to caste reservation would consolidate Hindu identity, but expected some outside help to counter Hindu consolidation. By outside help, I point towards a number of options ranging from foreign intervention to mass conversion of Hindus to creation of internal unrest. A final possibility is that the ecosystem intellectuals understood the inherent contradiction between Sonia’s Congress and Indian social order but hiding erosion of Congress was in the interest of these intellectuals as their survival was linked with the survival of the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi is trying to fit a family entitlement based political structure into a society system which is breaking the rigidities in its structure. Ideologically, Rahul Gandhi is pushing the Congress more towards radical Left. In doing so, he is ceding the ideological space, which was once occupied by the INC, to the BJP. Thanks to Rahul Gandhi and his family, the BJP’s ideological space now ranges from ‘left of the center’ to ‘far right’. VB Patel, BR Ambedkar, SC Bose, and VD Savarkar, all belong to the BJP without any contest and the Congress is more than happy with Rajiv Gandhi who is accused of instigating anti-Sikh pogrom in the country.

In this backdrop, it is safe to argue that those who are hopeful that Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra can revive the Congress are merely making an emotional argument while expecting a miraculous turn of events. Message for the BJP is that it must focus more on policies which further reduce caste disparities to sustain Hindu consolidation.

(Author holds a PhD in Economics from IIT-Bombay and is currently working with NIRDPR, Hyderabad)


[1] Ramchadra Guha also attributed Congress’ fall to growing population share of young aspirational voters; however, his analogy is self-contradictory and lacks in depth analysis. He suggests that young generation doesn’t remember Congress stalwarts, which was a major reason for Congress’ loss in 2014; however, he contradicts this statement by arguing that it is unfair for Congress party to expect support from young aspirational voters based on its past contributions and sacrifices made by its leaders. Guha’s article is available at: https://www.csds.in/uploads/custom_files/1527081503_The%20past%20and%20future%20of%20the%20Congress%20party.pdf#:~:text=The%20Congress%E2%80%99s%20decline%20is%20very%20much%20of%20its,major%20political%20role%20to%20her%20son%20Sanjay%20 [2] Rajya Sabha Member from BJP and political commentator Prof Rakesh Sinha addresses the origin of dynastic politics in the Congress in a recent opinion piece published in The Indian Express. His article is available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/congress-party-crisis-sachin-pilot-jyotiraditya-scindia-exodus-6511070/ [3] Political commentators argue that Sonia Gandhi’s arrival as party president arrested fall of the Congress in 2004 and term performance of the Congress as impressive (Rai and Kumar 2017). While it is true that her entry arrested downfall in parliamentary seats but she failed to improve vote share. In 2004, the Congress won 145 seats which was only marginally higher than the average seats won in last three elections. Its vote share of 26.5% in 2004 was marginally less than the average vote share which it got in 1996, 1998 and 1999 elections. While the Congress won 206 seats in 2009, its vote share was merely 28.55% which was marginally less than its vote share in 1996. In fact, its average vote share between 1996 and 1999 elections was marginally higher than its average vote share in 2004 and 2009 elections. These figures indicate that that the Congress never regained vote share which it lost to BJP between 1989 and 1996 despite giving leadership to a member of Nehru family. Rai and Kumar (2017) article is available at: https://www.epw.in/journal/2017/12/web-exclusives/decline-congress-party-indian-politics.html. [4] Using data from 43rd and 55th rounds of NSSO, Bhaumick and Chakrabarty (2006) showed that earnings differences between “upper” castes and SC/ST have declined between 1987 and 1999. The same study found that earning difference between Muslims and non-Muslims increased during the same period. The study is available at: http://ftp.iza.org/dp2008.pdf. [5] Full working paper is available at: https://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/vhnatkovska/Research/States_v3.pdf


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