According to well-placed sources within the Congress party, strenuous efforts are on — mainly by longtime associates of Congress president Sonia Gandhi — to ensure that the acrimony (between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) does not result in paralysing the work of Parliament in the remainder of the winter session. Such efforts at conciliation, according to them, are facing resistance from Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s new group of advisers, who are insistent that “the party’s tough line must continue”. A key party functionary said that “the final decision (on whether to adopt an obstructive or a cooperative strategy towards key legislation in the remainder of the current session of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) has been left by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Rahul”. Soundings within Team Rahul indicate that the next president of the Congress is unlikely to relent to the pressure mounted by some in the party who have worked closely with Sonia Gandhi since she took over as AICC president towards the close of 1997 and who favour “limited cooperation” with the Narendra Modi government in order to get key bills passed that would boost the economy.
Despite numerous efforts at bridge-building by BJP interlocutors, including party and government heavyweights of the calibre of Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Ravi Shankar Prasad, thus far the Congress has yet to resile from its present line of “complete non-cooperation towards the Narendra Modi government”. This has meant the party persisting for the third straight parliamentary session in creating legislative paralysis, especially on the GST bill, which is regarded by domestic and foreign industry as being essential for fast growth. Passage of the GST bill is now being seen internationally as a touchstone of Team Modi’s ability to deliver on their promise of ensuring the reforms needed to secure double digit growth. The forecast of Congress sources is, however, that “Rahul Gandhi will have his way so that the BJP will find the remaining days in Parliament’s winter session as unproductive as they were during the past week”.
The clusters of advisers close to either party president Sonia Gandhi or vice-president Rahul Gandhi separately indicate that the party’s recent hyper-combative approach is “part of a road map devised by Rahul Gandhi and his (new) team to ensure that the BJP suffer in 2019 the same fate as befell the Congress in 2014”, that of seeing its Lok Sabha tally fall precipitously. In the two previous Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions as well, the Congress “followed the line prescribed by Rahul Gandhi and adopted a line designed to ensure that legislative business got held up” so that the Modi government looked ineffective and unable to deliver on the promises made to the electorate during the May 2014 Lok Sabha polls. According to a party insider, “The purpose of Team Rahul since April-May 2015 (which is when the Congress vice-president’s core group of advisers and strategy was refurbished) is to defeat the BJP in every state election till the 2019 Lok Sabha contest, and in that, to reduce it to a seat tally below 150.” In pursuit of such an objective, the sources spoken to say that “tactical compromises and sacrifices are acceptable, as successfully carried out in Bihar”. And although there have been press reports of the Congress fighting alone in Uttar Pradesh, sources close to the two individuals who these days jointly comprise the Congress leadership say that what is “most likely is that the Congress will team up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to form an anti-BJP alliance”. “The advantage of an alliance with the Congress for the BSP is that it will consolidate the minority vote in favour of the combination, as such a tie-up would prove that the Samajwadi Party charge (of BSP having a secret deal with the BJP) is wrong”, a senior adviser to the Congress vice-president claimed, adding that “apart from the advantage of being allied to a national party, our party and its allies will also have the advantage of the Priyanka (Vadra) factor”. In the view of these sources, the only grand-daughter of Indira Gandhi has “immense pulling power in UP”, which they claim will be unleashed by early 2017. A member of the post-2014 Team Rahul added that such advantages would make the task of stitching together an anti-BJP alliance with the BSP feasible, and besides, “as in Bihar, our seat claims will be modest, keeping in view the strategic goal of humiliating the BJP in the very state Assembly, which contributed the most to bring the Modi government to power”. Other sources claimed that the party “was seeking ways to avoid splitting the minority vote in Assam and Kerala during the 2016 polls”, while in the case of Punjab in 2017, it was expected that “the Aam Aadmi Party would take away enough non-Congress votes” to enable the defeat of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance. According to a key functionary, “The biggest worry is Karnataka, where caste remains strong as does the anti-incumbency factor.” However, according to him, “the expected dominance of B.S. Yeddyurappa in the election campaign will neutralise the corruption factor as well as consolidate certain groups behind the Congress”.
