Published: March 10, 2015 - 13:56 Updated: June 16, 2015 - 15:03

The conflict of opinion over Rahul Gandhi’s usefulness or otherwise to the party is potentially damaging for the organisation, its members and the values that made India

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

On February 8, people voted in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for different reasons. Some for the freebies that AAP offered, but many voted to build a vocal opposition to the BJP. “We voted for the BJP in the parliamentary elections and now we are voting for a party that can keep them in check,” stated a wise vegetable vendor. “Why did you not vote for the Congress?” He was very matter-of-fact: “The Congress seems to have disappeared. No one came to ask for our votes.”

Even if the sabziwallah was exaggerating the Congress’ low visibility—there were some hoardings of party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and chief ministerial candidate Ajay Maken smiling sheepishly—eight months after a serious drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections, the party still did not find favour with the voters. This was despite the fact that the mother-son combine of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi had campaigned in Delhi. Rahul had even led a successful ‘road show’ in outer Delhi. The Delhi results, despite the national ramifications, yielded nothing for the Congress. Its vote share slipped by 15 percent to an abysmal 8 percent. If one compares it with the phenomenal support that the party got in 2008, this is indeed an ignominious fall.

What has gone wrong with the party? Why have the masses lost faith in the leadership of the Congress? Such queries albeit with varying spins have been furiously bandied about amongst party supporters and voters. There are many who worry not for the fading leadership of the party, but for the Congress—the party that epitomised the values of the freedom movement led by the likes of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Azad and other towering leaders—wondering what will happen to everything the Congress has stood for all these 130 years: secularism, economic inclusion, scientific temper and, most important, its endeavour to build an enlightened liberal society. Quite visibly, a sustained hate campaign against the Congress leadership, and against its values, encouraged many to believe that the India of tomorrow only needed development and did not have to obsess over secularism anymore. Worse, it was perversely pronounced as ‘sickularism’ by the hate brigade to mean the party’s love for minorities. Gargantuan corruption scandals pushed the Congress on the defensive and it was unable to defend at the hustings its gains or the values that it stood for.

What perhaps compounded the problems was the confusion over Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. After a string of losses under him in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he did not seem capable enough to give a heft to the party’s plummetting fortunes. What hurt the Congress more was the young Gandhi’s pathological dislike for the old guard. He just did not want anything to do with them. Even during the election campaign to the Assembly or Parliament, he would try to use the network of the Seva Dal or other NGOs related to the party to organise his public meetings—which is why they were mostly so poorly attended. He gave an impression that he could do without the support of the so-called traditional Congressmen and win elections. It became clear how wrong he was!

Reports of sharp differences over how to run the party had been heard from sources close to the Gandhi family with the party President reportedly suggesting to her son that he should take everyone along. Contrarily, Rahul, many were suggesting, just did not have anything to do with them and was not really concerned about partymen quitting the organisation. If indeed the Congress seemed non-existent on the ground during the recent Delhi Assembly elections, this could also be attributed to the fact that many leaders felt unwanted in Rahul’s dispensation and did not step out to campaign. What was also visible was the manner in which the party, under the leadership of chief ministerial candidate Maken, was running down the achievements of the earlier Sheila Dikshit government. The net result was that those people who out of nostalgia may have voted for the Congress felt discouraged by this indifferent attitude of the new order.

This series of setbacks has not chastened the sycophants who believe that these humiliating losses take nothing away from the platinum standard in leadership that Rahul represents. They want him to be given more responsibility as the party President on the specious plea that he did not get a free hand to run party affairs. This is hogwash. If one speaks with any Congressman, it is evident that in the last couple of years —ever since Sonia fell ill— it was Rahul who was taking key decisions. A recent anonymous email circulating in Congress circles has exposed the fiction being propounded earlier that it was not Rahul who was taking all the key decisions. All the PCC chiefs, including Maken, are his appointees. Powerful General Secretaries like Madhusudan Mistry, whose final report had advised an early division of Andhra Pradesh and the creation of Telangana, are his nominees. Mistry’s informed advice had smothered whatever chances the Congress had of getting a decent number of seats. And there are many more who credit their misplaced rise to the young Gandhi.

