Can love arise in such an instantaneous, almost insolent way? When Rajiv took her hand as they were walking in the shade of the ancient walls of the cathedral, Sonia had no strength to pull it back. That warm, soft hand transmitted a feeling of immense, profound safety and pleasure. She could not pull her hand away.”
This is Spanish writer Javier Moro writing in The Red Sari, the dramatised biography of Sonia Gandhi, about her deep bond with murdered husband Rajiv Gandhi. The atmosphere here is imbued with a sense of destiny, as if capricious fate, mantled in ambition and ruthlessness, waited in tomorrow’s gloaming to anoint the young girl born in a small Italian pastoral setting with the inevitability of tragedy, sacrifice, and power. Reaching out through the spaces of tumultuous years, the spectral touch lingers. The Congress party is firmly in Sonia’s grip.
As Congress keeps losing election after election, national and regional, clamour for the Gandhis to walk away from the bridge of the 137-year-old ship has grown in decibel. It has been a while since the floundering vessel has created a wave. Its hull is covered in barnacles of sycophants, opportunists, petty dynasts and regrets. T
his is not the first time that dissenters are scrambling for the lifeboats of rhetoric and moral marketing. The cacophony started in 2020 when the implacability of Narendra Modi finally dawned upon them as the historical nemesis of a pre-Independence dynasty.
Last week, in the echo chamber of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the lofty pedestal of sequestered ambitions and derivative delusions, the faithful expectedly chanted for the Gandhi reign to continue.
A year after the Congress lost its return ticket in 2019 and Rahul Gandhi quit as party head, 23 party veterans and former ministers had written an open letter demanding change at the top. The acronym-obsessed media gleefully labelled the rebels G-23. It comprised five former chief ministers, some CWC members, MPs, and former Union ministers—all were Gandhi loyalists of different densities. They rooted for Mukul Wasnik, former Youth Congress president, to take the vacated seat.
Wasnik had just turned 60 and married his long-time sweetheart Raveena after decades of bachelorhood. He has an impeccable political pedigree. His father was a three-time Congress MP from Maharashtra. And he had a term more. He was first NSUI president and then headed the Youth Congress. He was a Union minister. But the chance to husband a party he was wedded to for over four decades was denied by a furious Sonia.
A sympathetic family friend-cum-politician claims the agitated Gandhi materfamilias fumed, “Who do these people think they are? My mother-in-law and husband were murdered serving the country. What right do they have to talk like this in public?” In public, however, she chided them about venting through the media. “What should get communicated outside the four walls of this room is the collective decision of the CWC,” she announced at a meeting in 24, Akbar Road.
Sonia was defending not just the past of her family, but the future of her children. Unlike Wasnik, Rahul remains married to the party though not as its official head. He quit in 2019, a casualty of the Modi hurricane, and had promised no Gandhi at the helm.
A helpless promise, it was. This March, after the five-state humiliation, interim party president Sonia reportedly offered the family’s resignations from all posts as the “ultimate sacrifice in the interest of the party.” There was a chorus of support from old retainers like Ashok Gehlot who wants Rahul back in the catbird seat; he is ever grateful that Gandhi Jr backed him against Sachin Pilot’s Assembly hall putsch.
The Gandhi cohort Mallikarjun Kharge’s excuse for the rout was that Sonia “alone is not responsible.” Politics is a labyrinth of obscure meanings, even more so in the Congress where nuances are read even in the movement of shadows, perfected over a century of conspiracies and coups. Is there a blasphemous subtext to Kharge’s words, suggesting that Sonia too is responsible for the party’s defeat, along with every state leader, MP or party official? The ventriloquist would not answer though the dynasty was absolved of all blame once again. Scapegoats were found as is the case every time—all five state chiefs where the party lost have been sacked.
The CWC is the Vatican of the Congress party and the infallibility of the Gandhis is irrefutable. The first instance of this exonerative predilection showed up in 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi lost the general election to a ragtag coalition led by disgruntled rebel VP Singh, and the Congress’s best-ever historic majority slipped from 426 MPs to 197 in the Lok Sabha. When Rajiv walked into Parliament after captaining his party to its first decisive defeat, all the newly elected Congress MPs rose as one and thumped their desks wildly, applauding his entrance.
