The opposition party needs a reboot.

Photographer: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Indian Voters Make Room for Upstarts

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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When India’s venerable Congress Party won just 44 seats in the 545-member lower house of parliament in last May's national elections, thousands of hand-wringing, head-holding party members were forced to acknowledge what millions of Indian voters had long told themselves: The leadership of their president, Sonia Gandhi, and her cosseted son, Rahul, was suffocating the country, and the era of dynastic politics in India needed to end. 

Many neutral observers felt something good would come out of this crushing reverse, and the party would reinvent itself.

Eight months later, that assessment appears to have been false. After all, a crisis generates a state of high alert, an awareness of the need for swift corrective action. In the case of the Congress, though, all voters can see is a continuing stupor: the stupor of irreversible decadence and decay, a contemptible nostalgia and a parroting of platitudes, including those about the right of the Gandhi family, granted in perpetuity, to lead the party.

India's Aspirations

Outside this bubble, things grow worse for the Congress. Last weekend, longtime Congress loyalist Jayanthi Natarajan -- who served as head of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the previous, Congress-controlled government -- resigned from the party. Her departure coincided with the release of a revealing letter she wrote to Sonia Gandhi last November -- plaintive and bewildered, and sometimes maddeningly deferential, in its original context, but in its new one something of a j’accuse.

In the letter, Natarajan accuses the party high command -- in particular, Rahul Gandhi -- of cynically hanging her out to dry: She says she was forced to resign from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in December 2013 over the issue of holding up environmental clearances for big-ticket projects in India, after she was first pressured in private to hold up those very same projects. In the most incriminating sentence in the letter, she writes in her own defense: “I received specific requests [which used to be directives for us] from Shri Rahul Gandhi and his office forwarding environmental concerns in some important areas and I took care to honour those ‘requests.’”

The words “which used to be directives for us” confirm to voters everything they suspected about the political culture of the previous government, and the terrible power exercised over it by a mother-and-son team with enormous power and no accountability. Perhaps the most revealing document to have emerged from the internal correspondence of the previous regime, Natarajan’s letter also shows how deeply the malaise of sycophancy, careerism, genuflection and intellectual sloth has pervaded the Congress.

“Madam, most respectfully, I request you to kindly let me know at least now, what wrongdoing I am alleged to have committed to be subject to such repeated humiliation,” Natarajan writes in the tortured last paragraph. “I would be grateful if you would be so gracious as to at least understand my anguish.” These words, as from a courtier to a regent, should never be uttered by any self-respecting holder of high office in a democracy. They suggest that a new generation of Indian voters -- by choosing in such large numbers last year to vote for Narendra Modi despite his previous record of bigotry -- were weighing their options and deciding they would not countenance another installment of the Age of “Madam.”

Yet the Congress’s wretched state, while richly deserved, is nevertheless unfortunate for India. The government is rare that can be kept honest without an effective opposition party, and political diversity is especially necessary in a country such as India. As Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, once said, "I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say 'yes' to one man, I want a strong opposition.” And at the time, he was that one man.

And as several disturbing events since the formation of a new government by Modi and his all-conquering Bharatiya Janata Party have proved, India does need -- immediately -- a clear-sighted political party to hold the government of the day to account on all manner of issues from its fidelity to the principles of the constitution (a powerful faction of the BJP believes that India should be a Hindu state) to the state of the economy. That party can’t be the Congress, since it’s clear that everything that the party does passes first through the sieve of the First Family’s self-interest. (In a memorable phrase, journalist Shekhar Gupta recently described the Congress, just when it needed to reinvent itself, as taking a "gap year" from politics.)

Perhaps a sense of this mini-crisis -- not the Congress’s woes, but the increasing lopsidedness of political power in India -- explains why so many voters around the country are so keenly interested in this weekend's elections in the city-state of New Delhi. Opinion polls show that in Delhi, of all places, “the Modi effect” has been somewhat muted, and they predict a narrow victory for the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, which was formed just over two years ago on the back of a powerful mass movement to protest corruption in Indian politics.

In response to these projections, the BJP has deployed all its heavy artillery in the capital. In the last week alone, Modi has made the time to address four rallies for the party in the city -- as many as Sonia and Rahul Gandhi combined. Several times, Modi has attacked the AAP’s campaign but not the Congress’s, suggesting he believes it is not in the reckoning.

If the opinion polls prove correct and the AAP comes to power in Delhi's assembly next week, that would suggest that the voters of Delhi endorse the political ideology of the neophytes as well as the need to build up some opposition, however modest, to the new ruling regime -- perhaps in the regime’s own interest, to prevent Modi and his party from overreaching. That would be to say that many of them believe not only that the AAP can govern the capital efficiently, but also that it could eventually occupy a space in national politics that the Congress Party looks like it will soon cede.

That of a real opposition party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net