As if this was not enough, the move to make Rahul party President has intensified. The argument aggressively made by the likes of Digvijay Singh and a few others is that he  should be given full authority to reorganise, rebuild and run the party. Sonia should be encouraged to release the reins of the organisation and allow her son to shape the party according to his imagination. This might just happen in the AICC session scheduled to take place in the next few weeks. Many in the party find this submission a recipe for disaster. Here is why.

In the Gandhi family and in the senior leadership there is clarity about why the Congress lost so badly in the parliamentary elections and why its performance refuses to improve. There is agreement that it was a vote against the “Gandhi-led Congress party”. So, even in those states where there was no BJP, people voted in large numbers for a regional option as in Seemandhra, Telangana, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. If there is recognition at the top that the voters don’t want any more of the dynasty, then should the recipe for change include more of the same thing? Such a move has suicide written all over.

As reported in an earlier article in Hardnews (November 2014), Rahul had promised some leaders he trusts and is fond of that he would reform the party - but did nothing. His promises are like that of a smoker who pledges to give up his bad habit, but cannot. Take his expression of resolve to build resistance against the NDA’s land ordinance. He had wanted to lead an agitation against the land acquisition Act that even had support from the BJP.

This issue had enormous potential for the Congress to reconnect with the farming community that had begun to get insecure about its land. All the non-BJP parties and people’s movements, too, got their act together. Even Anna Hazare, who had retreated to Ralegaon Siddhi, found it a reason to head to Delhi. And what did Rahul do? For a change, he did not go AWOL, but took permission from the party President to go on a ‘sabbatical’. Incidentally, this was also the Budget session of Parliament where the BJP was presenting its first proper Budget. Rahul’s disappearance sent the TV channels into a tizzy and left the Congress leaders fumbling. Which leader goes away to an undisclosed destination to ‘think’ when action is needed? Rumours of serious differences between mother and son over how to run the party began to circulate in Congress circles. There was also speculation over whether Rahul would really return soon to take charge. The more charitable response was that Rahul was tired and needed to introspect and reflect before he took over the party. But all agreed that the timing of the sabbatical could have been better.

His detractors suggest something more sinister. They hint at a deeper conspiracy when they provide answers to: Why did he go away at a time when the Congress could have put the BJP on the mat? Why is the Congress not trying to get its act together? According to some of these theories, the Gandhi family is under pressure from the BJP leadership to go slow and not do anything to antagonise them lest it invite retaliation. Hints are also dropped about the grief that could visit the Gandhi family on the National Herald case, which is considered an example of greediness dressed up as altruism. Lawyers who have gone through the National Herald case claim the Gandhis will need a friendly government to protect themselves. Hints are also dropped about the growing proximity between Sonia and the Advanis and her warm message to the BJP patriarch on his 50th wedding anniversary. There is plenty of gossip going around about the Gandhis. In brief, what they amount to is that the Congress under the Gandhis would no longer present a muscular opposition to the BJP due to their own problems. In some ways, it serves the interest of the BJP, too, that would not be uncomfortable with the thought of a distracted Rahul leading the Congress. In a perverse way, Rahul’s continuance will be underwritten by its opponent—the BJP government.

So badly trapped are Congressmen due to the complexities that dog the top leadership that they do not know how to change their circumstances. As a party, it has relied on the charismatic leadership of the Gandhi family to be in power all these years and many Congressmen cannot think of anyone else at the helm. Expectedly, they believe that replacing Rahul with Priyanka could be a gamechanger for the party. Much before Rahul was anointed as the successor to Sonia, there was a demand that Priyanka should lead the party. Her looks and the ease with which she interacts with people reminded many of her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. Her brother did not seem comfortable when it came to being with the people. Old-time Congressmen recall with awe how one speech of hers turned the tide against her estranged uncle, Arun Nehru, who had dared to contest against family ‘retainer’ Satish Sharma. Her fans had been canvassing about her vote-catching abilities and how the Congress could be revived only if she took brute control of the party.

