Without a Gandhi at the top, will there still be a Congress? The party that led India’s independence movement and then won election after election for decades finds itself facing existential questions. A second drubbing in a row at the hands of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party. Infighting in state units across the country. And now, no clear path forward for who will helm it.

No wonder it didn’t want to let Rahul Gandhi go. The Nehru-Gandhi scion offered to resign soon after the results of the 2019 election demonstrated clearly that his high-pitched campaign againt Modi had achieved very little. But, with no natural second-rung leader and Rahul Gandhi insisting that his successor should not be from his family (a reference to demands that the baton simply be handed over to his sister Priyanka Gandhi), the collective leadership tried to push back and get him to change his mind.

Just like its failure in the elections, this effort also fell flat, albeit after much hand-wringing. More than a month after the reports about him resigning, Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday issueda letter officially announcing his resignation.

Technically, the Congress Working Committee still has to accept it. But after such a public announcement – and 42 days during which the party’s leadership is said to have tried several ways to get him to change his mind – it seems like Rahul Gandhi will actually step down.

‘Radical transformation needed’

The letter is full of interesting details. He writes that “numerous people” will have to be held accountable for 2019, but adds that it would be unfair to ignore his own role as president. He insists that it would not be appropriate for him to nominate a new president. He claims that he “personally fought the Prime Minister, the RSS and the institutions they have captured” and that at times he “stood completely alone.” And he concludes that the Congress party must radically transform itself and sacrifice the desire for power to fight a deeper ideological battle.

All of this seems sensible, an adjective that is not often attached to the Congress party. Rahul Gandhi, from the very start, has attempted to play the role of the outsider – the one willing to shake-up the status quo, relying on an a group of young faces to advise him within the party while selling himself as a radical thinker for the wider public.

But the party’s stop-start attempts to properly introduce him to the Indian public – beginning in the mid-2000s but only properly taking charge of the Congress in 2017 – and the BJP’s successful campaign against the “naamdar” (dynast) meant that it was impossible for him to be seen as much more than just the next entitled Gandhi in line for the top post. The BJP actively exploited this, selling Modi as a “kaamdar” (self-made) leader instead, with huge success.

A Congress ‘kaamdar’?

Gandhi’s insistence on stepping down, and per reports, insisting that his replacement is not another family members, suggests he understands this. What is uncertain is what this clarity will lead to.

Will the party find a way to reinvent itself under new leadership? Does it even have a system in place to find that new leadership? Has it become so dependent on the Gandhi family that it will fall prey to infighting and defections? Has it been so hostile to rising non-Gandhi leaders – think Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Jaganmohan Reddy and others – that it simply does not have the talent? Will it do the most predictable thing and turn to Priyanka Gandhi, reinforcing all the impressions of India’s entitled “First Family”?

The Congress has been run by non-Gandhi presidents in the past, and successful ones at that. But that was when it was a big tent. It occupies a lot less space now. Still, the BJP’s bulldozing of even regional parties – and the Congress’ success in three North Indian states last year – suggests that it may actually be better placed to take on Modi with fresh leadership in five years’ time. The question to ask is, will it survive until then?

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