For the first time, a party boss who had lost an election was not cast out or sidelined, but was, instead, hailed as a conquering hero. The Gandhi political gene is uncowed, both then and now. In end-1977, months after Indira Gandhi lost the post-Emergency general election, the Congress split into two factions, one supporting Indira’s claim to be party president and the other opposing her comeback. I
n December 1977, seven members of the 20-member CWC quit and joined a rival convention held by Indira to challenge the leadership of Congress chief Brahmananda Reddy and parliamentary leader YB Chavan. On January 1, 1978, she got her old job back, with nationwide support from breakaway Congress leaders. Wearing a sari and a tilak on her forehead, both bright red, the colour of Mars, the God of War, she declared at the convention that she was back in business.
Political scholar and founder of Mainstream weekly, Nikhil Chakravarty had written, “The leader’s charisma did not add to the strength of the party; it rather added more and more to its irrelevance.” History is having a redux moment. Over four decades later, Sonia Gandhi has survived many challenges to her political position in the organisation. Last Sunday, too, she won the day; only her sari’s colour was deep blue, reflecting the mood at the party.
Ultimately, many powerful pro-Indira leaders like Devaraj Urs themselves were forced out, formed their own Congresses, and faded away. Except for Sharad Pawar, a prominent bête noire of Sonia. She had staked her claim to be premier after the Vajpayee government fell in 1999. In an interview in 2018, Pawar had said, “I was at home when I came to know from media reports that the Congress president had staked claim to form the government. That was the moment when I decided to quit Congress.” Pawar has been at the forefront of Opposition efforts to forge a non-Congress-led front against Modi and the BJP. And slyly against the Gandhis, too.
This time he had backed the Samajwadi Party strongly in Uttar Pradesh. Sonia sees him as a hurdle to Rahul’s national rise at the helm of a new united Opposition. In 2008, when some Congress leaders mooted Gandhi Jr for PM, Pawar famously declared that it was “too early for Rahul”. Other parties in the UPA coalition-backed Pawar’s view. It was Dr Manmohan Singh whom the grand Maratha supported for 7, Race Course Road. At 51, Rahul is not the same idealistic wunderkind who spoke passionately about the starving widow Kalawati in Parliament.
He has too many miles going nowhere on his odometer. On his watch, the Congress lost Parliament twice. Its clout waned in UP and Bihar. In the Northeast, it is a non-entity. It was vanquished in all southern states. In spite of Shashi Tharoor’s clever spin on its relevance of possessing the largest number of Opposition MLAs (753 to BJP’s 1,443), the Congress is in power only in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Put in context, both the AAP and the Congress rule two states each. The latter is just a junior partner in Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Driven by Rahul and Priyanka, the party could win in only 54 constituencies across the 110 Assembly segments they were defending in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Punjab. “It is only because of Madam that Rahulji is surviving.
After her time, it will be difficult for him to control the party,” says an old-time loyalist from Rae Bareli who was once integral to family operations. People like him have slowly drifted away from the Gandhi nucleus as they see a different system in operation. Why does G-23 publically, and many Congressmen privately want the Gandhis to cede control? Their common grouse is Rahul’s inept helmsmanship.
He is disconnected from the grassroots. He is reliant on a cabal. He is inconsistent and lacks staying power. He is unable to assume responsibility for mistakes and defeats while continuing to make decisions. In spite of breakfast diplomacy, senior opposition leaders from other parties do not accept him as an equal.
The current crisis gathered storm first in Punjab. Sonia kept silent when her children allowed Navjot Singh Sidhu to queer the pitch and drive out the very man who, as her husband’s close friend, had given the videshi bride hospitality. At the CWC meeting last Sunday, she admitted that it was wrong of her to have shielded the Captain for so long. The families share history. Rajiv and Sonia had holidayed at Amarinder’s Patiala palace after their wedding in 1968.
His sprawling farm at Chail was a favorite recharge spot. By humiliating his father’s friend, who Rahul privately thought was too “entitled”, Sonia allowed her son and daughter to write the Congress obit in Punjab where a victory had seemed smooth and predictable. Rahul trusted his man in Punjab, Harish Rawat, who colluded with Sidhu to overthrow Amarinder;
Rawat had threatened to quit and form a new party if he wasn’t projected as the future Uttarakhand CM. But he lost the election. Rawat is a discredited politician, booked by the CBI after a video surfaced of him offering MLAs money to defect.
