It is not in the DNA of the congressmen to rebel against the party leadership. A majority of them have lived in this belief that the Gandhis know what is best for them and the party. There is touching and undying faith in their charisma to navigate the destiny of the Congress party even through thick political fog. Hence the letter written by 23 senior Congress leaders is unusual and significant. The letter writers are all Gandhi loyalists, who displayed their collective anxieties at Rahul Gandhi’s ambivalence to take over the presidency of the Congress and how the organizational drift was hurting it dearly at a time when the country was pining for an effective opposition to question the government on China’s military intrusion on our land, the economy ravaged by the pandemic and bad governance, and the willful destruction of the country’s democratic institutions. The denial of question hour in the monsoon session of Parliament is no straw in the wind. It’s yet again a grim reminder that the BJP government at the Centre cares little for convention or protocol, indeed, not even sacrosanct parliamentary traditions of an established democracy.
The letter and the acrimonious 7-hour discussion that followed in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) suggested sharp differences over the absence of leadership in these dark and harrowing times. It also brought to the fore complex issues, which if not resolved within the party, could lead to a split in the party.
If one looks at the list of signatories of the letter addressed to the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, one would realize that nearly all of them are those who are perceived to be loyalists that are known to surround the Gandhis. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is one of them. Azad, who has prospered in the party due to his proximity to the Gandhis, was the unlikeliest to show unhappiness with the drift in the party. The letter that he has signed highlights what his group of 23 and many congressmen are feeling — the absence of leadership at the top and how the party is being pushed at the margin. Later, he also said that the Congress could sit in the opposition if it does not bring about corrective changes in the organization. A Congress leader from UP, the State where he was General Secretary in-charge for years, claims that Azad had done great harm to the organization by reposing faith in wrong people and taking some very bad decisions about building flawed alliances with regional parties. “Congress in UP has shrunk due to some of those decisions. Surely he can’t be the one advising our leadership about how to revive it”, he says.
Indeed, a leader who is not seen to be fighting within can hardly fight enemies that challenge him from without. That is a crucial lesson for Rahul Gandhi, not only emerging from the on-going struggle within the Congress party, but as a lesson from important historical junctures of history in India and the world, including in the freedom movement, and the manner Adolf Hitler was allowed to rise by a weak and fractious opposition.
Another UP state leader wondered what kind of grievance Jitin Prasada, another signatory, could have from the Gandhis. His father, Jitendra Prasada, considered to be close to the Ambanis, contested against Sonia Gandhi for the presidential post at the Kolkata AICC session in 1997. During the run up to the party polls, people like S Gurumurthi, and some media persons with close ties with the RSS, were seen strategizing for Prasada and helping him buy support in the Congress Presidential elections.
To the credit of the Gandhis, his candidature was not resented and Prasada remained an important person in the Congress’s scheme of things till he died suddenly. In fact the claims of his son and wife were not overlooked after his death, and Jitin was made a minister in the UPA government. And for all those who judge people by optics, he was seen to be a close friend of Rahul Gandhi. Still, he was on the threshold of joining the BJP in the 2019 parliament elections, but it seems that the deal fell through.
The detractors of the group, claim that they were a privileged lot and their political fortunes were woven around the Gandhis. Hence, they had little reason to pontificate how the party should be run. Also, they never questioned the lack of internal democracy in the Congress as long as the party was winning and they were in power. After two electoral losses, they are finding fault in everything that Rahul has done.
What they choose to ignore is that the Congress has won so many state elections since 2014 or came precipitously close to wresting them from the BJP, as in the state of Gujarat. Rahul shouldered bulk of the burden of campaigning and proved amply that he was capable of leading the party even against the BJP that had accumulated gargantuan resources and its leader Narendra Modi had built enormous sway over the masses by controlling the media and the narrative.
What made the BJP particularly formidable was the control it exercised over the judiciary and the moneybags like the Ambanis, Tatas, Adanis etc. Six years in power, it is becoming clear why these corporate houses including a few crony capitalists love the BJP.
In return for all the favors that this “ business friendly” government has extended to corporate houses, they help in managing the narrative, and also in controlling opposition political parties. Understandably, many of the Congress leaders in G-23, have close ties with corporate houses that had also benefited when the Congress or its other avatar, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power. This lot is most uncomfortable with Rahul Gandhi raising stink on corruption and attacking Adani-Ambani on Rafale aircraft deal etc.