A source said that the road map worked out by a newly-energised Team Rahul “planned to fight the fire of corruption allegations against the Congress by throwing even more fire at the BJP in the same form” by levelling charges of mismanagement and corruption at the NDA incessantly. Such charges are expected to stick to a ruling party in a way that they will not to an opposition party. In their words, “the perceived strength of the BJP, that it is the ruling party, should be transformed into its weakness through highlighting failures in governance and corruption”. Nine months ago, Rahul Gandhi, after weeks of “inner reflection”, approved the political road map prepared by his new team of advisers, a plan of action that they say is “completely different” from the traditional methods favoured by close aides of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
In contrast to the older group, which has maintained, across the years, close contact with longtime friends in the BJP, the new team around Rahul Gandhi “has been told by the boss to stay away from both the media as well as from the BJP leaders”, with the result that (these sources claim), “the Prime Minister’s legislative troubleshooters are finding the going difficult in a context where contacts with the new (and reclusive) power elite in the Congress are practically zero”, and where the traditional advisers cannot deliver for their BJP interlocutors as in the past, because “they cannot influence Rahul or Priyanka in the way they could (in the past) Madam (Sonia)”. Such a standoff between the BJP and the Congress is a contrast from past precedent, where both during the period in office of A.B. Vajpayee as well as Manmohan Singh, “informal and unpublicised understandings designed to smoothen the processes of government and legislation were common, including resort to parliamentary walkouts by the main opposition force so as to ensure that selected legislative business did not suffer”.
According to key individuals in the Congress backroom strategy groups, “it was after the Congress wipeout in the May 2014 Lok Sabha polls that Sonia Gandhi’s relying totally on her immediate advisers stopped”. They add that it was after the October 2014 Congress defeats in Haryana and Maharashtra to the BJP that the Congress president decided to, “for the first time”, give priority to her son and political heir Rahul Gandhi’s views (rather than those of her closest aides) on the steps the longtime ruling party needed to take in order to make a comeback. The vice-president of the Congress “saw the need to make changes in his core group of advisers, as the political and policy advice given by the team in place before the LS polls had failed spectacularly at the hustings”.
On the surface, Rahul Gandhi continued with practically the entire pre-2014 team, but “in fact, a new group was created by him separately that to date has remained totally out of the public radar”. After giving himself a few weeks to “recharge his batteries” during the December-January festive season, Rahul Gandhi “plunged into an intensive period of self-reflection followed by consultations (with his new aides) about the preparation of a road map for the future”. In particular, “an intensive study was carried out of the way in which Narendra Modi managed to dominate Gujarat politics, and the mistakes made by the Congress, which allowed him to continue with his string of electoral successes”. By end-April, they say, a plan of action had been finalised and discussed by Rahul with Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra. The Congress president “did not divulge details of Rahul’s operating plans to her close associates in the party”, with the result that they were taken unawares when the plan began to be put in operation during the final weeks of the 2015 Budget session of the Lok Sabha. BJP interlocutors had been having talks with Sonia Gandhi’s key aides in the belief that these individuals still ran Congress policy through Sonia Gandhi. Hence, “both the BJP as well as the traditional Congress advisers were taken by surprise at the fury orchestrated by Team Rahul during the close of the Budget session”. This continued with even greater vehemence during the monsoon session.
The Congress president, according to these sources, decided to go along with the Rahul-led April-May 2015 reconfiguration of strategy “rather than follow contrary advice given by her long-time associates, none of whom have any significant connect with the party vice-president”. In the decision by Sonia Gandhi to back her son to the hilt, the sources claim that “Priyanka played a key role in convincing the Congress president that it was time to allow Rahul to implement his own strategy rather than constantly be made to accept the course of action decided upon by party elders”, the sources said. They added that “the power shift” (from the traditional Team Sonia to the new Team Rahul) “took place around mid-May 2015” and that “the change in strategy was fully the Congress president’s decision”, which was to trust her son rather than go by the views of old-timers who had been urging caution in place of Rahul’s (post-April 2015) focused anti-PM strategy and message. The sources spoken to say that it was not Subramanian Swamy’s case on National Herald that caused Rahul’s uncompromising line, although, according to a top adviser, “that development silenced almost all the Old Guard within the (Congress) party who have privately been urging a legislative compromise”.
Another added that “for Rahul Gandhi, the all-important electoral battle of 2019 has already begun, and every election and byelection will be fought with such a perspective”. Soundings across the Congress indicate that earlier murmurs against Rahul Gandhi have almost totally been silenced, with the party acknowledging that its vice-president’s aggressive approach towards the Modi government and its newly accommodative policy towards the Prime Minister’s present and potential rivals has once again brought the Congress to the centre-stage of politics in India.
For the past two parliamentary sessions, BJP floor managers were looking for, and working towards, an accommodation with the Congress, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself adopting a conciliatory tone. However, thus far, Rahul Gandhi has declined to reciprocate, and has, in the view of key players, the backing of Sonia Gandhi in such a stand. Should the present last-minute efforts by both BJP interlocutors as well as Congress traditionalists fail to change Rahul’s hard-line stance towards the Modi government, the question much of the country is asking is whether the BJP has a Plan B to ensure passage of key legislation in the few days remaining before adjournment of the current RS and LS session, as otherwise the winter session of Parliament will follow the washout route of the monsoon session, with consequences for both the economy as well as domestic and international confidence in the ability of the Modi government to deliver on core reforms such as GST that have been promised by the NDA.