More than the humiliating electoral rout that it faced two months ago, the unravelling of Gandhi family mystique could undermine the Congress's confidence in the days to come. The very raison d'etre of the Grand Old Party is dynasty. Sans the family glue, the vulnerable, faction-ridden party could face exodus of feuding and disenchanted Congressmen, if not multiple splits.
Even when UPA government faced an avalanche of criticism in the wake of scams such as 2G, Commonwealth, Adarsh, coalgate and railgate, the family looked unblemished and invincible. The sins of UPA II did not besmirch the image of Rahul and Sonia as they were considered personally clean and transparent. The situation has now taken an unenviable turn.
The family halo began ebbing since party's unprecedented electoral drubbing in May when it secured just 44 Lok Sabha seats and forfeited its claim for Leader of Opposition status in the lower House.
Rahul Gandhi who won with a huge margin of 3.70 lakh votes from Amethi Lok Sabha constituency in 2009, scraped through with a margin of 1.07 lakh votes in 2014 with first-timer Smriti Irani bagging over one- and- a-half lakh votes in the family fiefdom.
As the dynasty is now coming under attack from its political opponents, even non-BJP players and those who were once associated with the party such as Natwar Singh and Sanjay Baru have joined the anti-Gandhi fray lending some credibility to the charges against the first family.
The alleged Income Tax fraud case slapped on Sonia and Rahul in the (now defunct) National Herald newspaper property case also has the potential to sully the image of the Congress duo in public eye. The court battle is expected to linger for quite some time making negative newspaper headlines.
As if on cue, even state leaders have started challenging the high command, not for the good of the party but to settle their own scores in their turf wars. The family magic could wane further if the Congress' performance in the upcoming assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand is below par.
An unfazed Sonia Gandhi has decided to hit back at Natwar with her own biography. It remains to be seen if she has ammo against her detractors or come clean and silence her critics. Rahul himself had in January 2013 revealed that Sonia was not beholden to power, a trait contradicted by Natwar Singh in his book. Soon after he was anointed party vice president at AICC's Jaipur chintan shivir, Rahul addressing the delegates had inter alia said: "On Saturday night, my mother came to my room, ....and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power which so many people seek is actually a poison. She can see what it does to the people around and to the people they love. But the most important thing is that she can see it and she is not attached to it. We should not chase power for its attributes. We should only use it to empower voices," he said amidst huge applause from the assemblage.
The suggestion that the dynasts should step aside and hand over the rein to another senior party leader is unlikely to resolve the existential crisis of the Congress. Rather, such a move could further debilitate the party. Today, the Congress does not have a pan-India leader outside the family who commands the cooperation or goodwill of all party rank and file. Congress war horses with super inflated egos are unlikely to work under anyone other than a Gandhi family member.
Ironically, Rahul himself has been trying to dismantle dynasty in the Congress. Reports suggest that he wants elections from block level to the Congress Working Committee, the highest decision-making body of the party. Old guards, however, are aghast. Many consider him well-meaning but naive. They fear that weakening family grip will be a recipe for disaster. At his Jaipur speech, the Gandhi scion had, albeit indirectly, taken pot shots at his own mother and the old guards. Perhaps, he understood that in the changing time, dynasties per se may not sustain.
With a tinge of sarcasm, he had said: "Congress is a strange party. It is the world's biggest political outfit but it does not respect any rules, any norms. Nobody here knows what is the rule in the party. It is a funny organisation. At times I wonder how it runs, how does it win elections, how does it defeat its opponents."
Analysts say even if transition from dynasty to the aam Congress leader is advisable, the switchover should take place at a conducive time, when the family stock is high, lest the party will crumble like a pack of cards with competing interests of mofussil leaders.
Barring the CPM, most mainstream parties have performed exceedingly well under a strong commander. The BJP had Atal Bihari Vajpayee and now Narendra Modi. Some other worthies being Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Mayawati. As of now, the Congress does not have any option other than the first family, but if the dynasty is eclipsed and it fails to deliver continuously the party will be in for trouble. While parties like the BJP and the CPM have strong ideological bases, the Congressmen are bound by loose doctrine; betraying contrasting dogmas — some are left of centre, some centrists and then there are those advocating soft-Hindutva. And to cap it all, the Congress brand of secular politics have been witnessing diminishing returns.
Compounding the woes are: lack of a committed cadre like the BJP-RSS and the Communists, severe talent crunch and failure to groom new leaders, party machinery in near collapse in many crucial states, factional squabbles undermining party interests in many states and lack of charismatic leaders in states like UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Gujarat. Unlike in the past, social bonding between leaders and the people are missing now. Leaders, long used to the comforts of airconditioned rooms, remember the voters only during election time. As a result, the Congress space was usurped by Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mayawati and Mulayam in UP, Mamata in Bengal, Naveen in Orissa and the Dravidan parties in Tamil Nadu. In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh where there is no third party, the BJP is eating into the Congress constituency.
Only time will tell if Sonia-Rahul duo can re-write the script and prove the sceptics wrong.
The writer is a political commentator