This time last year, the Congress was waiting for Rahul Gandhi to return from a sabbatical that stretched to 56 days. He landed on April 16 morning, as unexpectedly, to emerge in his front lawn. In the year since, Rahul has made an effort to be more visible. However, for a party with two governments striving for electoral survival and two governments toppled, its vice-president remains a leader just out of reach.
Now, rarely in a party with its famed high command, its leaders are replying in kind. As the BJP sharpens its slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat”, it’s these rebellions and minor revolts that are echoing in the Congress hollow at the centre.
The Congress in its 130-year history has seen many debilitating splits and high-profile exits. But Sonia Gandhi had used the levers of power deftly and swiftly to emerge all powerful after the choppy Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri years. At 18 years, she is now the longest serving Congress president ever.
It’s only in the Congress that this sounds like a compliment. But that’s just one problem. As party leaders say in private, according to the high command’s own plans, this should have changed by now, with Rahul becoming president. For many, it’s in this limbo between an almost-retired Sonia at 10 Janpath and the reluctant Rahul at 12, Tughlak Lane, that the Congress hangs. When the Congress rebels arrive in Delhi — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura and Kerala are just the known ones — they don’t know which address to head to.
The party can hardly afford this confusion. With the regime change in Arunachal and with Uttarakhand under President’s rule, the Congress is left in power in only seven states out of 29, and is the third wheel in a coalition government in Bihar.
Of the seven Congress-ruled states, Kerala and Assam are seeing polls, while Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur are in the Northeast, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the total population. Himachal is battling rebellion, and its Chief Minister corruption charges. That leaves just Karnataka. While the state goes to elections only in 2018, anti-incumbency looms large against the Siddaramaiah government there, and former CM S M Krishna has put this in writing to Delhi.
Overall, just 11 per cent of the population of the country is now under Congress rule (excluding Bihar), in comparison to the over 36 per cent under the BJP. If the Congress loses in Kerala and Assam, the figure will come down to 6 per cent, a historic low.
Since the Lok Sabha poll shocker in 2014, many state leaders have left the Congress — G K Vasan, Jayanthi Natarajan, Himanta Biswa Sarma to name a few. The Congress central leadership failed to intervene decisively on time in all these cases. It either dithered or remained indifferent, too wary to disturb the prevailing satrap.
In most cases, criticism has been levelled at Rahul’s door, with rebels accusing him of being inaccessible. After the Uttarakhand rebellion, one of the dissidents said, “Rahul Gandhi has time to meet JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar but not his own party MLAs.” Even those partymen who refute the charge concede that while the vice-president meets leaders from across the country, the problem is indecision.
Over a month ago, Rahul met top leaders from Tamil Nadu to assess the party’s poll readiness. What transpired was an unexpected and across-the-board venting against state Congress chief E V K S Elangovan. P Chidambaram is said to have even told Rahul plainly that with Elangovan at the helm, he would like to stay away from election efforts. Neither the state chief was replaced nor any meaningful efforts made to douse the anger.
Cut to Uttarakhand. When the Congress high command replaced Vijay Bahuguna with Harish Rawat as CM in January 2014, the understanding was that two of Bahuguna’s loyalists would be inducted into the Cabinet. Rawat did not oblige, despite repeated reminders from the central leadership. What’s more, Rawat dropped senior leader Amrita Rawat from his Cabinet.
Only in January did Rawat form a committee for coordination between the party and state government. But the only meeting of the panel was held in February. Since the revolt, Bahuguna and the other eight rebel Congress MLAs have accused the central leadership of not giving them time for talks.
Kedarnath MLA Shaila Rani Rawat says Rawat ignored her demands for jobs for the region after the 2013 floods, while her efforts to get an appointment with Rahul, “three times in the past two years”, failed. “Every time, I was asked by his office to contact Ambika Soniji. But she could not help. When Rahul came to Kedarnath in 2014, I met him to tell him the state government was not approving my proposals for Kedarnath. But he did not talk on these issues.”
The Arunachal story is all too known. Dissidents demanding Nabam Tuki’s removal as CM claim they were not given an audience by Rahul despite camping in Delhi for months together. AICC general secretary in charge of the state V Narayanasamy denies this. According to him, both Sonia and Rahul had one round of talks with the rebels in the middle of last year, after which it was heard that they were hobnobbing with BJP leaders. They did not meet the rebels after that.
In Himachal, the rebels, who are chafing at “concentration of power” with CM Virbhadra Singh, say meetings with Sonia and Rahul got them nothing. While a Cabinet minister says they are not about to join hands with the BJP, he adds, “Rahul Gandhi and Soniaji are well aware of the scenario. Ministers don’t have powers to even transfer a peon.”
Himachal PCC president Sukhwinder Sukhu openly talks of “lot of grievances” against the Virbhadra government. “For example, appointment of chairmen and vice-chairmen of PSUs. Elected representatives are totally marginalised. No regional balance has been maintained.”
In 2013, the high command, acting on rebel complaints, had even instructed Virbhadra Singh not to appoint more chairmen and vice-chairmen. He went on doing so, and the number now stands at around 40.
However, apprehensive of what an angry Virbhadra might do, the Congress leadership is not likely to touch him. Instead, they are banking on the CM prolonging his legal options in the corruption cases he is facing till elections in December 2017.
Other individuals too have been holding the high command to ransom. The Indian Express reported in December last year about tapes purportedly showing that Ajit Jogi and son Amit played a key role in withdrawal of the party’s nominee from the 2014 Antagarh by-elections. While Amit was expelled, Jogi senior, a CWC member, has not been touched. The A K Antony-led committee is still “holding a probe”.
