Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s political advisor Makhan Lal Fotedar sees a very bleak future for the Congress as “it has no one to provide direction”. The party refuses to learn and “there is nothing right which the party has done or is doing. It saddens me that the Nehru-Gandhi legacy has reached a cul-de-sac”.
In the concluding pages of his book, The Chinar Leaves, (published by Harper Collins) he has observed that “Sonia Gandhi will go down in history as the longest serving Congress president even if not the most distinguished. When she took over as the chief in 1998, the party was on the verge of disintegration. In fact she helped to rebuild it from a position where its seats had come down to about 116. The supreme irony is that 17 and half years later, the party is again on the verge of a collapse. However, this time there is no saviour. Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is unacceptable to the people of this country and Sonia Gandhi has her best years behind her.”
While acknowledging that Sonia Gandhi was still the unchallenged leader of the party, he has noted that it is, therefore, her responsibility to reinvent the Congress. Blaming Rahul is in a way shifting the blame from the Congress president to someone who has yet to display his leadership skills. “History is threatening to repeat itself. It is a matter of time before Sonia and Rahul’s leadership is challenged from within the party. I will be observing closely how they stand up to this looming challenge, because Sonia is not Indira and Rahul is not Sanjay.”
The astute politician has held sycophants responsible for the party’s current state. He has recalled that during the 2009 general elections, Sonia Gandhi was of the opinion that the Congress would get between 145 and 155 seats but he had categorically told her that the number would be between190 to 210. The party got 206 seats. The reason for the 60 extra seats was that Dr Manmohan Singh enjoyed a very clean image and his persona as a middle class icon led the UPA to victory. However, the sycophants around the Congress president tried to create a perception that the increase in the seats was on account of the active participation of Rahul Gandhi in campaigning and his appeal as a youth icon. Sonia allowed this perception to gain ground, thereby denying the credit to Dr Singh. “It was abundantly clear that Sonia had made up her mind to foist Rahul Gandhi on the party and the country was waiting for the right time.”
Fotedar further notes that Rahul had not been groomed for the job properly and was therefore reluctant to take over the responsibility. The situation was different when Rajiv Gandhi, who too was at one time reluctant, was initiated into politics. Rajiv had the benefit of learning some fundamental things from his mother who understood the intricacies and nuances of Indian politics. Indira was also a great teacher and made Rajiv understand the issues step by step with the assistance of her aides, who were all too willing to help him out. It is another thing that Rajiv too did not follow many of Indira’s suggestions and consequently suffered.
He has written, “in the case of Rahul there was nobody to tutor or mentor him. Sonia Gandhi is not Indira Gandhi and was herself dependent on so many people on what she should do. And many of those who advised her were as ignorant as her on many issues on which they were asked to give advice. Rahul had a certain stubbornness and his motivation to become a leader was not very strong. People around Sonia secretly did not wish him to succeed because they realised that if Rahul grew as a leader they would themselves become irrelevant. The dilemma before Sonia was that on one hand she could not do without her coterie while on the other hand she had an overriding desire to see her son succeed in politics. There were too many vested interests around and Sonia was reluctant to accept her responsibility for the decline of the Congress in the war of perceptions.”
Fotedar admits that the Congress and the UPA government were being seen to be both corrupt and inefficient. There was a growing feeling that the Congress was drifting from its secular ideology towards minorityism. “There were occasions when the party while finalising seats for legislatures or Parliament would nominate either a Muslim or a Christian even if there were better qualified candidates available. The party from 2004 was moving into the hands of those who had come from other parties, since Sonia’s coterie found it convenient to deal with outsiders rather than insiders, who were aware of their capacity as well as devious ways. This had led to a huge disconnect as the cadres were greatly disillusioned with the leadership. Leaders and general secretaries who had nothing to do with grassroots politics were foisted from above. A case in point was that of Maharashtra where Prithviraj Chavan was sent as the Chief Minister and Mohan Prakash as the general secretary in charge. Both were ignorant of state politics and many MLAs complained that these two gentlemen did not know them nor did they know these two leaders. Those who represented the party in TV discussions too were people who had come from other parties like Rashid Alvi, Renuka Chowdhury, Sanjay Nirupam and Rajiv Shukla.”
Fotedar has also attached as an annexure a letter written by him to Sonia Gandhi in June 2006, wherein he cautioned her against trivialising the office of the Prime Minister. He expressed his concern over several challenges being faced by the UPA government, which included demands being made by Left parties, controversy over the Office of Profit Bill and the overbearing role of the National Advisory Council (NAC). His letter also mentioned reports pouring in about how various ministries and state governments of the Congress were being run and the manner in which Cabinet ministers were repeatedly challenging the authority of the Prime Minister. “I suggested to her either to take over as the Prime Minister of the country or allow the office of the Prime Minister to function with full authority and dignity. No government where the position of the Prime Minister stood compromised could acquit itself creditably. However, the muted response from the Congress president indicated that my sincere advice and valuable suggestions had fallen on deaf ears and the drift thus continued.”
