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The Vote That Could Determine India’s Future

The Indian National Congress party has a chance to break from the Gandhi dynasty. It seems set on spurning the opportunity.

By , the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
Supporters of the Indian National Congress party wave flags.
Supporters of the Indian National Congress party wave flags.
Supporters of the Indian National Congress party wave flags during a rally in Ahmedabad, India, on Sept. 5. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images

Two years from now, India will hold the most consequential election in its history: the final chance to stop Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversion of the world’s largest democracy into an illiberal Hindu-supremacist state. But the vote that may determine the outcome of that election takes place on Oct. 17, when the opposition Indian National Congress party will pick a new leader through an internal election for the first time since 2000.

The secular alternative to Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress is the only outfit that can match the ruling party’s national recognition and organizational reach. If there is a force that can deny Modi another outright majority in India’s Parliament, if not defeat him squarely, it is Congress. Alas, India’s grand old party has become debilitated by a democratic deficit of its own.

Congress—the party that once negotiated India’s freedom from British rule, inspired a generation of anti-colonial leaders from Asia to Africa, and incubated India’s democratic institutions—has effectively functioned as a hereditary dictatorship led by the Gandhi family for more than five decades. Its degeneration began in the 1960s, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi purged her rivals and built a personality cult around herself, reducing the Congress party to her family’s fief. Since then, barring a brief interregnum in the 1990s caused by a death in the family, the Indian National Congress has not known a single leader outside the Gandhi dynasty.

Two years from now, India will hold the most consequential election in its history: the final chance to stop Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conversion of the world’s largest democracy into an illiberal Hindu-supremacist state. But the vote that may determine the outcome of that election takes place on Oct. 17, when the opposition Indian National Congress party will pick a new leader through an internal election for the first time since 2000.

The secular alternative to Modi’s Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress is the only outfit that can match the ruling party’s national recognition and organizational reach. If there is a force that can deny Modi another outright majority in India’s Parliament, if not defeat him squarely, it is Congress. Alas, India’s grand old party has become debilitated by a democratic deficit of its own.

Congress—the party that once negotiated India’s freedom from British rule, inspired a generation of anti-colonial leaders from Asia to Africa, and incubated India’s democratic institutions—has effectively functioned as a hereditary dictatorship led by the Gandhi family for more than five decades. Its degeneration began in the 1960s, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi purged her rivals and built a personality cult around herself, reducing the Congress party to her family’s fief. Since then, barring a brief interregnum in the 1990s caused by a death in the family, the Indian National Congress has not known a single leader outside the Gandhi dynasty.

Even now, when the party should be concentrating its energies on choosing the best candidate to lead the fight against Modi in 2024, its leadership race has been eclipsed by a 150-day so-called unity march led by politician Rahul Gandhi. The procession, staged as an historic event, is mostly a means to repair the tattered reputation of Rahul, the fifth-generation family scion who led Congress’s campaigns in parliamentary elections in 2014 and as the party’s president until 2019. Both were resounding victories for the BJP. Rahul even lost the family’s pocket borough in its stronghold in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 and carpetbagged his way into Parliament from southern India at the expense of the left.

Having delivered an electoral calamity for his party in 2019, Rahul did nothing to redeem himself. Between 2015 and 2019, as Modi intensified India’s social transformation—subverting autonomous institutions, consolidating a personality cult, and mainstreaming violent Hindu supremacy—Rahul made 247 overseas trips, an average of about five per month. He was missing on virtually every occasion that Modi’s actions created an opening for the opposition to advance a robust response. As a backbencher, he rarely attends Parliament, asks few questions (he raised none during Modi’s first term), and routinely misses meetings of parliamentary committees.

Despite resigning from the party’s presidency in 2019, Rahul remains its de facto leader , whereas his mother, Sonia Gandhi, wields power as caretaker president. The only significant promotion within the party leadership since 2019 has been of his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has no prior political experience. This state of affairs has allowed Modi, a self-made politician raised by lower-caste parents, to cast himself as the righteous nemesis of the culture of entitlement exemplified by the Gandhis. Modi has portrayed Congress as irredeemably nepotistic and sought to discredit the secular nationalism the party claims to espouse.

