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  • The Congress needs to look at its own history

    Posted On July 19, 2020

    By Karan Thapar

    ‘It’s a funny old world’, granny liked to say. Whenever someone pointed to an inconsistency, contradiction or, even, a peculiar development it would be her immediate response. I took it as philosophical acceptance of the way things are. It seemed to put matters in perspective without actually doing so.


    Well, that was the thought that occurred to me when the Congress Party lost another of its young talented leaders and drove a further nail into its coffin. Five years ago Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot were considered its future. Youthful, charming, popular, articulate and equally fluent in Hindi and English. More importantly, they were part of the young generation Congress desperately needed to attract. Of course, they weren’t the only ones. When it lost power in 2014 Congress had an array of 30 and 40 year olds. If given the reins, several could bring the party back to power.


    Now it’s no secret this is how political parties in other democracies behave. When defeated they look to a younger generation to revive their fortunes. Thus a 43-year old Tony Blair brought Labour back to power in Britain after 18 years in the wilderness. Thirteen years later David Cameron restored Conservative fortunes. He too was 43. Something similar happened with Macron in France or Clinton, Bush and Obama in America. Incidentally, the Finnish Prime Minister is only 34. So the expectation that a younger generation will take over is both natural and politically logical.


    In fact, what most people forget is this would not have been the first time the Congress Party might elevate young leadership to the top. It did it so 1929 when a 40-year old Jawaharlal Nehru became president. It happened again in 1966 when a 48-year old Indira Gandhi was chosen prime minister. 18 years later history repeated itself when Rajiv Gandhi at 40 became our youngest prime minister. In fact, there’s one more example. In 2017 a 47-year old Rahul Gandhi became Congress president. So, for four generations Nehru-Gandhis have become Congress presidents – and on two occasions prime minister – whilst still in their forties.


    At least three of these occasions represented a deliberate jump in generation – Jawaharlal Nehru in 1929, Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and Rahul Gandhi in 2017. In Indira Gandhi’s case, even if she represented a younger age group, that wasn’t why she became prime minister. She was intended as a puppet. That she became the puppeteer instead is another story.


    At least three changed their party and left a huge impact on the country. Nehru ensured we became a secular, modern-thinking, all-inclusive democracy. Indira Gandhi changed her party for the worse, decimating inner democracy and substituting the high command structure in its place. The Gandhi family’s stranglehold over Congress began with her. She also gave us the Green Revolution, victory over Bangladesh and the deplorable Emergency. Rajiv Gandhi – though few today admit it – introduced computers, domestic and international trunk dialling and the over-the-shoulder shawl. Actually, who can deny Rahul has also had a considerable impact on Congress? But for now the less said about that the better.


    So, clearly, elevating youth and encouraging them to take over is a well-established Congress tradition. The only thing is the four instances I’ve mentioned were Nehru-Gandhis. Scindia and Pilot are not. More importantly, they’re of the same generation as Rahul Gandhi. And that’s where the problem lies.


    A principle that applied to the Nehru-Gandhi family for almost a century – summed up by Tennyson’s dreadful cliché ‘the old order changeth yielding place to new’ – cannot apply to others. As George Orwell might have said all young Congressmen are equal but some are more equal than others.


    Well, do you now see why my grandmother’s pet phrase is an apt response to the dismaying contradictions in the Congress Party? Except I would be very surprised if Scindia and Pilot see the funny side of things. I can bet there are many others in a similar position.

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