Look beyond dynasty to save Congress
Nitish Kumar's departure from the "secular" camp has been a body blow to the Opposition, but it's even more so for Rahul Gandhi.
The Bihar Chief Minister is the third person in the last two years to have deserted Narendra Modi's opponents. The first was Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, who is now a minister in the BJP government in the state. He famously said that when he went to meet Rahul Gandhi before deciding to leave the Congress, the latter hardly listened to him while playing with his dog.
It is possible that the Congress vice-president either did not think that Sarma was someone of consequence, or that Assam was too far and its politics too complicated for him to take any interest in.
The second person for whom Rahul Gandhi had no time was Shankar Sinh Vaghela in Gujarat, who has now left the Congress, although he hasn't joined the BJP – as yet.
Then, there are several MLAs in Gujarat who have crossed over to the BJP – a parting of ways which has persuaded the Congress to ferry the remainder of its flock to a secure location in Bengaluru far from the poachers.
It is Nitish Kumar's departure, however, which has given rise to the speculation that more than any other exit, it has put paid – at least for the foreseeable future – to the possibility of Rahul Gandhi's elevation to the party president's post.
As it is, his intellectual and temperamental inadequacies to shoulder such as a responsibility when the party is going downhill have long been apparent. Perhaps even his doting mother has realised by now that her son is not quite fit for the job.
It is not only that most of the senior leaders in the opposition camp, like Sharad Pawar, for instance, are reluctant to deal with him. It is also clear that his attention span is short and his understanding of the political and economic scene is rudimentary.
All that he is apparently capable of is lambasting Modi now and then. But, except for his "suit-boot ka sarkar" jibe, which Nitish Kumar is said to have appreciated, Rahul Gandhi's castigations do not seem to have made much of an impact.
Instead, the feeling has grown that he and the Congress must present an alternate credible narrative with clear-cut ideas about the way forward, especially in the field of economics. For instance, though the "suit-boot ka sarkar" taunt is said to have made Modi careful about being seen as business-friendly and made him refer more often to the poor, the cutting remark has reinforced the Congress's reputation as a party which believes in socialism and is against the supposedly pro-rich economic reforms.
However, the propagation of this belief is likely to hurt the Congress more than cause any discomfiture to Modi because the younger generation still appears to put their faith in the reforms improving the living conditions even if The Economist thinks they are illusionary. Nevertheless, it is because of this faith that the Prime Minister continues to enjoy 70-plus per cent popular ratings.
If Rahul Gandhi's ascent to the president's post has been put on hold, it is a blessing in disguise, for it cannot but make an increasing number in the Congress, including the inveterate sycophants, realise that the dynasty is not the answer to the party's problems. Even those who have been saying that instead of dilly-dallying, Rahul Gandhi should quickly be made the president may now hold their tongue.
The Congress's present travails can be a reminder of the medical adage that an ailment has to get worse before it can become better. In the case of the 132-year-old party, it has been obvious from its loss of four state Assembly elections in 2013 followed by its humiliating defeat in the following year's general election that only a dramatic rebooting of the organisation can save it.
The only option for it at present is to bid farewell to the dynasty. A suggestion was once made by a party member for the Nehru-Gandhi family to take a sabbatical. But, in general, the Congressmen seem to cling to the belief that their party will fall apart in the absence of the dynasty at the top. Perhaps this perception is correct where Sonia Gandhi is concerned. But not Rahul Gandhi.
That the Congress can perform creditably under a leader who does not belong to the First Family was proved emphatically in Punjab and to some extent in Goa and Manipur, where it was the first party till the BJP grabbed some of its legislators.
It is in this direction that the party has to move. The Karnataka outcome next year will show whether Siddaramaiah can provide the second example of a leader winning on his own without any direct help from the dynasty. In any event, even an incorrigible supporter of the party will know in his heart of hearts that the days of the Nehru-Gandhis are coming to an end.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are strictly personal.)