The Loneliness Of the Gandhis - SARKARI JOB INDIAN

The Loneliness Of the Gandhis


During an informal interaction with a group of citizens in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli city at the end of February, a teacher categorically told Congress leader Rahul Gandhi that he should assume charge as party president without any further delay. That’s the position the Gandhi scion relinquished in May 2019, following the Congress’s humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha election for the second time, consecutively. “Is that what you think? Do you think I should?” Rahul responded, with a nervous smile. His answer came as a surprise to many, as unlike in the past, he did not dismiss the possibility of his return to the top post in the party outright.

Dance, dance: Priyanka Gandhi with party supporters in Lakhimpur district, Assam, Mar. 1

Past continuous: Sonia Gandhi pays tribute to former PM Indira Gandhi on her 103rd birth anniversary

While his close associates in the party see it as a sign of a welcome change of mind, they have been trying to persuade him to formally take charge, it is perhaps also an acceptance of the inescapable reality that he better take decisive action before the Congress slips away from the Gandhi family’s control. While for the first time in Congress history, three Gandhis, Rahul, his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, are simultaneously active in politics, the family’s grip on the party has never been weaker. The trio is also getting increasingly isolated.

For the first time in two decades, a rebellion has been brewing against the party’s emblematic family, Rahul in particular. On February 27, seven senior Congress leaders, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha and Raj Babbar, assembled in Jammu in a show of strength and declared that the party was weakening and that they had come together to strengthen it. They are part of a group of 23 leaders, unofficially christened ‘G23’, who had written a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 seeking organisational overhaul and an “active and accountable leadership”. The last was a dig at Rahul, who had been functioning as de facto head of the party and yet was unaccounta­ble for any decision taken in the name of Sonia Gandhi, who had assumed interim charge after his resignation.

Many of these party stalwarts are reportedly upset with their increasing marginalisation within the Congress power structure. While some have remained silent, focusing on their core constituencies and home states, the group of 23 made their resentment official in the letter to Sonia after she completed a year as interim president. The assertion in Jammu came at a time when the Gandhi siblings have been focusing on the party’s campaign in the five states, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala, heading to polls in March and April. For both the Gandhis and the dissidents, the party’s performance in these state elections could determine the future of their political fate.

Solo Warriors

Their isolation is a fate the Gandhis have largely brought upon themselves. While Rahul remains aloof and critical of several seniors, Sonia’s failing health is widening the gap between the family and party. Besides, Sonia has been severely handicapped by the untimely demise of Ahmed Patel, who was her troubleshooter-in-chief whenever the party or the Gandhis faced any crisis. His acceptance among all sections of leaders and efficiency in backdoor manoeuvring helped Sonia, and on many occasions Rahul, nurse bruised egos, raise funds for the party and negotiate with allies. Most importantly, he enjoyed Sonia Gandhi’s absolute trust. “He was the primary line of communication between the party and the family. Now that it has snapped, the party and family are not always in sync. Rahul was always less accessible, now Sonia too has become beyond reach because of her ill health and Patel’s death,” says a Lok Sabha MP.

Rahul continues to rely on his loyal coterie’s advice rather than consulting seniors in the party on issues of national significance, such as the party’s stand on India’s on-going border tensions with China. It is this mistrust of senior Congressmen’s wisdom that veterans claim has led to Rahul’s isolation and the party’s troubles. Even now, during his campaign for the Tamil Nadu and Kerala assembly elections scheduled in April, Rahul has relied heavily on trusted aides such as K.C. Venugopal and Manickam Tagore rather than experienced heavyweights such as P. Chidambaram, Oommen Chandy and Shashi Tharoor. While the party’s first family has taken it upon itself to lead the campaign, depending again on its loyalists, they often seem out of sync with the cadre. For instance, when Priyanka Gandhi arrived in Assam in the first week of March, the itinerary was changed at the last minute. A visit to the Kamakhya temple was added as an afterthought, clearly exposing the communication gap between the Family and the local unit.

Meanwhile, Rahul’s efforts to appear as a down-to earth, man of the masses during the campaign for the current round of asse­mbly polls has met with mixed success. A few moments went down well, including Rahul jumping into the sea in Kerala along with fishermen for a swim. The Twitterverse swooned over his six-pack abs, revealed accidentally, at the age of 50, as well as his martial art skills. But there were gaffes too, chief among them his comment on the north-south divide, intended to woo the south Indian voter. “For the first 15 years, I was an MP in the North. I got used to a different type of politics. For me, coming to Kerala was refreshing as suddenly I found that people are interested in issues and not just superficially but going into detail in issues,” Rahul said in Thiruvanathapuram on February 24, much to the annoyance of his own partymen in the north and providing fodder to the Opposition BJP.

While his solo campaigns have yet to deliver the desired results, there has been no visible effort to ramp up the organisational structure of the party. Nor can one see any consistent ideological and strategic plan to counter the juggernaut of a BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Assam, for instance, while the party opposes the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, as it would provide citizenship to illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, it has tied up with the Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), a party perceived to safeguard the interests of Muslims of immigrant origin. This has diluted the advantage the party would have gained in upper Assam due to its anti-CAA stand. And while it seeks to project its secular credentials against the BJP’s alleged communal agenda, visits to a temple are becoming a part of every tour the Gandhi siblings make. “We are becoming a pirated version of the BJP,” says the Lok Sabha MP. “We need to come up with something innovative if we have to win back lost ground.”

