The Congress needs to look at its own history, writes 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 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 important, they were part of the young generation the Congress desperately needed to attract. Of course, they weren’t the only ones. When it lost power in 2014, the 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 the Labour Party back to power in Britain after 18 years in the wilderness. Thirteen years later, David Cameron restored the Conservative Party’s fortunes. He too was 43. Something similar happened with Emmanuel Macron in France or Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama in the United States. 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 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 as prime minister. History repeated itself 18 years later when Rajiv Gandhi, at 40, became India’s youngest prime minister. In fact, there’s one more example. In 2017, a 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi became the Congress president. So, for four generations Nehru-Gandhis have become Congress presidents — and on two occasions prime minister — while still in their forties.
At least three of these occasions represented a deliberate jump in generation — Nehru in 1929, Rajiv in 1984 and Rahul in 2017. In Indira’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 the party and left a huge impact on the country. Nehru ensured we became a secular, modern-thinking, all-inclusive democracy. Indira changed the party for the worse, decimating inner democracy and substituting the high command structure in its place. The Gandhi family’s stranglehold over the Congress began with her. She also gave us the Green Revolution, victory over Bangladesh and the deplorable Emergency. Rajiv — 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 the Congress? But for now the less said about that, the better.
So, clearly, elevating the youth and encouraging them to take over is a well-established Congress tradition. The only thing is that the four instances I’ve mentioned were Nehru-Gandhis — Scindia and Pilot are not. More important, they’re of the same generation as Rahul. 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? 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.