Hindu mythology is littered with references to the obsessive love that parents have for their children. Bollywood has drunk deep from that wellspring, the “mere paas ma hai” school of thought reigning supreme over many decades.

But now, it seems that politics is imitating art with a vengeance, including filmdom’s particularly synthetic versions.

Across the political spectrum, from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party to regional parties like Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and the so-called anti-caste and pro-rationalist Dravidian parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, putramoh (obsessive love for the son – in this case, for the offspring in general) has been an abiding motif for several years. Fathers and mothers give way to their sons and daughters at the polling booth and justify the birth advantage.

So what if he/she is my child. At the end of the day it is the electorate that will vote him/her into power, goes the reasoning. It is a particularly faulty one, of course.

Lalu Yadav, for example, did not hide the blackmail he was attempting with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, when he proposed the name of his political novice of a son, Tejaswi Yadav, as the deputy chief minister of the state. After all, as Yadav reasoned, it was the RJD that had catapulted the Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, to power in Bihar.

In Tamil Nadu, DMK patriarch Karunanidhi has disinherited his older son, MK Alagiri, in favour of his younger son, MK Stalin, and daughter Kanimozhi – Stalin will be in charge of Tamil Nadu, while Kanimozhi will be responsible for the DMK in Delhi.

These are only the tip-of-the-iceberg deals that political leaders make with the masses, whether the masses approve or not. Still, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been aghast at seeing the transformation in the political landscape ever since he gave in to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, especially in his own beloved Grand Old Party.

A heavy price

The results of the recent Assembly polls have conclusively shown one thing: The masses are no longer willing to vote for the Congress party, no matter what. The days when the Congress believed it was the duty of the Indian people to vote for it because of its secular and liberal and pro-poor credentials are over. Dynastic politics has had its day.

Voters may still have a great deal of affection for Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but her putramoh for Rahul has become a huge failing. People have already begun comparing it, especially in the North Indian heartland, to that of the Mahabharata’s Dhritarashtra, who was willing to go to war because his son, Duryodhana, wanted the kingdom, or that of queen Kaikayi in the Ramayana, who wanted to put her son on the throne at all costs.

Neither Dhritrashtra or Kaikayi are bad people – in fact, there is a great deal of compassion and pity for both. However, they are unable to separate their love for their respective children from their duty, their dharma, to the nation. They have fallen off the path.

Like Sonia Gandhi, who saw her mother-in-law and husband being assassinated, and must now spend the rest of her days worrying about her unmarried son, Rahul. But if Sonia is unwilling to democratise her party, which she brought back into power for a full decade, or is unable to see that her obsessive love for Rahul Gandhi is strangulating the Congress, then she must also be held responsible.

Bharat famously disregarded his mother’s decision and waited for his brother to regain his rightful throne. Duryodhana, on the other hand, was made of less stern stuff. Rahul Gandhi has both mythological models in front of him. He could either work night and day to earn the party’s respect for the mantle of leadership that has accidentally fallen upon him – or he must step aside and let the party democratise itself.

Rahul Gandhi has been a Member of Parliament for 10 long years. Before he became an MP, he was informally inducted into the party. He has grown up on a diet of politics, along with his mother’s milk. If he wants to lead the Congress, he has to stop spending several hours at the gym or taking long Vipassana holidays. He must focus on the job at hand.

In fact, Rahul Gandhi must take a leaf out of the book of his friend, former British Labour MP David Miliband, whom he invited to spend a night in a Dalit’s hut in Uttar Pradesh in 2009. Miliband went on to claim the mantle of the Labour Party. He lost the challenge and has since stepped aside in favour of other colleagues.

This is the moment of reckoning for the Congress, as well as its top leadership. It has done the right thing by allying with stronger, regional parties like the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the DMK in Tamil Nadu, in an effort to revive itself. But that is clearly not enough.

The Congress needs to spell out an alternative vision, an agenda, a plan of action, if it wants to remain a player. Just criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is no longer going to work. At least the BJP and the RSS have a clear idea of India, even if it is a majoritarian one. Moreover, they are willing to use every possible means to achieve their goals, as seen in the manner in which they took the disgruntled former Congressman, Himanta Biswa Sarma, on board in Assam.

Moment of reckoning

Assam’s outgoing chief minister Tarun Gogoi is another prime example of the putramoh that bedevils the party. Gogoi refused to allow Sarma to take charge, in the hope that he would keep the seat warm for his son, Gaurav Gogoi, MP from Kaliabor.

On Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary on Sunday, Gogoi Jr said on Twitter: Ex-PM Rajiv Gandhi's quote "I am young, and I too have a dream of an India - strong , independent .. self-reliant" echoes in our hearts. Perhaps he feels that sycophancy will save him from the guillotine?

Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh who have demanded “surgery” in the party, or Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Shashi Tharoor and Mani Shankar Aiyar who believe that action must be taken, stop short of including Rahul in this report.

All those who believe that the Gandhi family is a cementing factor and that the party will wither away if there isn’t a Gandhi at the helm are actually diminishing the strength and potential of thousands of Congressmen and women who continue to hold the flag aloft in every kasba and nukkad of India, no matter what.

The most important learning from this quarter-final election – given that the 2017 polls in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are being described as the semi-final to the 2019 general election – is that the same people are no longer willing to swallow the fatwas the Gandhis have been issuing for decades in the names of their forefathers.

Certainly, the Congress is still the only national party that can take on the BJP and the RSS. It is the only party that can challenge their limited ideas for and of India. It is the only party that is diverse enough to accommodate all schools and platforms under its umbrella.

But the Gandhis must realise that they need to earn their place in the sun, if they want to continue to lead the party they have inherited. They will be loved and cherished and adored by the people, but they must prove themselves worthy of that love and respect. Putramoh is okay for the movies, but it just doesn’t cut it in politics anymore.