Shrinking Space

All this is happening while the party’s geographical presence is shrinking steadily. Of India’s 30 states, it currently rules only three, Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and is junior coalition partner in another two, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. It is no more the principal opposition party in big states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, which together account for 240 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats. In the past two years, the party has seen its governments fall in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Puducherry, primarily due to the defection of Congress leaders. In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, one of Rahul’s closest confidants, switched to the BJP. In Rajasthan, another favourite of his, Sachin Pilot, almost deserted the party before Priyanka persuaded him to stay back with certain assurances. The party has seen large-scale defections in Telangana, Manipur and Goa, where it is not in power. Even in Maharashtra, though it’s a part of the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition, it faces an existential crisis as its two allies, Nationalist Congress Party and Shiv Sena, are eating into its votes. The NCP has succeeded in regaining the support of the powerful Maratha community while the Sena has emerged as the new darling of the secular voters in urban areas. The Congress is banking entirely on the 9 per cent Muslim vote, but they too are slowly drifting towards Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen).

In states where the Congress has won assembly polls in the past six years, the party either has strong local leadership or an organisational base, as evident in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. From Ashok Gehlot to Kamal Nath to Siddaramaiah, the regional satraps did not need the Gandhis to win elections or to survive. In Punjab, the party’s success owes more to Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s management and control. And when the governments in MP and Karnataka fell, the Gandhis remained mute spectators.

With most state stalwarts now either fading away or sidelined, the party is showing no sign of revival even in local body polls in various states. In Gujarat, where the party gave the BJP a tough fight in the assembly election two years ago, it suffered humiliating defeats in the local body polls, forcing state president Amit Chavda and leader of opposition in the Gujarat assembly Paresh Dhanani to resign. Besides maintaining its sway over urban voters by winning all six municipal corporations in Gujarat, the BJP also won all 31 district panchayat seats, wiping out the Congress. In the Surat municipal election, AAP (the Aam Aadmi Party) won 27 seats, displacing the Congress as the principal opposition in the civic body.

Hanging in the Balance

The fate of the party and its first family could now be determined by the outcome of the upcoming state assembly polls. Out of power in all these five states, a Congress win in at least two would offer Rahul the perfect opportunity to reclaim the party mantle. The Congress hopes to grab power in Tamil Nadu in partnership with the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), which outperformed the ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Tamil Nadu also accounted for eight of the 52 Lok Sabha seats the Congress won across India. Only in Kerala, where the Congress is now the prime challenger to the ruling Left Front government, did the party win more Lok Sabha seats—15.

For the dissidents, Rahul’s official ascent to the throne, fuelled by a positive electoral result, could mark the end of their political innings in the Congress. An adverse outcome, however, would give them an opportunity to launch a final assault on Rahul’s leadership. They had upped the ante after the party’s disastrous performance in Bihar, where Surjewala, one of Rahul’s closest advisors, had supervised the campaign. However, Sonia Gandhi, with the help of former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, bought peace and time from the dissidents, assuring them in December last year that organisational elections for the post of party president would be held by February 2020.

Meanwhile, Rahul’s aides had been persistent in trying to convince him to return as president. Uncomfortable with Rahul’s idea of letting anyone contest the presidential election, they believe that even a candidate officially backed by the Gandhi family would be an unsafe bet. They feared the dissident camp would field a candidate against any presidential candidate other than a Gandhi. “A dummy candidate, even if projected by the family, cannot guarantee a victory; it’s not the same as a Gandhi being in the fray. The rebels will certainly field a candidate. A contest will mean a vertical split in the party,” says a Rahul aide. When he did not relent, the presidential poll was further postponed, citing the coming assembly elections as an excuse.

The dissidents are now gearing up for post-election scenarios. If Rahul decides to contest the presidential poll, they may not have much in their arsenal to fight back. Their only recourse will be to discredit Rahul’s leadership to make him rethink his return. So, a day after the Jammu declaration, when Ghulam Nabi Azad, in another event in the region, tellingly sporting saffron headgear, praised Modi for being a ‘grounded’ person who did not forget his roots despite becoming the prime minister, this was wildly interpreted as an indirect hint that the Congress needs a mass leader from the grassroots, not a young dynast. The next day, Anand Sharma slammed the party’s decision to forge an alliance with the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a party formed in January by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui, in West Bengal calling it a communal party that the Congress should never align itself with.

Can the rebels win the day?

Many within the Congress, particularly the supporters of the Family, dismiss the dissidents as leaders without a mass base seeking official positions and influence within the party, including accommodation in the Rajya Sabha. The case of Azad, who retired from the upper house in February and failed to earn a re-election from the party, is cited as an example to buttress this argument. Sharma, for his part, has never won a Lok Sabha election and has always taken the Rajya Sabha route to power. Family stalwarts claim Sharma is upset because the party chose Mallikarjun Kharge, a Rahul loyalist, as the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha over him. Sharma had been expecting a promotion after Azad’s retirement. “Both are now hunting for a Rajya Sabha seat. Sharma, who is close to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, must have slammed the Congress alliance with ISF because it has the potential to damage the TMC. She may have promised to keep him in the upper house post his retirement next year,” says a Congress Lok Sabha MP.

