Congress turns 130: Is it too old now to survive?

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The Indian National Congress turns 130 today, on December 28, 2015. An enviable history by any count. It had started its journey as a safety valve during the colonial rule and underwent several phases in the subsequent years to emerge as the main opponent to the same colonial masters.

After Independence, the Congress continued as the most prominent political force and ruled the country for 30 continuous years till 1977. The Congress has been such an integral part of India's history that analysts across time have used the term "Congress System" to their convenience.

Sonia Gandhi

However, today, after 130 years during which the party has seen enough high and low, does the Congress really command a relevance in India's political life? In the last Lok Sabha election, the party put up its worst show by winning just 44 seats. The party has also lost a number of big states in recent times, with even being pushed to the third and fourth positions in many.

Since 2009 LS polls, even Gandhis look jaded

The Gandhis, the descendants of the great Jawaharlal Nehru who had taken the party to great heights in the immediate years after Independence, look a jaded force now with repeated failure in electoral battles since the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

The India of 2015, unlike the one of the 1970s and 1980s, finds the Congress a distant second to leaders like Narendra Modi and even regional satraps like Nitish Kumar or Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik.

The plight is so much so that even the Gandhis, considered the powerhouse of the party since several decades, find themselves battling corruption charges related to a defunct newspaper that the great Nehru had started years ago.

Is the Congress dying a natural death?

From the viewpoint of natural law, a party, like any other organic form, certainly has its expiry date. Just like transitions in empires across the world in the past, political outfits, too, have a definite period of sustainability. Given the changes in the external and internal environment, it can be concluded that no entity can be immortal.

The Congress, similarly, after its 130 years of existence, face such existentialist threats. But its greater problem is that it has done little in trying to tackle those threats and allowed itself to bog down.

After the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel within three years, the Congress came to be identified with Nehru. And when he died in 1964 without leaving behind a successor with who the country could identify itself in the same length, the script for the future declination of the Congress was prepared.

The blow was doubled when his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri, too, passed away in less than two years after assuming office. It is said that had Shastri ruled for at least a decade, the future trajectory of India's politics and economy could have been different. But that was not to be.

And the moment the ruthlessly politically skilled Indira Gandhi emerged as the leader of the Congress, the party's fate took a decisive turn.

Indira Gandhi had turned Congress upside down at its own peril

Indira Gandhi's self-serving politics, which was merciless to say in a word, had completely turned the Congress upside down.

As a leader with an insatiable hunger for centralising power, Indira Gandhi had made every possible move in terms of politics and populism. She had her own Congress, preferred yesmen and did all sorts of populist tricks (nationalisation drives or call for eradicating poverty) to ensure that the power did not slip off. The individual made an impact but the party was devastated.

The Congress, thanks to the Indira era, declined as an all-encompassing platform with a universal ideology. Its idea of social coalition was defeated by the rise of political groupism, destroying its decentralised character.

Today's Congress leaders and members proudly recall the legacy of Indira Gandhi but they never acknowledge that it was India's first woman prime minister who had sealed the fate of the party in many ways too.

After 130 years, the results of those deeds are more than telling and there is very little hope of anybody succeeding in reversing the flow of history. Indira Gandhi's grandson Rahul Gandhi has spoken about reviving the culture of internal democracy in the party but it looks now an impossible mission to take the Congress back to its original days.

Dynasty politics too did the party a great disservice

The advent of the family influence in the party, another disservice that Indira Gandhi had done (not Nehru) has also crippled its capacity to think big. Today, the party lacks imagination so much so that even a court order against the Gandhis in relation to corruption makes it insecure.

Narendra Modi phenomenon makes the party feel insecure today

Narendra Modi, who has humbled the party in a number of elections in the recent times including the big one of 2014, has become the prime target of the Congress because the latter feels threatened by his presence and popularity in contemporary Indian politics.

Never in the history of Indian politics has a non-Congress leader occupied so much space in politics as Modi does (he became the first non-Congress prime minister with a single-party majority in Parliament).

The Congress has run out of constructive agenda today and that is evident from its destructive plan of action in Parliament. The party is confused about its leadership for Rahul Gandhi is still to take that giant leap forward. Moreover, with Sonia Gandhi aging and Rahul not having a successor, it is natural for the 130-year-old party to feel apprehensive about the future.

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