With such disastrous political miscalculations on his job sheet, it is no wonder that Rahul’s campaign moxie has slipped. Numerous local leaders are not always welcoming of Rahul’s election efforts in their areas for fear of his faux pas. They disapprove of his imperious ways and quick temper. Campaigning during the last Assembly elections in an important northern state, a powerful ex-royal was forced to give Rahul small chits of paper mentioning the name of the local icon.
Until the speech was over, he was on tenterhooks, because a single mispronunciation would mean an insult and hence loss of votes. After the subsequent victory, a parade of Congress MLAs were organised at 12, Tughlaq Road, Gandhi Jr’s home, for inspection. Strangely, Rahul took time to place the name of the leader who commands the loyalty of about 18 MLAs, according to his disgusted representative. Gandhi Jr’s decision-making system in the Tughlaq Road war room resembles a space capsule rather than a political leader’s intricate, interconnected feedback and decision-making system.
While other Opposition politicians dial their colleagues in other parties, cultivate independent relationships and seek mutual advice over tea, dinner, or a glass of Scotch, Rahul exists in a rarefied space of his own, sparsely populated by a few close aides. For example, veteran grassroots politicians like Kerala’s Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy resent the clout Rahul has accorded KC Venugopal, whom he appointed as party secretary.
Venugopal is considered a political upstart in Kerala, but nevertheless, one powerful enough to get colleague PS Prasanth reportedly sacked for protesting to Rahul. Gandhi Jr has implicit trust in Venugopal, and had given him an important role in distributing Lok Sabha tickets in 2019 since Rahul himself was caught up in a grueling nationwide election campaign. The reason why Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sushmita Dev, Jitin Prasada, and RPN Singh quit Camelot is not just factors like Venugopal. Rahul is often inaccessible to his closest people.
Others see no prospect in continuing in the party, or reward for their loyalty and commitment. General Secretary Randeep Surjewala claimed that Congress was defeated by the anti-incumbency feelings against 4.5 years of Amarinder rule. The royal tweeted back the truth. “The @INCIndia leadership will never learn! Who is responsible for the humiliating defeat of Congress in UP? What about Manipur, Goa, Uttrakhand? The answer is written in BOLD LETTERS on the wall but as always I presume they will avoid reading it.” AICC insiders say that Venugopal and Surjewala are as thick as thieves who guard the gates to Rahul’s presence.
Centralisation of power, whether by Indira or Modi, is a common trait of strong leaders. In Rahul, the trait is a weakness. He may have resigned as party chief, but continues to take all important decisions—power without responsibility. Strategy meetings about states are always held at 12 Tughlaq Road. The decision to appoint Sidhu was taken there in the company of sister Priyanka.
Now, Priyanka has a war room of her own with large TV screens, video projectors, and high-tech comms, in her mother’s house at 10, Janpath. Ironically, Sonia’s residence is larger than 7, Race Course Road, where Dr Singh lived as prime minister for a decade—nearly 1,000 square meters less. Priyanka chaired UP poll strategy sessions and manifesto committee meetings.
The final ticket list was drawn up. In spite of having state-of-the-art command centres where party strategies are discussed and deployed, Rahul seems tactically inconsistent. He had raked the Modi government verbally inside and outside Parliament over Chinese intrusions in Indian territory and the Galwan fiasco. Yet he does not walk the talk. Gandhi Jr is on a Parliamentary Committee that visited Galwan last year. It includes some BJP parliamentarians and a prominent southern Congress MP. Rahul, who had promised to be present, had not arrived. The Indian Army General on the spot was waiting to explain the situation to the delegation, but the former Congress president was a no-show, much to the disgust of his colleague who was getting calluses on his fingers dialing his wayward boss.
Senior Opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal give Rahul a wide berth. In their eyes, he is not a serious politician but a privileged dynast who has been foisted on his party. In early August 2021, Rahul threw a well-attended breakfast at Constitution Club for Opposition parties. His wingmen had worked hard to ensure full attendance. The Congress called it a “historic day” and a “trailer” for things to come. But the breakfast bonhomie did not last longer than the coffee to grow cold.