Rahul’s supporters believe the rebels do not have the mass base or the organisational grip to inflict any significant damage on the party. “It’s better that they leave the party. They are not taking away any vote bank, as they have none. They have no connect with the party workers, so who will stand behind them? Their rebellion is restricted only to the media,” says a Rahul confidant. However, the fact remains that some of these leaders have won multiple elections. Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, for instance, has a strong mass base in the state and almost led the party to victory in the 2019 assembly poll. Manish Tewari is a two-time Lok Sabha MP. “Someone like Tewari will not risk his political career without a plan,” says a former Union minister who is part of neither camp. “I don’t believe he would have done so without support from Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh with whom he shares a close rapport. This group certainly has the backing of other big leaders who may not want to come out in the open right now.”

What goes against the rebels is that they are losing rather than gaining in strength. Though there were 23 letter-writers initially, only seven were present in Jammu. Some have already distanced themselves from this so-called ‘G23’. Shashi Tharoor, a third-time Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, has abandoned the rebel ship, and is now busy with the party’s preparation for the assembly poll in his state. Sonia Gandhi has also been successful in breaking away some of the rebels. Mukul Wasnik, a long-time family loyalist who had surprisingly turned rebel, switched sides within the first month of signing the letter in August 2020. He retained his position in the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the highest decision-making body in the party, and has additionally been made AICC in-charge of MP. Jitin Prasada was also inducted into the CWC and made in-charge of West Bengal. Recently, former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, another letter writer, has been made the chairman of the screening committee for the Assam assembly election.

The family loyalists are also quick to label this rebellion as a BJP conspiracy. In the CWC meeting held on August 24 last year to discuss the contents of the letter to Sonia Gandhi, A. Chellakumar indicated a “bigger political conspiracy” when he mentioned that Azad was the only one among opposition party leaders in Kashmir who had not been arrested after Article 370 was repealed in August 2019. Referring to Azad’s praise of Modi, a CWC member asked: “Which Kashmiri leader would praise Modi, who repealed Article 370, if he doesn’t have anything personal to gain from it?”

Independent observers, however, doubt if Azad has any plan to switch over to the BJP even though both are trying to extract mutual advantage out of these developments. “Both have the same agenda, to embarrass and humiliate the Gandhis. They are co-travellers in this direction, but not beyond this point,” says a Congress general secretary. Several veterans have also questioned the timing of the Jammu declaration, ahead of the assembly polls, as the internal discord may send out a wrong message to the voters. Rajya Sabha member and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi has said that the senior leaders could have contributed better and shown “true loyalty” to the party by actively participating in the campaigns in five states that are going to polls.

While Tewari asserts that he is ready to discharge whatever responsibility the party assigns for the forthcoming assembly elections, two other members of the rebel camp claim they are not consulted on any strategic plan of the party or made part of any campaign. For instance, they point out the despite his immense experience in forging alliances, Azad was not involved in the strategic discussions on the assembly polls. “I can’t go and campaign on my own. The leadership doesn’t see beyond a few favourites. Was there a CWC meeting for a collective brainstorming on the election strategies in five states? Who ratified decisions to enter into alliances in Assam and West Bengal?” asks a dissident leader.

Sonia’s secret strategy

While the impact of these decisions on the fortunes of the party and the warring factions will be known on May 2, when the results will be declared, Sonia Gandhi has been silently chalking out a plan to combat any eventuality. She has been scouting for at least a temporary replacement for Patel, till Rahul can find his own lieutenant, acceptable to all sections of the party. While Rahul has his own team of advisors in Surjewala, K.C. Venugopal, Ajay Maken and Rajeev Satav, they are not quite in Patel’s league. In February last week, Sonia had a long meeting with Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot at her 10, Janpath residence. Sources say she has requested the old war horse to take charge as Congress president if Rahul cannot be persuaded to assume responsibility. Some veterans have advised Sonia to let Priyanka take the reins of the party but she seems reluctant as it may become a double-edged sword. If Priyanka succeeds in revamping the party, it could bring down the curtains on Rahul’s political career. If she fails, it will only raise the decibels of the building chorus for the Gandhis’ exit.

While Gehlot’s elevation will leave no room for dissent as he has friends across the various party sections, the Rajasthan chief minister is unlikely to vacate his chair. Weakened by dissidence, the Gandhis no longer have the command and organisational strength to make Gehlot toe their line. “Gehlot successfully managed Pilot’s rebellion, showcasing that he doesn’t need the Gandhis’ support for survival. And the Gandhis don’t have enough strong leaders who can stand behind them in case they even think of any punitive action against Gehlot for disobeying their command,” says a CWC member.

This command can be regained only if the Gandhis showcase their political and organisational equity by winning elections. And in this round of assembly polls, the task for the Congress first family seems to be an uphill one.


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