In Kerala, CM Oommen Chandy has had his way on giving tickets to MLAs and ministers facing charges. Rahul has often taken a strong and public position against this, but Chandy threatened to stay away from contesting, and the high command buckled.
Earlier, in Punjab, Amarinder Singh compelled Delhi to appoint him the state unit chief after hinting that he would otherwise form a separate outfit.
In West Bengal, Rahul wanted the Congress to explore the option of aligning with the Trinamool Congress. The state unit prevailed, and the party is now in an arrangement with the Left. The result is that there is a rebellion now in its Tripura unit, with leader of the Opposition Sudip Roy Barman resigning.
In Manipur, while peace has been bought by hastily appointing T N Haokip as the new state party chief — after 25 of the 47 Congress MLAs (in a House of 60) threatened to join another party — rebels are also demanding a Cabinet reshuffle.
Accusing existing ministers of “arrogance” and “non-cooperation” towards Congress workers, a dissident MLA echoes others in saying little development has taken place in Manipur, and whatever little has happened has taken place without the approval of the area MLA. “What exactly are we going to go to the people with when the elections arrive?”
While Rahul remains an easy target, party leaders point out that both he and Sonia go by the advice of general secretaries, the AICC pointspersons on issues related to state, and that the latter are not entirely without blame.
“There is no change in the decision-making pattern. What is happening now is the failure of the people in charge of states,” a Congress general secretary says. “If a general secretary wants to meet Rahul, immediately he gets time. When they themselves fail, the blame is put on the Gandhis…”
Citing the week-long ticket distribution drama in Kerala, a senior leader from the state wonders why Antony, who is known as the conscience-keeper of Sonia, did not intervene in time. “The ball would have never come in the high command’s court had he intervened. Antony could have told (PCC chief) V M Sudheeran that his demand that three ministers should not be renominated could not be met. Not because the demand was unreasonable but because grounding Chandy’s cabinet colleagues means conceding the entire allegations of the Opposition on the eve of elections. It is suicidal,” he said.
In fact, the leader says, Sonia’s suggestion that more women be given tickets was also not accepted by Kerala leaders, including Chandy and Sudheeran. Sources said Rahul specifically wanted a former AICC secretary, Shanimol Usman, to be accommodated, while Sonia was pitching for state Mahila Congress chief Bindu Krishna. Both did not get a ticket. “After Sudheeran became president, Rahul had told him to accommodate Usman in the PCC. He did not… It is unbelievable.”
A senior CWC member seconds this. “Both Rahul and Sonia take decisions in a very democratic manner. The general secretaries in charge can arrange a meeting with dissidents… The high command is helpless because the interlocuters are not doing their job,” the senior leader says.
At a recent meeting with Ambika Soni, Himachal leaders put up a united face. However, the rebels say her preoccupation with other states or matters is also a reason for the simmering disquiet. “It’s easier to meet Sonia Gandhi than Ambika Soni or Rahul,” remarks a senior MLA.
Soni is also accused of delaying action in Uttarakhand till too late. While the nine rebel Congress MLAs appeared before the Governor on March 18 against Harish Rawat, she and other leaders from Delhi reached Dehradun only on March 30.
“The Congress has a unique culture. It acts at the postmortem stage, not when the patient is terminally ill. If it fails to act when needed, why cry over loss?” an MLA adds.
Says a senior leader, “It is not Narendra Modi but our people who are working to ensure a Congress-mukt Bharat.”
The solution may lie in changing the team. But two years after the party’s worst electoral performance, the wait for a shake-up in the AICC has proved unending. “The same faces are continuing,” says the CWC member.
Adds a senior leader, “Rahul should display leadership qualities… People who have messed up states are still continuing. What happened to those who advised madam wrongly on the division of Andhra Pradesh. Have their heads rolled?”
There is little chance of a change anytime soon either. Says the senior leader, “A set of seniors cannot agree with Rahul’s style of functioning and Sonia is finding it difficult to make the changes.” A senior leader from Uttar Pradesh says he once asked Sonia to take the lead. “She told me she does not have the energy left to lead a fightback.”
Another important functionary says, “I shudder to think about the Congress’s future. When RG (Rahul) takes an incorrect decision, I can’t rush to CP (the Congress president) to complain. She guides us politely, saying, ‘talk to Rahul’.”
Where do they go, asks a CWC member. “Even the CWC is not meeting regularly. Since 2014 May (when the Modi government took over), the CWC has met twice or thrice with specific agenda. Where will we articulate our views?”
The BJP has been watching closely, and the one interpretation it draws from Rahul still not becoming Congress president is that the party doesn’t have much confidence in him, in a Rahul vs Modi battle in 2019.
Having given the “Congress-mukt Bharat” slogan back in 2014, it now senses in this vulnerability of the party a chance for a “satta-mukt” Congress. This is why the strike in Uttarakhand, despite elections in the state being only a year away. As for Arunachal, the Northeast occupies a special place in the Sangh Parivar’s idea of Rashtravaad.
In the BJP plans, by December 2018, the Congress should be out of power in all major states in India. In the run-up to the 2019 polls then, the BJP would focus on regional stalwarts, who don’t provide a national contest.
If the Congress has a plan, it isn’t showing. In BJP-ruled states, except in Rajasthan, one doesn’t see the political work required to exploit anti-incumbency. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, gains of by-elections and local body polls have been withering away.
Asked about their plans, a senior leader of the Gujarat Congress said, “We are resting.”
[With additional reporting by Ashwani Sharma, Lalmani Verma & Esha Roy]