None of this has provoked Congress to shed the family dynasty. If anything, criticism of the Gandhis within the party is punished in petty ways. In 2020, when a group of senior leaders urged internal reform, its members were vilified, told to leave the party, and shut out of party posts. The party’s highest administrative body, handpicked by the Gandhis, then passed a motion to strengthen the family’s grip and see off all challenges to its reign. In state elections months later, Congress lost control of one state to the BJP and was routed in others.

Once invincible across India, Congress now governs only two of India’s 28 states. Several experienced and promising young party leaders have left in frustration over the lack of direction under the Gandhis. The family doles out party positions, an arrangement that has ensured its control. But the party’s woes forced the Gandhis to agree to this month’s competitive vote, and Rahul has decided to keep out of the race. His decision has three intended ends: covering up the taint of dynasticism; making Rahul appear self-sacrificing, a patriot uninterested in position; and consecrating him within the party as the supreme authority who does not need a formal title to exercise power.

To avoid an unexpected challenge to their authority, the Gandhi family has nominated a surrogate to contest the party leadership election. Their stand-in is Mallikarjun Kharge, an eminence from southern India who overcame the vicious prejudices directed at him for being a Dalit—a member of a community deemed so impure by the scriptures that they fall outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system—to raise himself up. Worryingly, Kharge is also an obedient 80-year-old Gandhi family acolyte who lost his parliamentary seat in the last election.

His lone challenger is Shashi Tharoor, a member of a dominant yet—strictly speaking—lower caste from southern India. He is perhaps the only figure with the oratorical prowess, charisma, and national profile to rival Modi. As a former high-ranking career diplomat at the United Nations, Tharoor oversaw a complex bureaucracy, supervised efforts to rescue refugees who fled Vietnam by ship and boat at the end of the Vietnam War, helped negotiate the end of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia, and finished close behind Ban Ki-moon in the race for U.N. secretary-general in 2006. An astringent critic of Hindu nationalism, Tharoor has won three successive terms in Parliament despite running in the communist redoubt of Kerala.

Tharoor would be a front-runner to lead almost any centrist party in the world. In the Congress party, however, he faces abuse because he threatens to overshadow Rahul. The party that admires Kharge for his docility portrays Tharoor as a renegade for dissenting from the Gandhi leadership and calling for reforms to democratize the party. Tharoor may be just the disruptive break from the past that Congress needs, but the party appears determined to thwart him. Kharge admitted to advising Tharoor to drop out rather than squander his time on an election. Although Tharoor has traversed the country on budget airlines, Kharge has flown around India on a private plane.

Undeterred, Tharoor has published a detailed blueprint to revitalize Congress. But he faces nearly impossible odds against Kharge, the status quo candidate. Party bosses have turned an indulgent blind eye to officials who have deployed their authority to mobilize support for Kharge—in blatant violation of the election code. Tharoor has even been denied a complete list of the 9,000 eligible voters and their contact details. The results of the election are expected on Oct. 19.

Modi’s “New India” is now widely regarded as the site of democracy’s demise, but it is also paradoxically the setting for democracy’s civic reclamation. From massive nationwide agitation against 2019 legislation that sought to introduce a religious test for citizenship (which has not yet been implemented) to the unremitting protests against controversial agricultural laws that culminated in their repeal last year, the past three years have also been characterized by citizen uprisings against Modi’s sectarian politics.

In “any unrigged pan-Indian electoral college that we can imagine,” the historian Mukul Kesavan recently wrote in Calcutta’s Telegraph, “Tharoor would handily best Kharge.” A victory for Tharoor could boost the party’s sinking fortunes by heralding a departure from its recent decline. Tharoor still may succeed in unifying a fragmented opposition that is weary of the Gandhis. Even if such a coalition cannot vanquish the BJP, it could deprive it of a full majority in Parliament and force it to form a coalition government. Modi is unaccustomed to sharing power, and any such arrangement could temper his worst instincts—if not finish him off completely. But since such a future would be predicated on a reformed Indian National Congress party—and since reform would threaten the Gandhis—a coordinated effort is underway to foil Tharoor’s bid.

What distinguishes India today is not the presence of a strongman leader; it is the absence of an effective opposition capable of converting ordinary citizens’ fury into electoral gains. The Congress party’s leadership election presents the first real opportunity in eight years to end Modi’s attacks on Indian democracy, but the country’s oldest political party appears determined to foil that opportunity. Emancipating Congress from the Gandhis may prove even more challenging than rescuing India from Modi.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.

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