The hallmark of a successful politician is to play down victory and keep a game face after defeat. Date: May 30, 2019. Venue: Rashtrapati Bhavan, Delhi. Location: Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Who: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother Heeraben. Emotionally absorbed in watching the swearing-in ceremony on TV, she started clapping when President Ram Nath Kovind administered the oath of office to her son for the second time on the vast forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan against the backdrop of the massive sandstone dome flying the Tricolour.
At the same time on the same day, with the temperatures blazing in the forties, enter Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Rahul’s mother wore a stoic expression as she took her seat. But the son’s face gave story away. The soon-to-resign Congress president looked as if he would rather be in any other place than there, glaring at the ground while ministers took their oath.
It was obvious that Rahul was traumatised. After its rout, the Congress has PTSD. Having forgotten that Rahul failed to win the mandate in spite of a gruelling campaign, leaders insist he stay on as party boss. Or get Priyanka. The siblings are in no mood to oblige. Time and again, the selection of at least an interim party boss was put off. The Congress is gripped by a crisis of ideology.
Says a former Congress MP: “The RSS has powerful ideologues, ideology and cadre, which fuels the BJP. We don’t even have an ideologue.” Veteran Congress leader Dr Karan Singh differs. “Democracy, sarv dharam sambhav, the welfare of minority and Schedule Castes, economic structure and foreign policy —these are five foundations of Congress ideology. You can call it liberal, Left liberal if you like, or liberal values enshrined in the Constitution. We have to rearticulate it,” he explains.
The BJP’s assault on minority accommodation by weaponising Hindutva has thrown secularism into the national shedder. The Congress response to Jai Shri Ram was to send Rahul to a few temples en route to some vote fishing rallies. Spin doctors coined a new phrase—‘soft Hindutva.’ Says a young MP, “We have to reach out to Hindus. Not with extreme Hindutva but in moderation so that we are not projected as anti-Hindu.”
A former senior general secretary agrees saying that 80 per cent of India’s population cannot be ignored. However, he calls the controversy around his gotra in Pushkar Temple and wearing a janeu bad optics. Young leaders are firm that the party cannot be seen as appeasing Muslims and Dalits. Scuttlebutt says an advisor felt that the sharp and scholarly Shashi Tharoor is the party’s best bet for party ideologue. Advice rejected. Too Westernised.
“Our first priority should be the dissemination and revival of the party ideology,” the former MP said. “And find the right person to do it.” The main problem is the party itself. At the recent CWC meeting, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra flared up over the selection issue. “Party ka sab kaatil (killers) yahaan maujood hai,” she raged—all the murderers of the Congress are here. Every leader present at the party headquarters on 24, Akbar Road is responsible for the decay of India’s oldest political outfit. Her question: Why haven’t you nurtured second and third level state leaders? Seriously? Irony just died. Priyanka goes on berating the huddling flock. Why are you so insecure? Why do you appoint only sycophants as DPCC and PCC presidents?
Rahul intervenes to cool his sister’s bitter wrath, insisting politely that the priority is to fix the organisation. And the family is willing to help. But the onus has to be on the CWC.
What are the choices for the catbird seat? Can’t Soniaji be interim president until the mess is cleaned up?
No way. Her advice is available but that’s all.
What about Mallikarjun Kharge or Sushilkumar Shinde? Too old.
Jyotiraditya Scindia? Too arrogant.
Sachin Pilot? Mustn’t destabilise Rajasthan and piss off CM Ashok Gehlot.
So, it’s an organisation man after all. Who will keep his head down and work to restore the moribund party’s rank and file, induct new members, enthuse the district and state units. With an outsider as president, the siblings want to work on refurnishing the party’s decrepit wall of fame.
The Gandhis have been holding one-to-one consultations with various leaders. Annoyed young MPs ask why suggestions cannot be aired with everyone present? Let leaders throw up names, and settle on the best choice. But this not acceptable to the old warhorses who cling to the remnants of authority left, at least the party. They have offspring waiting to take over in their fast-fading pocket boroughs. But the interim president would be just a Band-Aid to stop a haemorrhage.
“Everyone knows the medicine, but who will prescribe it,” jokes an MP.