In early February, Banerjee called for a united Congress-mukt Opposition front. “Congress will go its way,” she said. Suddenly, after the decimation of the Grand Old Party, there is blood in the water. Opposition leaders compete to be the leadership glue for an alternative to Modi in 2024. In the anti-Modi vista, the obvious new players are a cautious Akhilesh Yadav, the aggressive Mamata Banerjee, the amiable Uddhav Thackeray, and an ambitious Chandrashekar Rao. The urbane Naveen Patnaik keeps an enigmatic distance from political mudslinging while MK Stalin is the only credible leader offering a viable economic federal option to Hindunomics. Rahul seems nowhere in the picture.
UP may have written the epitaph of Rahul’s political career, although his mother perhaps only reads the footnotes. When it became clear that Gandhi Jr, feeling betrayed by his rout in Amethi by Smriti Irani in 2019, was unwilling to take responsibility for the last UP campaign, Priyanka was rolled out as the ‘brahmastra.’ Congressmen, in the beginning, waxed eloquent about her “Indira-like” mien and style. But theirs was pure Pavlovian sycophancy and desperate optimism.
A housewife with an empty nest syndrome, she initially projected herself as the CM face against Yogi Adityanath but hastily backtracked. Which alone indicated that they were aware of the election’s future. The Gandhi siblings lack the stomach for a ruthless siege nor do they have Amit Shah’s street smarts.
Shah cobbled together a social coalition in UP that combined Hindutva and a new beneficiary class created through social aid. It was not that past governments did not splurge taxpayers’ money on freebies. Rajiv had famously said about subsidies that only one rupee out of every hundred rupees reaches the intended recipient. In the Age of Modi, the BJP scores on last-mile delivery.
Fear of official retribution has whittled down middlemen. Between Modi, Shah, and Yogi, all four populist vectors of dynastic politics, Hindu exodus, caste, and Dalit arithmetic, and effective law and order were enjoined to build the perfect war machine. Modi continued to target the Congress because he knows even in its debilitated state, it is the only other national party with an ideology and legacy. Priyanka in UP had little to show except slogans meant to evoke female pride—“ladki hun, lad sakti hun.”
Banerjee was able to offset the nearly 50 percent Hindu vote spike in West Bengal by rallying the women behind her. Priyanka’s attempts to mix soft Hindutva with concessions for women could not withstand the saffron Big Three’s skillful manipulation of the need, fear, and hope matrix.
In UP, Shah held rallies during the day and party meetings at night. He worked on the ground, overnighting in local hotels and spartan government guest houses, confabulating with workers and leaders, and undertaking door-to-door campaigns.
Priyanka held over 200 rallies and roadshows and had converted Sheila Kaul’s sprawling bungalow in Lucknow’s posh Gomti Marg as her nocturnal refuge and brainstorming scene. Shah took direct feedback from people in charge, abjuring the usual yes-men filters the Gandhis have in place. He also changed his former brusque leadership style; unlike Rahul, he remembers the name of every local worker.
This time Gandhi Jr was content to give sis the field: he didn’t do a single political rally, and hence cannot be blamed for wrecking the show. Priyanka’s rallies were well-attended, but she failed to cash in on the interest. Sweeping the floor of a converted jail makes a good photo-op, not a vote-getting act. The state Congress is organisationally moribund: there were few workers manning the booths nor were election agents visible in most places—obviously Priyanka had failed to put Humpty Dumpty back together.
“The problem with both the children is that they lack nuances. Politics is about nuances, not a unidimensional rush of wasted energy,” intuits a Congress Rajya Sabha MP regretfully. Surprisingly, none of the senior Congressmen spoken to wished to be named; the High Command, the euphemism for the ruling family, still strikes terror in almost all disloyal hearts.
The elections for the new Congress chief are promised for August or September. Going by historical precedent, one of the three Gandhis will be chosen. They have their defenders, too. A long-time Rahul associate since the 1970s huffed, “Where were the G-23 hypocrites when Rahul and Priyanka were getting arrested and assaulted at Hathras?
They cannot even leave their air-conditioned rooms and take to the streets.” Kapil Sibal last week had coined ‘Sab ki Congress’ and ‘Ghar ki Congress’. “Can Kapil win an election? Let him fix Chandni Chowk,” snapped an MP, who had left the Congress last year. Clearly, the G-23 doesn’t command much respect.
