Three weeks have gone by since the Gujarat Rajya Sabha election saw Ahmed Patel scoring a sensational victory over the formidable forces of Amit Shah. More than a humbling of the BJP, it was a life-giving boost to the Congress. Everyone expected the Congress to regroup with newfound confidence and emerge a fighting force again. But there is no sign of it yet. The reason is clear: The dynastic leadership remains invincible, immovable. And the reason for that? Amit Shah’s good fortune.
In the mundane world of elections, Rahul Gandhi is indeed Amit Shah’s most important asset. Even those who dislike the BJP, often vote for it because they dislike Rahul Gandhi more. We can’t really blame them because the young Gandhi scion has a style that is off-putting. He seems impetuous by nature. Remember his walking into a press conference in Delhi and tearing up with contempt a copy of an ordinance issued by his own party’s prime minister, the hapless Manmohan Singh? He is also politically insensitive; notice his frequent, unexplained absences from the country. There is something disconcerting even in his personal mannerisms—rolling up his sleeves and striding around like a pahelwan. He just isn’t the inspiring kind.
The defeat the Congress suffered in 2014 was so devastating that, for the first time, Congress leaders began talking in public about the party’s problems. Satyavrat Chaturvedi, usually a vehement cheer leader of the dynasty, called for “an honest and ruthless introspection”. Priya Dutt, daughter of Indira Gandhi worshippers Sunil and Nargis Dutt, spoke of a “disconnect” between the leaders and the people.
Perhaps the most important critical note was struck by Milind Deora, a respected new-gen leader and close friend of Rahul.
He was smart enough not to blame Rahul directly. Instead, he said Rahul had advisers who had no electoral experience and were still calling the shots. He then explained: “My comments are out of emotions of deep loyalty to the party and a sincere desire to see us bounce back.”
Three years after that baring of the heart, new—and shall we say more senior—voices are being heard about the now-or-never moment the Congress is facing. Jairam Ramesh is an unblemished Congress loyalist and an unflinching Indira loyalist, as his new book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature testifies. It must be heartache that made him say that the Congress was facing an existential crisis.
Every point he made was timely and important: Modi and Shah think differently, act differently and if we are not flexible in our approach we will become irrelevant, frankly; we must recognise India has changed, the Congress has to change; a collective effort by party leaders to overcome the challenges is essential. JR was not being negative. “On the contrary, I think there is a lot of goodwill for the Congress, but people want to see a new Congress,” he said.
There was no disenchantment with Rahul Gandhi; in fact he asked for an end to the uncertainty about Rahul becoming the President of the party. Manishankar Aiyar, the resident loyalist of Rajiv Gandhi and a man who brought some bold thinking into governance when he held office, joined JR in calling for a new Congress. As he put it: Congressmen should look at reality; we have only 44 members in the Lok Sabha. We need new ideas, new thoughts, new methods to be relevant.
Will such sober voices be heard? No chance.
The Gandhis do not hear what they don’t want to hear. And there are enough “veterans” to humour them in self-interest. When Jairam Ramesh said the sultanate was gone, “but we behave as if we are sultans still”, tired old Sheila Dikshit asked whether he wasn’t part of the sultanate? Tired old Veerappa Moily said the party should have zero tolerance for indiscipline. Tired old K V Thomas referred to the grand sacrifices made by people like him and mocked the Congress leaders who came through the back door. These are the rusted minds that sustain the unsustainable dynasty raj and lead the Congress to destruction.
People applauded the unusual conclave of party leaders under the inspiration of Sharad Yadav in Delhi recently. The reason was that it gave a ray of hope that a united Opposition might emerge. Undaunted, Amit Shah went beyond his earlier ambition of a Congress-mukt Bharat and proclaimed that the BJP rule will go on for 50 years. With the support he is getting from Rahul Gandhi, this should be easy.