By Kapil Komireddi
Dear Rahul Gandhi,
Indian democracy is being disfigured each day beyond repair and recovery. This ought not to be possible in the presence of an energetic opposition. So why do we find ourselves here? If Narendra Modi is one aspect of the Indian tragedy, you, despite all your decency and lofty intentions, are the other. The ground for the steep authoritarian slide of today was laid in Modi’s first term, when autonomous institutions were methodically debilitated. I invite you to picture the consequences for our country if this regime were to sail to a third consecutive victory.
If that happens, 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. To return to the electorate a third time with exactly what it rejected overwhelmingly in two successive elections is not to proffer an alternative. It is to offer an insult.
The half a dozen assembly polls scheduled for April should have pushed your party to search for a full-time leader. Instead, the Congress chose to shelve the question of leadership. The reason is obvious enough. The hunt for a leader was not delayed to concentrate Congress’s energies on the upcoming elections. It was postponed to spare you the blushes for the party’s inevitable defeats. Yet again, the pressing priority of the governing apparatus of Congress was protecting you — not winning elections. Political parties in mature democracies the world over appoint leaders to take them into electoral battles. Congress, uniquely, cites electoral battles as a reason to defer appointing a leader.
To the extent that the Congress party has a discernible strategy, it appears to be that ordinary voters, tiring of Modi, will eventually turn elsewhere — and, because Congress is the only other pan-national alternative, you will emerge as the beneficiary of their frustrations. If you believe this, you are in the grip of a delusion. It is no affront to you to state the blindingly obvious: The Gandhi dynasty’s hold on the Congress party, in addition to infantilising self-respecting Indians who still value secularism, is an invaluable gift to Modi. Contrast the responses evoked by your biographies. Your kindness and compassion are eclipsed by what people see as your hereditary privilege and entitlement. On the other hand, the story of the prime minister’s rise from the margins of society —born to a mother who cleaned dishes and a father who hawked tea — to the centre of power is uplifting enough to overshadow the malevolence of his politics. It is this contrast that helped loft him into high office in 2014.
In the nearly six years since, he has succeeded in expanding the footprint of his party to corners of the country that were once proudly hostile to Hindutva. A year after coasting to re-election with an enlarged majority, the BJP proceeded to induct fresh blood into its leadership ranks. The only notable promotion in the Congress was of your sibling. Your party hierarchy’s principal priority was to ostracise, humiliate, and unperson anybody who entertained the mildest doubt about the competence of the leadership that led Congress to two total defeats. In August, the Congress Working Committee stamped on the clamour for internal democracy with a resolution to “strengthen” your “hands” on the basis that your leadership had “inspired a generation of Indians”. If any part of that claim were accurate, there would be no Modi government. The upkeep and worship of one family has become the existential purpose of what was once one of the world’s great political parties. If you love India as much as you say you do, this squalid spectacle of self-annihilating sycophancy ought to revolt and appall you to your marrow. The truth is that the prospects of a generation have been wiped out in no small part because the Congress party, preoccupied with preserving the interests of its proprietors, has failed to supply effective opposition.
You speak of the mortal threat to Indian democracy from Modi. But you cannot restore democracy to India while maintaining a hereditary dictatorship in the institution that incubated Indian democracy. As one of the most distinguished figures in the British Labour Party — the sister party of the Congress — recently phrased it to me, the absence of even an avenue to challenge you for your party’s leadership ultimately does “great harm to the cause of democracy in India and beyond”. Only in the Congress must politicians as capable, efficient, and experienced as Shashi Tharoor, Y Siddaramaiah, and P Chidambaram — to name three of your colleagues identified by the Labour grandee — accept ceilings on their careers.
Tharoor oversaw a gargantuan bureaucracy at the United Nations, supervised a complex international relief operation for refugees, and helped negotiate the end of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. Rejecting lucrative opportunities in the private sector, he sought a career in politics as a means to serve his country — and was returned three times to the Lok Sabha from a communist redoubt. His CV would make him a frontrunner for the leadership of most left-of-centre parties in the democratic world. Only in Congress does it make him, in the language of one of your myrmidons, a “guest artist”. This culture of obsequiousness, pioneered by your party, has endangered our democracy. If India is to survive, the guest artists in Congress must be allowed to audition for the leading role.
Reviving internal democracy in Congress, indispensable to securing our country’s future, is impossible without your leadership. After leading the party to two shattering defeats, here is your opening to rise to the role of India’s redeemer — to be our Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the wise and visionary former ruler of Bhutan who used his kingly authority to circumscribe his status. Refusing to yield to wailing courtiers who claimed to revere him as god, he promulgated a modern constitution that promoted democracy, demoted the monarchy, mandated the king’s removal from office at the age of 65, and provided for the crown’s impeachment.
You can similarly deploy your authority to oversee a leadership contest in Congress — a genuinely open, competitive, transparent election worthy of an organisation whose members founded the world’s largest democracy. Revise and rewrite the rules. Let every elected official qualify for the job. Grant every member a vote. Give every candidate the resources and the freedom to canvass the membership. Push away the flatterers. Proof the process from the lickspittles who, fearing extinction, will seek to pervert it.
Three years separate us from an election that will determine whether the republic as conceived by our founders survives or perishes. These are the three years in which a once-great party will have to reform, regroup, and retool itself for the fight of our life. Which way India goes will depend upon what Congress does, and what Congress does will depend on which way you go. You can be memorialised by generations of grateful Indians as the selfless patriot who helped to rescue India by wielding his inherited authority to democratise and revitalise India’s oldest political party—or you can be scorned by history as the man who, consumed with keeping his inheritance even at the cost of his country, enabled the demise of democracy in India.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.