The departure of Congress veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad seems to have marked a step forward towards fulfilling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prediction of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. This is not the first time that India’s Grand Old Party has seen a major desertion. However, like the party’s first major split after Independence in 1969, it presents an existential challenge for the Congress.
The first major split in the post-Nehru Congress occurred in 1969 after a bunch of the party’s regional satraps discovered that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, whom they had installed as the PM after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, was not as docile as they had thought.
Indira took them head-on in the President’s election by opposing the official party nominee and backing the then-Vice-President VV Giri for the post. The party split vertically, but the Indira faction won over the bunch of party veterans, known as the Syndicate. Barring the brief interregnum of Janata Party rule, Indira Gandhi dominated the Indian politics till her assassination, after which her son Rajiv Gandhi was handed over the reins of the party and the Government.
The Congress swept the 1985 elections on sympathy wave but failed to win majority in 1989 after a group of Congressmen led by VP Singh left the party. Singh then led a coalition government with outside support from the BJP and the Left, which didn’t last long.
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the midst of 1991 elections gave a new twist to the family factor. Against strong contenders like Sharad Paar, a malleable PV Narasimha Rao was handed over the charge of the party and the government. Rao did complete his full term up to 1996, but the invisible Sonia Gandhi factor continued to hover over his flailing leadership both in the Government and the party. In the meantime, the BJP’s phenomenal rise had set in. In 1996, Atal Behari Vajpayee formed a 13-day government. Postthat, the Congress unceremoniously kicked out Rao and supported two successive United Front regimes from outside before pulling the rug and causing mid-term election in 1998. The BJP’s Vajpayee Government that came to power lasted 13 months this time before Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK withdrew its support.
It was at this juncture that Sonia took charge of the Congress. She faced a challenge from within when she staked claim to form a government at the Centre after 1999 elections. Three senior party leaders – Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwer – left the party saying India can’t have a PM of foreign origin.
Short of requisite support, Sonia reluctantly decided to sit in the Lok Sabha as the Leader of the Opposition through Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA Government from 1999 to 2004. When the NDA lost in 2004, Sonia wisely refused the PM’s post and nominated Manmohan Singh in her place. However as UPA chairperson, she continued to steer Singh’s twoterm UPA Government through remote control.
BJP’s allegation that she was keeping the seat warm for her son Rahul Gandhi gained credibility when she ignored Rahul’s tirade against his own party’s Government, even his juvenile act of tearing down in public an ordinance promulgated by it. Rahul Gandhi was made the party VicePresident in 2013. The Congress party’s 2014 wipeout was a disaster-in-waiting. But Rahul was made the party President in 2017, a post he resigned in a huff after the 2019 LS debacle. Since then, the Congress has been a headless party with Sonia Gandhi being at the top as interim President.