Creating history in a sense, Sonia Gandhi this month became the longest serving president of one of the world’s oldest political parties, the Congress Party,when she was anointed uncontested as chief of India’s ruling party for the fourth time.
Since 1998, Italian-born Gandhi has been leading the party, which was established in 1885 to take on the might of the British empire. In effect, the Congress Party has been shaping India’s direction and destiny for more than 120 years.
Destiny seemed to be calling when the wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi joined in the whirlwind that is Indian politics. Back in 1998, when the party was in a state of drift and steep decline, Congress decided to resort to the dynamism of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to rescue the sinking ship, realizing that without the Nehru Gandhi name it didn't have a future.
Since then, its been the personal dynamism of Sonia Gandhi and her dynasty that has kept the party going. Indeed, she's largely credited with bringing the Congress back to power in 2004 after eight years out of power.
Yet despite her best efforts, the Congress is still a truncated party, with only a marginal presence in some of the important north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. The idea that the Congress can be an umbrella organization representing all sections of society is now being challenged, with the lower caste, or Dalits, minority Muslims and even sizeable sections of the upper castes that have traditionally been strong supporters of the Congress gradually deserting the party.
Dalits now have their own parties and leaders, while Muslims are still not willing to forgive the grand old party for its apparent helplessness in trying to save the 16th century disputed Babri mosque from the hands of Hindu fundamentalists – despite the party heading the government in New Delhi. Upper castes, meanwhile, have largely shifted their loyalty to the Hindu rightist Bhartiya Janata Party.
In this changed political context, and despite an apparently small recovery in its fortunes lately, the Congress is still a shadow of its former self and it won't be easy for the party to cross the half way mark in the Lower House without the support of an alliance partner.
All this begs the question: How long can the party survive on the charm of the Nehru Gandhi family? And what if a situation comes to pass when there's no one from the family willing to lead the party? For now, of course, that's not an issue — no one would think of challenging Sonia Gandhi for the post of party president, while her son Rahul Gandhi is seen as an inevitable future prime minister.
But it's clear that the Nehru Gandhi family is not just the strength of the party, but also its weakness. Many sensible people now refrain from joining the party as they know that no matter how talented they are, their whole future would be dependent on the whims and fancies of one family and that they can anyway never think about reaching the top. Most of the young leaders who have joined the party in recent years are from political families, leading to a culture of nepotism that has in turn created disillusionment among those once interested in taking an active role in politics.
Today in the Congress, a Rajendra Prasad, a Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad or a Subhas Chandra Bose can't hope to become party president. It's clear, therefore, that although Sonia Gandhi has done great service to the party and the nation by reviving the sagging fortunes of the Congress – and besting the BJP – she would be doing an even greater service if she could manage to free the party from the clutches of a dynasty.
If the country's democracy is to be strengthened, there must be internal democracy in the party. So, let the party reflect on the great social changes going on in the country. Let the party give space to a Dalit leader or a backward caste leader to occupy the highest post.
History shows us that while dynasties cannot go on indefinitely, democracies can.