NEW DELHI: With a contest for the Congress President’s post certain as of now, it would be the fourth time since Independence that polling would decide who would lead the Grand Old Party.
According to Jairam Ramesh, Congress General Secretary incharge of communications, the upcoming election is an assertion that internal democracy in the party has no parallel. “Speaking for myself, I am a firm believer in the Kamraj model of consensus but if elections are inevitable, we are the only political party to have a central election authority for organisational polls,” he said.
Post-Independence, the party has been led by 16 Presidents, of which five have been from the NehruGandhi family. Significantly, the first organisational elections for the post of the Congress President, held after Independence in 1950, brought inner contradictions in the party to the fore. It also marked the beginning of what later emerged as dynastic politics.
In these elections, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s candidate Acharya Kripalani lost to Purushottam Das Tandon, who was reportedly backed by Sardar Patel. However, Tandon was forced to resign after 13 months following a persistent campaign against him by the Nehru faction. Nehru took over as the Congress President.
Since then, the party has been run as a family fiefdom. The Congress President has always been either the Prime Minister or his chosen protégée on the basis of a built-up consensus rather than a transparent election. The consensus model continued during the reign of Indira Gandhi and after her death, Rajiv Gandhi became both the Prime Minister and the party President. After Rajiv’s assassination, the mantle was passed on to PV Narasimha Rao.
Rao was picked up by family loyalists against powerful party leaders like Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh and ND Tewari because he had no mass following and would not have worked against family interests. During Rao’s leadership, the Congress faced a number of splits, instigated purportedly by Sonia loyalists. Rao was shown the door unceremoniously after the Congress lost power in 1996.
The next election that needed a contest came after 47 years, in 1997, when Sitaram Kesri squared off in a triangular contest with Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot. Kesri won but many leaders started deserting the party. Sonia Gandhi was then persuaded to enter politics and save the Congress. She became the party chief in 1998. The third contest, in 2000, was nominal. It was between Sonia Gandhi and Jitendra Prasada, with Sonia cornering over 7,400 votes against Prasada’s paltry 94.
The upcoming polls would certainly be historic as the new President would replace Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving party President, who has been at the helm since 1998, barring the two years between 2017 and 2019 when Rahul Gandhi took over.
Also, the party will have its first non-Gandhi President after over 24 years. However, the political context in which the current election is being held is different. The Congress has not only lost two successive elections for the Lok Sabha but also failed to register a single win in the state Assembly elections since 2018. It is also witnessing an exodus of, both young and old, leaders.
Whatever the outcome, the relevance of the Gandhi family in the party will remain. Despite declarations that none of the Gandhis will be in the fray, the family will remain the mysterious X-factor, both in the manner in which the electoral process goes on and after the new party chief is elected.