On Repeat

Fixated on Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’s liberal critics still miss its deepest problems

The liberal commentariat is perennially split between those who want Rahul Gandhi to quit the Congress and those who cannot imagine the party without him. The two sides come together on one point: a longing for Congress rule and the old order of things. Altaf Qadri / AP
31 March, 2021

The Bharatiya Janata Party looks set for more electoral success in the four states and one union territory going to the polls this summer. The Congress is struggling in all of them, and obituaries have been written in advance for regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress. On cue, the liberal commentariat is back to its usual debate on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. One set, impatient with the Congress’s perennially stalled revival, wants him to step aside from de facto leadership of the party, making way for other people who can pull it out of the morass; another set defends him and voices its confidence that he remains the right man for the task.

If Narendra Modi returns as prime minister in 2024 for his third consecutive term, “a big share of the blame will have to be shouldered by you for refusing, despite two historic defeats, to vacate the pinnacle of India’s only other pan-national party,” the writer Kapil Komireddi recently argued in the Indian Express, addressing Rahul. This is in the same spirit as the historian Ramachandra Guha writing in 2016 that, unless the Congress “is rescued from the hands of the Nehru-Gandhis, it cannot play a constructive role in the 21st century either.” Guha added, “Every day that the manifestly incompetent Rahul Gandhi continues in politics is bad for the Congress, and worse for India, if only because so many citizens still hope for a viable national alternative to the BJP.” Komireddi suggested figures such as Shashi Tharoor, Siddaramaiah or P Chidambaram as replacements. Guha had suggested Nitish Kumar, only for the Bihar chief minister to later veer into an alliance with the BJP.

The commentator Sushil Aaron, in The Wire, rose in Rahul’s defence. Taking it as a given that he is here to stay, he wrote, “what is the future of his politics? One can safely bet that it won’t proceed in the direction that critics would like him to take.” A constant charge against the party is its lack of internal democracy, and Aaron conceded that Rahul has done little to address this; but, he added, “this is not the time to pursue it even if he wants to as the party is struggling to hold on its members in the face of temptations from the BJP. The Congress is starved of funds; corporate India is wary of associating with it, even if many industrialists prospered during its rule in the past.”

The journalist Rajesh Mahapatra and the scholar Rohan D’Souza, in The Hindu, argued that Rahul’s critics fail to see the big picture of Modi’s New India. “Mr Gandhi strives to ‘hold the centre’ in Indian politics,” they wrote. The Congress “always held the centre, aimed for gradualism, negotiation, adjustment and compromise—it essentially aimed for a moderate social temperature for governance.” They stood by Rahul as “the carrier of legacy rather than a mere inheritor of dynasty”—implicitly answering the criticism of him as an entrenched dynast that is as popular among his liberal detractors as with his opponents on the Hindu Right.