New Delhi: Intense speculation has begun in political circles on whether Rahul Gandhi would be able to retain his position as the Congress president following yet another drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections. As expected, the Congress Working Committee on Saturday rejected his persistent requests to quit and instead authorised him to re-structure the party. Several top functionaries
have already indicated that it was in the best interests of the party if someone from outside the family was given the charge of the organisation, since the poll results have clearly indicated that people had once again rejected the Gandhi family’s leadership role.
The CWC, which mostly has compliant leaders, who have either lost elections or are members of the Rajya Sabha, did provide temporary reprieve to Rahul. However, during the four-hour long meeting, he appeared to be the only one who could read the mood of the nation and see things in clear terms. His resignation request was overruled by the party’s highest decision making body.
It is only a matter of time that there would be an uprising by some of the younger leaders, whose future has been jeopardised with their successive defeats, while simultaneously the outcry for bringing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the Congress chief is likely to begin. The Gandhis were considered indispensable as long as they could help their party men win elections. This however, may not be the case any longer despite the fact that sycophants could try to create the impression of “There Is No Alternative” (TINA factor). If a revolt actually takes shape, the recent Parliamentary polls could be the last one where Rahul has been the party’s spearhead.
Rahul, under whose leadership the Congress a few months ago won three state Assemblies in the Hindi heartland, is being viewed as the sole reason for the debacle. Although he has accepted responsibility for the poor outcome of the elections, there remains reluctance on the part of the high command to determine accountability, and ascertain how the nine-member core committee got things all wrong.
The core committee, which included the likes of Jairam Ramesh, P. Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma seemed clueless on the developments and failed to put forward an appealing agenda for the masses. In sharp contrast, both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, at every step, outwitted the Congress.
There is also a deep-rooted suspicion in Congress circles that somewhere during the election process, certain leaders of the party, sensing a convincing Modi victory, had a negotiated settlement with the BJP so as to prevent the government from cracking down on party activists and office bearers in the post-poll scenario. Apparently, several Opposition leaders also endorsed the view and on 21 May, on the day of Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary, observed that something was amiss with the Congress leadership.
BRAND RAHUL NOT BUILT
There is absolute unanimity in the Congress that “Brand Rahul” was not allowed to be built by Sonia Gandhi’s coterie, which from day one has been attempting to derail the Congress president, fearing that he may considerably diminish their role. In fact the principal reason for Rahul not being able to extensively assert himself was because he was unable to extricate the party from the clutches of Sonia’s key lieutenants. If he stays on, he should closely examine the activities of a sabotage group within the party, which has harmed his image and effectiveness even more than what the BJP could have done.
Going by the manner in which the tickets were distributed, it is abundantly clear that only 10% of fresh candidates were fielded by the Congress, with the majority comprising those who had been defeated in 2014. The shrinking number of Congress activists demanded to know why those responsible in 2014 for the total loss of face and humiliation were still in charge in 2019. The workers thus authoritatively pointed out that the result could not have been any different.
Rahul’s inability to reach out to the cadres, as well as the people, is primarily because he continues to rely and count on the advice he receives from his non-political aides. Unlike Sonia, who in her initial years, had the advantage of being counselled by the likes of Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Makhan Lal Fotedar, Rahul accrues his feedback from former bureaucrats and political non-entities such as Alankar, Raju and Dheeraj Srivastava. He takes up positions from which subsequently he has to retract from.
For instance, when the ticket distribution was being discussed at the Central Election Committee meeting, he was vehemently opposed to the sons or daughters of Congress leaders being nominated. After a heated exchange with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, who wanted his son, Nakul Nath to represent Chhindwara, Rahul gave in. This paved the way for Ashok Gehlot securing the ticket for his son, Vaibhav and Chidambaram receiving the nod for son, Karti, and so on.
Earlier, in a similar situation, when he opposed the induction of Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi in the Punjab council of ministers last year, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh continued to persist with his choice. The matter was referred to Sonia Gandhi after which Rana Sodhi was included in the Punjab Cabinet.
The short point is that there are doubts on whether his writ actually runs in the party. He has appointed more than 100 office bearers at the central level, with many of the appointees having nothing much to contribute towards the functioning of the party. He, perhaps, has lost sight of the fact that when in 1978, Indira Gandhi had revamped the Congress, she had, to begin with, only one general secretary, Buta Singh. His choice of spokespersons too has baffled party colleagues. Randeep Surjewala continues to be the chief spokesperson, even after recently forfeiting his deposit in the byelection from Jind. Translated, this would mean that a loser was the face of the party.
There is also growing criticism against Rahul that he has finished off the Youth Congress by holding elections; from a democratic standpoint, organisational elections may sound good, but in reality only dynasts or those with financial resources can win the contest, leaving the ordinary worker high and dry.
THE PRIYANKA FACTOR
Rahul’s misfortune has also been the late induction of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into the party. The timing was such that the development took place when he was emerging as a worthy challenger to the BJP-led dispensation, resulting in the focus shifting from him to his more charismatic sister. Her inclusion created another power centre in the party and those who had been sidelined by Rahul obtained a lifeline to return to relevance by expressing their solidarity with Priyanka. Her entry also sparked off conjectures that she would take on Modi in Varanasi, a theme which she herself had fuelled by her statements. However, she backed out at the eleventh hour, putting the electoral chances of party candidates contesting from Eastern UP, in the losers’ zone.
Priyanka’s impact on the elections was largely negative rather than constructive since she antagonised the Mahagathbandhan allies with her declarations. By stating that the Congress was preparing for the 2022 UP elections, she sent out a message that the Congress was underprepared to contest in 2019 and concurrently irked Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, who themselves have Chief Ministerial ambitions for 2022. From the constituencies where she campaigned, the Congress was able to win only three—one in UP and two in Kerala. The Chhindwara and Punjab seats were won because of Kamal Nath and Amarinder Singh, respectively. In 2017, she was the architect of the alliance with Akhilesh, that resulted in the migration of Congress workers to the BJP in more than 300 Assembly segments since the Congress and Samajwadi cadres had for more than 25 years battled each other and were absolutely, as is well known, ill-matched and incompatible.
FUTURE COURSE OF ACTION
There has been extensive debate and deliberation on what Rahul should be doing next. A suggestion from a veteran Congress leader is that he should take a leaf out of Jaganmohan Reddy’s book in Andhra and tour the country on foot. This way he would be able to see the ground situation first hand and the padyatra would serve him in connecting new and younger people with the party. The exposure would facilitate him to evolve as a more mature politician.
The latest trouncing, where the Congress does not have even a single seat in 17 out of the 29 states of the country, is the most serious and grave crisis the party has ever faced. In the past, one way the Congress was able to overcome inertia and stagnation was through the various splits in its history; Indira Gandhi divided the Congress both in 1969 and 1978 to reinvent it, bringing in brand new faces and innovative ideas. The irony is that once again the Congress is on the verge of being fractionated, but this time it would be brought about by younger elements in the party rather than by the leadership.
The safe way of side-stepping the impending revolt would be to allow a bona fide leader, with sufficient experience and knowledge of grassroots politics, to be appointed as the party president. The country needs a strong opposition, and at this stage, the Gandhis cannot provide it. They need to reconnect themselves with the people, and till then, an energetic leader from the organisation has to be entrusted the responsibility of finding answers to the BJP’s unending march forward. If this is not done, the 134-year-old grand old party would land up in Jurassic Park—irrelevant and disconnected with reality.