09/16/2022, 19.27
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The decline of the Congress party, a family affair

by Alessandra De Poli

Long-time top members of India’s once-dominant party have left. After running the country for half a century, it has failed to renew itself, increasingly centralised and in the hands of the Gandhi family. Rahul's march to unite the country against the BJP is unlikely to succeed.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The decline of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), appears to be inexorable.

In late August, Ghulam Nabi Azad, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir from 2005 to 2008 and several times minister in various Indian governments, left the INC in order to create his own party. In quitting, he criticised Rahul Gandhi, son of the INC’s current president, Sonia Gandhi.

The party has been losing support for years, and in 2019, Rahul, who was party leader at the time quit.

Earlier this month he began a long march, from southern to northern India, less than two years ahead of the next general election, in which Congress will again face off Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Following Azad's resignation, a hundred Kashmiri politicians, officials and lawmakers also left the INC to join him.

For some observers, the INC’s decline began in 2014, with the BJP's victory. In 2019, it won only 52 seats out of 542 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian government.

In 2020, 23 senior party members wrote a resignation letter to Sonia Gandhi, expressing their dissatisfaction towards her leadership, which they say doesn’t accept dissenting voices.

In his letter to Sonia Gandhi, Azad said that Rahul "destroyed the consultative mechanism that had previously existed. The party’s affairs were taken over by a new coterie of inexperienced sycophants after all senior and experienced leaders were removed from their positions.”

The rot in the party goes further back, to 1969, under the late Indira Gandhi, daughter of independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and herself, India’s third prime minister.

Indira, who was assassinated in 1984, centralised power within the party, marginalising the internal opposition. Several senior members ended up quitting to form regional left-leaning parties.

When she was killed, her son Rajiv succeeded her. He follower her mother’s lead and blocked attempts at reform. He too was assassinated. Since the mid-1990s, his widow, Sonia, has more or less kept the party as the family’s fiefdom.

At the same time, centralising power has not been followed by developing any alternative ideology to that of the BJP. Instead, it saw the rise of regional parties, like the Trinamool Congress and the National People's Party.

Lacking an original ideology and opposing for its own sake are not problems only for India political left; however, the lack of an internal pluralism to represent those who do not recognise themselves in the BJP risks undermining the democratic process.

The next union (federal) election is still a long way, but a scenario is emerging in which the only alternatives to the BJP are other populist parties, like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which governs Delhi and Punjab, or more extremist groups, like the Shiv Sena, whose base is in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra.

It is hard to imagine how Rahul Gandhi's march will change things. Named "Bharat Jodo Yatra", a march to unite India, it is a throwback to previous marches in the party’s early history, like those by the Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s against British colonial rule.

So far, all he has managed to do is criticise the BJP for dividing the country along sectarian and religious lines.

The 3,570 kilometre-march will take five months to be completed. Before embarking on the march, Rahul tweeted: “I lost my father to the politics of hate and division. I will not lose my beloved country to it too.”

Once again, the party’s narrative revolves around the Gandhi family, not the country’s problems. For Indian voters, there is a long march before they can regain confidence in Congress.

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