It is this short-term solution that harried Congressmen look for every time the party gets a serious drubbing in the polls. After the Delhi Assembly elections, too, there were protesters outside Sonia’s residence, 10, Janpath, beseeching her to bring in her daughter to save the party. Slogans of ‘Priyanka lao Congress bachao’ (Bring Priyanka, save the Congress) found their way to news channels searching for the party response to the debacle. In some ways, it has become a ritual of sorts.

Will a greater role for Priyanka in the Congress really change much for the clueless party? If the last parliamentary elections are anything to go by, she had to work very hard to save her brother’s seat. Voters in Amethi no longer seemed enamoured of the Gandhi family. How Rahul won from his parliamentary constituency is still a mystery, but there is near-unanimity that, without the support of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, he could have lost to Smriti Irani. Next time, the story could have a different ending.

The general feeling is that Priyanka’s doubtless charm and charisma have begun to wane as she was not given space in the organisation at the right time. What has also not helped her cause is the plethora of allegations against her husband, Robert Vadra. Her active participation in politics could be hobbled by all the nasty charges of money-making against her husband and the sleazy company he keeps. All of them may see a revival if Priyanka enters active politics.

What has happened since the 2010 India Against Corruption agitation is that the masses are no longer willing to countenance a tainted leader. Both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal have no charges of corruption against them. Though Congress PM Manmohan Singh had no charges of corruption against him, he seemed too weak to fight off the venal. That’s why Modi used the analogy of a ‘chawkidar’ or a guard who will not allow anyone to steal public funds.

The setting of such standards eliminates many of those who fall within the arc of corruption investigation.

In many ways, leaders are defined by the kind of qualities the people are seeking in them. In Modi and Kejriwal, people found leaders who were beyond ideology and more keen to talk about kickstarting growth and creating employment than about secularism, which many uninitiated in the Hindutva agenda took for granted. The mirror cracked for those who saw the BJP as a modern rightwing party, when those who read Modi’s mandate as the triumph of the majority community began to vandalise churches or re-convert Christians to Hinduism. A communal riot in Delhi, the first in 30 years, also opened the eyes of many to the imperative of social stability in boosting growth.

The lessons of the Delhi elections compelled people and the ruling party, the BJP, to rethink on what kind of leaders they want to run their affairs. The Delhi results compelled Modi, who never criticised the Hindutva agenda in the eight months that he has been in power, to step out and commit to defending India’s
religious plurality.

The return of the issue of secularism allows the Congress to rediscover its mojo—if it’s serious about it. The rise of AAP, though, presents a serious challenge to the Congress as evidenced by the manner in which minorities shifted to it. The Congress’s attempt to show that AAP was the BJP’s B team did not wash, but the mood can change if the minorities and other traditional voters of the Congress do not feel enthused by the new party. If AAP occupies the rightwing space by sidelining the likes of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, then the Congress could reconfigure itself. The moot question is, does Rahul have the skills to ideologically make the necessary adjustments to lead the left of centre forces in the country? Till now, he has shown himself to be of the same ideological stock, in a certain sense, as Kejriwal and Co.

The Congress is at a cross-roads. If it is not able to get its act together then its irrelevance, as Jairam Ramesh claims, will increase. It would then be difficult for the party to stay together with many of the leaders under corruption investigation scattering evasively. Jayanthi Natarajan is a case in point.

If rumours from the Congress are anything to go by, the party could split many ways. And that could really hurt both the Congress and all the causes that the country has held dear since it became independent.

This story is from print issue of HardNews