Loyalists believe that Rahul will win the race in the long run since he is a class apart who believes in inner-party democracy. “Rahulji is a soft target. Nobody else could have endured such abuse and trolling without missing a step. Try calling Modi or Amit Shah such names and see what happens. You will be arrested,” claims an aide at Rahul’s new war room, which was moved to P Chidambaram’s government bungalow at 80 Lodhi Estate after elections were declared.
Strategy meetings were held there every day, attended by heavyweights such as Ahmed Patel, Anand Sharma, Randeep Surjewala, Jairam Ramesh and Sam Pitroda; starting 4 pm and extending late into the morning. Little did they guess that the astrologer who recommended the change to an ageing CWC member got it so wrong. “We don’t have anyone who can counter the power and stature of Modi and Shah,” the ex-MP mourns.
“Besides, most of our big wigs are vulnerable. There are corruption cases against many CWC leaders and allies regarding their actions when they were in power.” The Family itself is fighting many cases. One of its members, who has taken to acupuncture recently, is dismayed that the needle of suspicion is pointing to him. With Modi’s zero tolerance on corruption—Na khaata hoon, na khaane doonga (I don’t take bribes, nor will I allow anyone else to) were the PM’s famous words when he took charge in 2014—many Congressmen are justifiably worried.
Hence the cry. Priyanka lao.
Says a young MP bitterly, “Leaders like Shinde, Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad etc. have enjoyed a long innings. We have given 20 years of our youth to the party. What do we have to look forward in the next 20?”
Defecting to the BJP is no longer an option, except in a poll-bound state like Maharashtra, and elsewhere, Congressmen are crossing over like lemmings. The ruling party has a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha. “Even if they accept me, it will be just tokenism,” says a Congress MP who had lost in Uttar Pradesh. “They’ll give me some insignificant post and cast me aside on the sidelines.”
Though Congress upped its Lok Sabha numbers this time to 52 seats from 44 in 2014, its median margin of victory went down to 8.6 per cent from 13.6 per cent in 2014. The BJP vote share this election was 37.4 per cent while the Congress party got only 19.5 per cent.
The NDA improved from 2014 by around 45 per cent—in 1952, when the first general election in independent India was held, the Congress vote share was 45 per cent. The decline of the Congress, which won 364 of the 401 MPs in 1952, to the current 52 began with the death of Jawaharlal Nehru on the morning of May 27, 1964, without naming a successor. The origin of the Gandhi family’s matchless status can be traced to the machinations that followed Nehru’s passing.
The powerful Congress president K Kamaraj was the kingmaker. Morarji Desai declared his own candidacy for PM. Kamaraj successfully pulled strings to install the non-controversial Lal Bahadur Shastri. After Shastri died, he backed ‘Goongi Gudiya’ Indira against Desai who lost again. Historian Francine Frankel wrote, “Evidently, the greatest qualification of Indira Gandhi at the time of her accession was her weakness.”
To Kamaraj’s dismay, Indira proved to have a mind of her own. When the party split in the internecine power standoff, the majority of Congressmen supported her. In 1969, at the AICC session in Lalbagh, Indira declared her ideological shift from the Nehruvian confluence of socialism and capitalism to a Leftist economy. The Syndicate disagreed. To discuss the selection of the Rashtrapati in 1969, parallel CWC meetings were held; at the Congress HQ and the PM’s house respectively.
The furious Congress President S Nijalingappa sacked the Prime Minister from the party. After defeating the Syndicate’s no-confidence motion, Indira went for elections in 1971 and garnered a two-thirds majority. The irony was that she won in 1969 after calling for a “conscience vote allowing MPs and MLAs to vote how they wanted”. But 1971 onwards, she was determined not to tolerate competition.
She first eroded the old Congress structure that allowed state leaders to wield power and influence relevant national issues by replacing them with loyal nominees. Her insecurity and hatred of challengers led to the eventual decline of institutions over the decades. New terms like “committed judiciary” and “committed bureaucrats”— i.e. Committed to her—appeared during the Emergency. Politics discarded its ideological nature for the first time: Indira was ideology. As Defence Minister and Nehru ally VK Krishna Menon reportedly said: “When the Congress president calls you, unless you are a fool like me, you more or less express his opinion.” In this case, the opinion was hers.
