The history of Britain’s Liberal Party, formed in the 1850s, should serve as a grim reminder to the Indian National Congress of how quickly political fortunes can turn.
A dominant force in the late 19th century, the Liberals formed four British governments between the 1860s and 1900. By the 1920s, it had been replaced by the Labour Party as the main Opposition to the right-wing Conservative Party.
The Liberal Party never recovered, except for a brief spell as an uncomfortable alliance partner of the Conservatives in 2010-15. Today, the Liberal Party has just 11 seats in Britain’s 650-seat House of Commons.
What lessons can the Congress learn from the near-demise of the Liberal Party? First, don’t take political longevity for granted. Second, read the mood of the nation accurately. Third, end the politics of entitlement and privilege.
Dynasty destroys merit. The BJP is accused of dynasty politics as well, but its affliction is different: concentration of power at the top. Since 1998, the BJP has, in fact, had nine unrelated party presidents. In the same 22-year period, the Congress has had two presidents: Sonia Gandhi (for 20 years) and Rahul Gandhi (for 2 years).
The Gandhis, however, point out that no Gandhi has been prime minister since 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to its first electoral defeat since the post-Emergency 1977 loss suffered by Indira Gandhi. But a Gandhi doesn’t need to be prime minister to wield power in a Congress government.
Rahul Gandhi demonstrated that graphically, if somewhat crudely, in 2013 when he tore up an ordinance framed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh when Dr. Singh was on an overseas visit.
The act showed disrespect for the office of the Prime Minister. It also demonstrated why being in power for the Gandhis does not mean being prime minister or even party president.
During 1991-96, when a Gandhi was neither prime minister nor Congress president, Sonia Gandhi’s writ still ran large. She held no official position and had never contested an election. Yet, her chosen prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was painfully aware of who called the shots as his memoir The Insider reveals.
Many senior Congress leaders think the party will splinter if the Gandhis remove themselves from the party’s high command. They are right. The Gandhis have succeeded in turning a political party into a family-controlled enterprise. As in any private firm, you can’t separate the principal shareholders from the firm without fatally damaging the enterprise.
Interim party president Sonia Gandhi has signalled that Rahul and Priyanka will continue to run the Congress. When the promised contest for party president is held, Rahul is likely to be “elected” unopposed.
Sonia knows the character of her party faithful: their bark is worse than their bite.
For example, Shashi Tharoor, a key dissenter, was quickly tamed and raised a white flag. Despite that, Tharoor has been singled out and sidelined by the party.
If Tharoor valued his self-respect as much as he does his erudition, he would resign from the Congress and contest future Lok Sabha elections as an independent from Thiruvananthapuram. The thought, possibly, has never crossed his mind.
So what should the Congress do to behave more like a political party?
First, set up a shadow cabinet. Instead of Rahul tweeting about policy imperfections in the Narendra Modi government (and there are many), the shadow cabinet should produce a monthly policy paper across domains: finance, defence, education, health, foreign affairs, internal security, telecom, environment and law.
The Congress has the advantage of legacy: it can draw on both experience and expertise from within its ranks. A putative shadow shadow cabinet could contain Dr. Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and members from Rahul’s young Turks with relevant domain expertise.
Of course, the Gandhis will do nothing of this sort. A competent shadow cabinet will point the way to an alternative future path for the Congress based on merit, not entitlement. That will pose an existential threat personally to the Gandhis, but could revive the Congress as a viable political force.
In Britain, the Liberal Party resisted internal reform for decades. It wasn’t marginalised by dynastic hubris, but by being out of tune with British public opinion after the First World War in the 1920s.
A century later, a similar fate awaits the Congress, unless it abandons family in favour of the country.
History again holds an important lesson.
The Congress splintered in 1969 under Indira Gandhi and became stronger before the politics of entitlement overtook it. More than 50 years later, the party might need another split that reverses the decline, to create a new, merit-based political force that will give Indian democracy the Opposition it deserves.
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