By reacting impulsively to charges being made by some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders regarding huge kickbacks received by powerful people in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, Congress president Sonia Gandhi finds herself in the middle of a political storm fanned by unfavourable public perception. Responding to insinuations made by her detractors that the reference to “Signora Gandhi” in the 225-page judgement of the Milan Court of Appeals indicated her role, the Congress chief declared that she was not afraid of anyone and had done nothing wrong. By doing so, she inadvertently created a situation which brought the spotlight on her, thus walking straight into a trap laid by the saffron brigade and its newly nominated member of Rajya Sabha, Subramanian Swamy.
Sonia Gandhi’s utterances on the subject have, however, put her party in a fix and many senior leaders believe that there was no need for the Congress president to speak on the subject as allegations against the UPA government could have been effectively handled by the spokespersons themselves. By coming in the forefront and taking on the criticism directly, she has made the job of defending both her party and its government extremely difficult for her colleagues, many of whom have chosen to sit back and see the drama unfold.
The pre-eminent anxiety of the Congress top brass is that public perception continues to be against the leadership and even the Congress workers by and large believe that “corruption” was the primary reason for the party’s dismal performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where it ended up securing merely 44 seats. The issue is not whether there was any monetary transaction that benefited Congress leaders, but it is that nobody would believe that there was complete honesty in executing the deal initiated during the Prime Ministership of Atal Behari Vajpayee and finalised in 2010 when the Congress-led UPA-2 was in power.
A veteran Congress leader was at sea as to why Sonia Gandhi had to make any statement whatsoever. In other words, the implication was she should take a leaf out of Narendra Modi’s tome of his pragmatic and shrewd book as he remains undeterred when serious matters concerning his party or the government come up in public domain. He has remained continuously mum, be it the Vyapam scandal, the Lalit Modi controversy, the Haryana Jat agitation and myriad other issues, and instead has allowed his team of party spokespersons to do the talking. Mrs Gandhi should have done something similar and kept herself in the background. “The General never exposes himself in a battlefield as his presence in the backdrop serves as an inspiration for the troops. Yet if the General gets hurt, the soldiers too get demoralised and begin giving up hope. The signs of losing the battle start becoming evident. Mrs Gandhi has needlessly provided a handle to the BJP, which is playing on the perception of the Congress being corrupt by recounting the various scams that took place during the UPA rule,” said the Congress leader.
There is a growing feeling within the Congress that the spokespersons selected to defend its leaders should be those with whom the workers identify. In plain speak, they should be political and not merely give out legal opinions. While Abhishek Manu Singhvi has been raising very valid legal points on some television channels, he is yet to emerge as an acceptable Congress face so far as the rank and file go. Others who have picked up the cudgels are inept, not seasoned enough and sometimes ill equipped to carry the war into the BJP camp. The pertinent question is: where are functionaries like Janardhan Dwivedi, Ambika Soni, Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh, P. Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Jaipal Reddy, among others, who can retort back and respond with political astuteness to the detractors? Obviously, they are consciously being consigned to the background even at this crucial juncture.
The complexity of the situation is working to the advantage of the BJP, which realises that by pinning down Sonia Gandhi with even unsubstantiated charges, they would be able to instil total confusion within the Congress ranks, where the president is still considered to be a unifier and an acceptable rallying point, given that Rahul has yet to emerge fully as a leader in his own right. Thus, if Sonia Gandhi gets hit, the credibility of the Congress would take another fall, causing further erosion. Considering the scenario, the feeble attempts by Congress spokespersons to link the Tyagi brothers and others to the Vajpayee regime would recede to the background.
The Congress, on the other hand, has not been able to highlight the proximity of the Tyagi quartet to powerful people within the BJP set up, other than emphasising the association of Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi to the Vivekananda Foundation, an RSS frontal set up where both the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra had been previously associated with. On Friday, the government dismissed any connection of the Foundation or its other members to the chopper scam, which has been playing out in full public glare.
There are many in the Congress who can recall that one of the Tyagi brothers, described as Docsa in the court references in Milan, was at one time closely aligned with cine superstar Amitabh Bacchhan when he was the Congress MP from Allahabad during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. The said gentleman and his brothers had made important connections within the Vajpayee power coterie. He was a frequent visitor to a well known coffee outlet on the Tolstoy Marg near his office and would occasionally host a key functionary of the RSS and a BJP Member of Parliament from Jharkhand. But these finer points, though known, have never been a part of the Congress discourse on TV channels.
Within the Congress there are several voices that do not want its current leadership to give instructions to defend bureaucrats and former police officers, some of whom were elevated to the position of Governors, whose role is under high level scrutiny during investigations. “The objective should be to insulate the party from these people so that their role does not damage the already damaged party”, commented a leader. The problem is that if the Congress finds itself in any kind of trouble, it is due to its inability to carry the war back into the BJP camp.
There are several conspiracy theories doing the rounds as well. The latest round of revelations about the AgustaWestland deal have focused attention on four top Congress leaders including Sonia Gandhi, with the others being former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Defence Minister A.K. Antony and political secretary Ahmed Patel. It is being said that the scam has, in public perception, impaired these leaders, despite the fact that the charges against them may never be proved. This could, therefore, be the right time to allow them to fade away from public life, thus facilitating Rahul Gandhi and his new team to take over. This, however, seems far-fetched, given the close relationship, both personal and political, between Sonia Gandhi and Rahul.