As the incumbent Congress government in Madhya Pradesh grapples with a political crisis due to the revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia, parallels are being drawn with Maharashtra and Karnataka, where the incumbents lost power to their rival. A casual glance would reveal that this trend of overnight change in the fate of the incumbent at the state level was witnessed in the last five years in Goa and many states in the Northeast, signifying the emergence of a new political culture of ideological malleability in terms of the degree, if not kind.
However, the ongoing political development in Madhya Pradesh has a subtext that concerns the Congress, which delineates it from the seemingly similar events in other states in the recent past. While in other states like Goa and Meghalaya, the Congress failed to retain or form the government primarily on account of the shifting developments within regional parties like GFP in Goa, and UDP and PDF in Meghalaya, in Karnataka it lost the plot on account of the friction with its regional ally. Similarly, in Maharashtra, the BJP’s own house was intact and the loss of face was an outcome of its oldest but sulking ally Shiv Sena.
In this backdrop, what distinguishes the Scindia case is the fact that the crisis was not only purely internal to the Congress but was completely manageable. Factionalism is an indispensable feature of all the parties, which more often than not doesn’t become an existential threat. Therefore, to blame the same on the acrimonious plotting by the triad of MP Chief Minister Kamal Nath, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and Scindia would be missing the larger picture.
True, the crisis has its roots in the state but it got entrenched at the top level. It reveals the larger malaise afflicting the oldest party at the national level wherein ageing, outdated and anti-mass leaders find respectability at the expense of the capable and more dynamic ones with a connect to the masses. Worse, the dynamic ones are seen not only as a threat but are humiliated by the top brass, a majority of whom may find even winning a municipality election on their own a Herculean task. However, this doesn’t affect their sense of owning not only the party but the fate of the nation as a whole.
These self-appointed guardrails of democracy are single-handedly responsible for the Congress being completely wiped out from Andhra Pradesh, when the party arrogantly humiliated Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in the aftermath of the death of his father Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, where the party had returned after a hiatus of 15 years (2003-2018), a seasoned leadership would have naturally appointed someone who had the potential, age and popular resonance with the people. This requirement is all the more important when you are facing the Modi-Shah-led BJP at the national level and a rival like former CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan whose individual popularity remains intact.
The Congress forgets that it is not living in the era of Indira Gandhi, who most of the time could do the same and get away with not having to bother about the threat from institutionally weaker rival parties.
In the case of Madhya Pradesh, a two-phase study by the author before the election revealed categorically that while people were in a mood for change, they were qualifying it with the desire to see Jyotiraditya Scindia as chief minister. Even at that point, the understanding was that this popular desire would be frustrated as the other two factional leaders, Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath, would not like to see a young, popular but arrogant leader taking the political centre stage.
The party’s top leadership did the same and justified it as privileging experience over energy. Whatever the internal compulsions, appointing Kamal Nath over Scindia and going against the popular imagination in the age of populism is bad politics. Here again, the guardrails of the party had the last laugh. The situation worsened in the aftermath of May 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when contrary to expectations, the electoral fortunes of the Congress couldn’t be revived. In fact, Rahul Gandhi’s loss from Amethi when the much hyped Priyanka Gandhi was the party’s general secretary in-charge raised a question mark about the former’s continued leadership within the party. That Scindia was appointed as in-charge of western Uttar Pradesh didn’t make much sense.
To be fair, Rahul Gandhi resigned from the Congress president’s post taking moral responsibility and announced that no one from the family would step in after him. That generated a hope that the party was gearing up for a change of guard with a leader who would be more dynamic and erase the burdensome labelling of it being a dynastic enterprise. This was the chance to utilise the youthfulness and charisma of young leaders by the grand old party, which is witnessing an increasingly ageing profile of its leaders who are no more than a shadow of their past. The names of Scindia and Sachin Pilot were proposed for the new national president by senior leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh and Shashi Tharoor. But again, the guardrails blocked it, pointing to the party’s institutional mechanism wherein only the CWC could take the call. Finally the power chamber of the party, occupied by the biggest baggage any party could afford, persuaded Sonia to continue until Rahul could be persuaded to resume charge.
Think of this scenario: A person who was considered to be fit for the party’s national president was being sidelined at the state level by the ones who had already played their inning in politics and were hanging on to make a larger space for their sons. Scindia and the likes become an irritant in such a scheme of things. These guardrails of the party and the gatekeepers’ mindset not only hold the party hostage but also ensure that no leader outside their comfort zone, that is the Gandhi family, should be seen as a worthy claimant. Anyone who does the same would be ignored and humiliated, if required. Unfortunately, in today’s age of populism and ideological malleability, such aspirants have many avenues unlike the 1970s. It’s time the party makes space for a new non-dynast anchor, lest it should witness more muddy Holis than the one Scindia just ensured.
Political analyst associated with People’s Pulse Email: firstname.lastname@example.org