It is apparent that the tension in the Congress party is not just to democratize the organization, but also deeply ideological. Rahul Gandhi is seen to be skipping the imperative to be a middle of the road leader and is pivoting closer to a darker shade of the Left. Understandably, he has been critical of the NDA government’s economic policies and holds Modi personally responsible for the grand mess that has become the Indian economy. He is the only leader in the entire opposition space who is openly and consistently taking on and criticizing Modi and the RSS. During the UPA rule, it was Rahul again who wanted the probe into Hinduttva terror taken to its logical conclusion. Others like Shivraj Patil were allegedly opposed to targeting the RSS.
What’s ignored is that the Congress has won so many state elections since 2014 or came precipitously close to wresting them from the BJP, as in the state of Gujarat. Rahul, in their reckoning, shouldered the bulk of the burden of campaigning and proved amply that he was capable of leading the party even against a party that had accumulated gargantuan resources and built enormous sway over the masses by controlling the media.
If he is also prevented to criticize Modi, as many of his party men want, there would be no one to blow the whistle on the growing democratic deficit, erosion of secularism and the manner in which the country’s vast public assets are being stripped and siphoned off to Modi’s favourite crony capitalists. Due to demonetization first, and later a badly planned lock down, millions of jobs have been lost and small and medium enterprises have shut down. Lockdown has also given an opportunity to the government to smother dissent. Youngsters have been packed off to jail under draconian laws for protesting peacefully.
DURING HIS EARLIER engagement with his own party leaders, Rahul has frontally attacked many of them for not criticizing Modi and for allegedly being in cahoots with him. It’s a damning charge that made many senior congressmen during the 7 hour long CWC to sit up and hit out against Rahul. It was only after he clarified that he was not referring to them that they were mollified.
The truth, though, is that Rahul Gandhi wants the Raj of this well funded coterie to end. When Rahul resigned after owning up responsibility for the 2019 debacle, the least he expected was that all CWC members would also submit their papers. Either, his status-quoist mother, Sonia, encouraged them to stay in the CWC, or they thought his resignation would allow them to breathe easy as he may not return. They complained of his abrasive ways and impatience with senior people, treating them extremely shabbily.
Rahul, according to people close to him, viewed many of these senior leaders as not just corrupt, opportunist, outdated and inefficient, many of them have been parasitically surviving and flourishing at the back of the Gandhi family, while some others have been enjoying power without contesting elections or working on the ground or having any mass following. They are mostly the Rajya Sabha types. Indeed, it was reported that some of them were indeed feeding BJP’s campaign against him to show him as a nitwit, amateurish, a political greenhorn, and thereby branded derogatorily as a ‘pappu’. This was war a between the young turks, if they can be called that, and the entrenched veterans, and none really won except the BJP and the corporate houses that want to gain control of the Congress party and the opposition.
The CWC meeting may give an impression of a settlement, but, clearly, it is not. In the absence of real democracy that allows serious discussion on the policies that the Congress should follow to challenge the majoritarian rule, there is strong likelihood that the party may split. If that happens then it would be a tragedy as the Congress party nor Rahul has the ability to rebuild the organization like Indira Gandhi when she booted out the “ syndicate” that wanted her to listen to them.
Certainly, this is also the time for the party to internally debate on the issue of secularism and how it should defend its core values in the light of harebrained recommendations by the AK Antony Committee to project the party as not opposed to the Hindus. To disabuse this notion, the party leadership made Rahul Gandhi to temple hop in Gujarat. He was also ambivalent on how far to oppose the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) or the construction of Ram temple.
If Congress can end these confusions without splitting from the middle then it can take advantage of the groundswell of hate, bitterness, disgust and desperation welling up against the government for botching up the handling of the pandemic and the economy whose GDP has tanked by -24 percent. The lakhs of dislikes in response to the last Mann ki Baat of Modi is just another indicator.
Indeed, Rahul Gandhi cannot be a leader who is seen to be fighting within as he would not be fit enough to fight enemies that challenge the party and leadership from without. That is a crucial lesson for Rahul Gandhi, not only emerging from the on-going struggle within the Congress party, but as a lesson from important historical junctures of history in India and the world, including in the freedom movement, and the manner in which Adolf Hitler was allowed to rise by a week and fractious opposition in Germany without a vision or commitment to fight fascism on the ground.
Rahul Gandhi, if he survives this crisis and assumes the presidency of the Congress party, then he should pay heed to the letter that demands the party to build a secular coalition to take on the challenge of BJP.