Rahul Gandhi, a pillar of Indian politics, has resigned from his duties as president of India’s Congress Party. After losing May’s election to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gandhi had privately offered his resignation to party officers. However, they refused to accept it at that time and pleaded with him to retain his position as president of the party. Gandhi’s short-term future in politics was virtually nonexistent, though, due to the loss of his own seat in parliament.
During the election, Gandhi’s familial ties to the Congress Party contributed to his own downfall. His great-grandfather served the party as India’s first prime minister after its independence from Great Britain. Both his grandmother and father also held the post, solidifying the family’s role in Indian politics for over 40 years. A life of privilege allowed Gandhi to attend Oxford and practically cakewalk into his political career, riding on a family name established by his ancestors. His story was the polar opposite of Modi’s, who worked as a server in a railway station before ascending the political ladder.
Many, Gandhi included, have begun to view the Congress Party as a relic ill-suited for modern times. In a prepared statement on his resignation, Gandhi pressed the party to “radically transform itself,” a sentiment shared among voters. If it is to survive, it must develop a vision for the future and a plan to attain those goals. Its promise to secure a minimum income for Indians was not enough to win over voters, even as it portrayed the BJP as an economic failure.
Gandhi’s run also challenged the notion of a secular India. The BJP has long been accused of pro-Hindu bias, and its right-wing stances gave ammunition to Gandhi’s campaign. Although Hindus comprise 80 percent of the population, there are also 200 million Muslims in the country. Shortly before the election, Pakistan and India were involved in a military confrontation where each side claimed to have downed a foreign fighter jet. The international community felt as if war might break out once again between the two nations, and although it was averted, it provided a rallying cry for Hindus. Modi emerged as a stable leader capable of exercising tranquility while also defending India during the affair. The threat of war, and war itself, during an election season often results in the incumbent maintaining power, and Modi was no different.
For Modi, however, secularism is a nonissue.
“You have seen that from 2014 to 2019, the people who used to talk about secularism have now gone quiet. In this election, not one political party has been able to deceive the people of India by wearing the label of secularism,” he declared during his victory speech.
Unsurprisingly, Gandhi has different ideas about the election and current political climate. He does not share in BJP’s vision of India’s future.
“We didn’t fight a political party in the 2019 election. Rather, we found the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition,” Gandhi said. “Our democracy has been fundamentally weakened. There is a real danger that from now on, elections will go from being a determinant of India’s future to a mere ritual.”
A Congress Party without Gandhi at the helm will soon face three state elections, putting pressure on the task of naming new leadership. There are calls for promoting younger candidates to top posts. Sachin Pilot, Rahasthan deputy chief minister, is one such option who boasts a strong track record. In December 2018, he successfully led the party’s campaign in Rahasthan. Although the Congress Party has historically been captained by his family, Ghandi said both his sister and mother have no desire to fill the void he is leaving. Furthermore, Gandhi is refusing to choose a successor, opening the door to a potential election, although it appears unlikely. The party has only had an election twice, the last time being Gandhi’s election in 2017, where he was unopposed.
The remainder of 2019 will be a rebuilding year for the party, and it will do so without the family that maintained its prominence. From choosing a new president to winning state elections and creating a new policy platform that will win over young voters, the Congress Party will face an uphill battle. The old guard gone, it may be that the twilight years are upon the party as the shadow of Modi and his BJP grows larger.