He has also made mention to the fact that distancing had taken place between him and the Congress president and therefore their interaction had become increasingly infrequent. However, whenever they did meet, he could not refrain from presenting the true picture to her. “I was pained to watch the Congress being taken over by people who had nothing to do with the party’s ideology and traditions. Middlemen, power brokers against whom even Rajiv had spoken during his tenure as the Prime Minister were calling the shots and the grassroots workers and elected representatives were being slowly marginalised. The party leadership had no time for organisational matters and an extra constitutional authority had been created to navigate the task of governance.”
FOTEDAR ON AHMED PATEL
Fotedar has been critical of Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel while describing his role in marginalising him over a premeditated period of time. The astute politician has recalled how he was asked by Sonia Gandhi to prepare the list of probable ministers in the UPA government in 2004 after he had impressed her on the need to strike the correct balance between regions as well as both experienced and new nominees. He had promised to deliver the list to her the following day by 4 pm, but Ahmed Patel arrived at his house 15 minutes earlier and enquired whether the names were ready. He seemed to be in a tearing hurry to make it to 10, Janpath and virtually snatched the list from his hands. Fotedar admits that it was his folly that he handed over the names to him instead of giving them directly to Sonia Gandhi. The next day when the Cabinet list was finalised, it had all the names he had suggested barring those of Shivraj Patil and P.M. Sayeed who had lost the Lok Sabha polls and as per party convention could not have been ministers. It was evident that Ahmed Patel had not given him credit for short listing the names. Another jolt that Fotedar had to bear was when he was given a pass-over during the swearing in of the UPA government. In the meantime, he had also received a notice for vacating 7, Balwant Rai Mehta Lane where he resided. He was livid; and there and then decided to shift to his house in Gurgaon. At the very same moment Fotedar went to meet Sonia Gandhi. He recounted his contributions to the Nehru-Gandhis and informed her that he was leaving for Gurgaon. He also handed over the keys of an Ambassador car which Rajiv had gifted him and told her that it was parked in the parking lot of 10, Janpath. However, on reaching home, he received a call from Priyanka who expressed her desire to visit him. He responded by telling her that she need not come over to see him as he would do so himself shortly. His logic of stopping her from coming to the house was that he would not be able to say no to her if she asked him not to shift to the outskirts of the capital. However, he bore this conviction that when he went to her home, he would be able to explain the manifold burgeoning reasons that compelled him to make his decision. On his meeting with Priyanka, she took him inside to her room where he informed her that his decision was irrevocable and he would always be there for the family. The next morning, Manmohan Singh phoned him and offered to provide an accommodation in Lutyens’ Delhi. He politely declined the offer and started the process of shifting to Gurgaon. Ahmed Patel arrived at his house and asked him whether he would like to be a Governor and if yes, he simply had to choose the state. It was very clear that Patel wanted him out of active politics. Though Fotedar has not mentioned it in the book, he is reported to have told Ahmed Patel sarcastically, that would it be possible for him to be made the Governor of Lahore. After this Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary left his house.
ON SHEILA DIKSHIT
Fotedar has recalled how he was let down repeatedly by Dikshit even though it was he who was instrumental in making her the Chief Minister of Delhi. He has written that Dikshit had lost four consecutive Lok Sabha elections and after the Congress dethroned the BJP in Delhi in 1998, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to make Dikshit the Chief Minister. He said that he and Arjun Singh both tried to convince her that she was the best bet for the party. Fotedar, while lobbying for Dikshit, told Sonia Gandhi that she was the right candidate for a cosmopolitan place like Delhi, given that she was a Punjabi married to a UP Brahmin and also given that her daughter was married to a Muslim. Sonia finally agreed and Dikshit was sworn in as the Chief Minister. In 1999, when Congress lost all the seven seats in the Parliamentary polls including that of South Delhi from where Manmohan Singh was contesting, Sonia Gandhi asked her political secretaries Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel to remove her. It was again Fotedar’s intervention that saved the day for her as both Ambika and Ahmed fumbled in the immediate execution of her removal. Subsequently, Dikshit let him down when the names of the Rajya Sabha candidates from the national capital were being finalised. She had gravitated towards the Madhavrao Scindia camp and thus opted for Dr Karan Singh instead of backing Fotedar. Six years later, she again showed her complete disinclination in giving him his deserved due. Subsequently, her Chief Ministership had come under scrutiny following various kinds of allegations; it is another story that she managed to survive.