‘One Man One Post’ came to mean ‘One Family One Post’ as the PM and party became synonymous. In March 1998, Congress president Sitaram Kesri was ousted by the dynasty cult’s followers who wanted the magic of the Gandhi name to lead the party in the October general elections.
“There is no point in going back in history,” says an articulate Congress leader who had cut his political teeth in UP. “We have to think beyond the Gandhis. The design of the party must change.”
It is doubtful whether an interim president can change it. If last week’s Lok Sabha proceedings are an indication, the Gandhis still believe they are best suited to leadership. Legacy and experience are on their side. The former senior general secretary who was at helm of party affairs under Indira, Rajiv and Sonia says post or no post, the Gandhis will always hold sway over the party. “The party looks up to them for everything,” says the octogenarian.
The appointment of the Leader of the Opposition proved that Sonia is very much in the game, in spite of her age and imperfect health. After the elections, Tharoor expressed his desire for the job. Instead, Sonia chose West Bengal Congressman Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. Her choice surprised many leaders since Adhir is not at ease in Hindi, spoken by nearly every BJP MP.
Wouldn’t Manish Tewari have been a better choice? He is a lawyer with debating skills. And younger than the Kharge gang, The majority of MPs this time took their oath in Hindi and regional languages. Even Congress MP Kodikunnil Suresh from Kerala, which pleased even Hindi speakers in BJP. Hindi is the language of the heartland which brought the NDA to power. Besides, Adhir is a political lightweight, and easily controlled by the family. On July 24, when Adhir demanded PM Modi’s presence in Parliament after Donald Trump’s absurd claim over Kashmir, the Speaker refused. Rahul was nowhere to be seen.
The inexperienced Adhir sought the UPA chairperson’s help. She promptly took over floor management, and sent her MPs to troop into the well of the house and ordered Adhir to interact with the DMK. In early July, Rahul and Sonia had a 40-minute-long meeting with the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). She wanted a better sync with allies; the DMK had refused to sponsor Manmohan Singh’s Rajya Sabha nomination. CPP meets every morning now on the pretext that 30 of the 52 Congress MPs are first-timers who need mentoring in parliamentary procedure. “Parliament has become so boring,” laments a firebrand MP who lost to the BJP.
Even more boring is the wait for a bone fide Congress president. Perhaps weary of the delay, the Gandhis could be back is the refrain in Akbar Road. The chorus is “PGV for Party Prez”. Insiders say Priyanka has firmly refused. Politics is a quicksand of possibilities. If husband Robert Vadra is arrested after she takes over the reins, it would prove a major setback to the party’s image. Besides, next year Maharashtra and Haryana go to the polls. The Congress hopes that its previous performances in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be repeated in these states. But advisers are playing it careful. Should the Congress lose to Modi magic on Priyanka’s watch, it would further sabotage the infallibility of the G-name.
Her UP foray into Yogi Adityanath’s territory over the Sonbhadra massacre last week “at Rahulji’s instructions” signals that she is seeking validation for her leadership as a part worker. UP, which is the launchpad of power in India, is her target. Besides, family honour has to be salvaged after her brother’s defeat. “Priyanka is the real deal,” says a senior Congress worker close to the family since Rajiv became the PM. “Rahul's approach is too clinical. If someone in his constituency approaches him for a favour, he goes by the book. Not Priyanka.
She will try to get the work done any which way she can. It reminds me of Indira Gandhi.” Last week, the old fox of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh demanded that Priyanka must be the boss of 24, Akbar Road. Congress watchers are unsure if he has amnesia. Immediately after the victory, Rahul called state heads and CMs home for a post-poll assessment meeting. He blamed them for inefficiency and partisanship. Pointing at one CM, he accused him of ensuring the CM’s son’s victory while ignoring the party.
Turning to Captain, he reportedly said, “Congratulations on your performance. But if I hadn’t campaigned, you wouldn’t have got so many seats.” The hubris may be apocryphal but the words were confirmed by some leaders who claimed they had attended.According to Rahul’s close friends, among the many accouterments at 12 Tughlak Lane is a mini movie theatre where he goes to relax with popcorn after a hard day. The chaos over leadership has reached a high pitch. Picture abhi baki hai.
With inputs from Richa Sharma