However, the ‘Ghar ki Congress’ holds all the cards. The Congress and the Gandhis are locked in a mutual circle of dependency—they need each other. Without la familia, many party men feel that the organisation will disintegrate. Numerous small factions could emerge in the absence of a single focal figure to take up the mantle. The Gandhi matriarchs had seen to that since Indira began decimating her own leadership ranks. Congressmen feel safer under the Gandhis, even if the party is decaying.
“The government would go after a new leader since many of them face corruption cases. A powerful leader like Chidambaram was jailed. But if Modi targets the Gandhis, they will become martyrs and unite the party and may even revive the Opposition,” says a businessman-politician who has been part of the ecosystem for decades.
The party’s vote share has been steadily falling under the Gandhis. The biggest Congress vote share of 48 percent was in 1984, stirred up by Indira’s assassination. This fell below 40 percent for the first time in 1989 and then below 30 percent in 1996 where it remained before plunging to below 20 percent in 2014. In the 2017 UP Assembly elections, the state vote share dived to 2.3 percent from 6,4 percent and candidates lost deposits in 97 percent of the seats.
Historically, a national vote share of just over 20 percent is all that is needed for a party to have its own PM. Pundits calculate that if the Gandhis are able to take the Congress vote share from 19.5 percent to around 25 percent, the game will change.
However, the unanimous view is that both young Gandhis lack a larger vision, tenacity, and openness. “Politics is constant action. A leader must be in 24/7 election mode, not just wake up a few months before an election,” complains a former minister from the Northeast.
The next, and probably last chance for Rahul at political legitimacy will be in December when Gujarat goes to the polls. War was declared at the Dwarka Declaration in February—Covid-masked Rahul, wearing saffron gamcha visited Dwarkadhish Temple with sandal paste smeared on his forehead and carrying a big filigreed basket of offerings. He told the Congressmen, “Had I been against the BJP for 25 years, then my confidence would have also shattered. But I come from New Delhi.”
The Delhi elixir may explain his persistence in the High Command, but Rahul was a different man in 2017. He was the party boss. He was backed by veteran Congress leaders. He campaigned vigorously against Modi and the BJP, played the Hindu card by visiting 27 temples and brought together OBC, Dalit and Patidar leaders together under one umbrella—through the late and sorely missed Ahmed Patel was the unseen hand behind this outlier social alliance. Exit polls then predicted that the Congress had bested its 2012 performance and got 42 percent of the votes—a three per cent rise from 2012. According to BJP insiders, the performance had rattled the party.
Since then Modi and Shah have gone the extra mile to prevent a nervous repeat. In 1985, the Gujarat Congress under Madhavsinh Solanki won 149 out of 182 seats in the state elections, a record that even Modi has been unable to break. He is determined to cross it this time.
The Congress is a different story in the western state. Most senior or influential leaders have crossed over, or have yielded to the allurement of joining the BJP. Resources are scarce. The AAP has worked expansively but quietly; the municipal election results are a wake-up call to its foes.
A demoralised Rahul may not rediscover the idealistic crusader within. It was in Gujarat that Modi first took him seriously as a contender. And it was in Gujarat where Rahul launched his 2019 campaign from the tribal village Lal Dungri, as Indira Gandhi had in 1980, Rajiv in 1984, and Sonia in 2004, to take the throne of Indraprastha. This time, Rahul will have to defeat Rahul to keep the family name remain solvent in national politics'.
The solution to the revival of both the Gandhi name and the Congress lies with the Gandhis themselves. “Let them keep the party presidency, but announce that the prime minister will not be a Gandhi. This is the elephant in the room. People are afraid that Rahul will become the PM if they vote for Congress. The problem is the solution and the solution is the problem,” says a former Rahul confidante. The Gandhis overcame the Ides of March last week. How Rahul Gandhi navigates the chill of Gujarat winter this year will decide if the Congress can come out of the cold again.
The Gandhi political gene is uncowed, both then and now. In end-1977, months after Indira lost the post-Emergency general election, the Congress split into two factions, one supporting Indira’s claim to be party president and the other opposing her comeback.
Between Modi, Shah and Yogi, all four populist vectors of dynastic politics, Hindu exodus, caste and Dalit arithmetic, and effective law and order were enjoined to build the perfect war machine