Sunday, Dec 21, 2014

The Sunday story: Silence

“Rahul has to be active in Parliament. There is no other alternative,” says an MP from Kerala. “Rahul has to be active in Parliament. There is no other alternative,” says an MP from Kerala.
Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi | Posted: August 17, 2014 12:20 am | Updated: August 17, 2014 10:41 am

Three months after the poll loss and months away from fresh elections, DISGRUNTLED voices are growing within Cong, but so far there is no word from the TOP on road ahead.

All those who love the Congress believe in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. They are our leaders and they will continue to lead us,” A K Antony tells The Sunday Express. That’s hours after the staunch Sonia loyalist has handed over to the Congress president his three voluminous reports on the reasons for the party’s worst-ever poll performance and what could be the corrective measures.

These are lines that Congressmen close to 10 Janpath have memorised over the years, but have chosen to iterate increasingly over the past three months, perhaps to reassure themselves and those around them on the indispensability of the Nehru-Gandhi family at the core of the Congress. For, never before has there been so much scrutiny on the family from the party’s rank and file.

However, if anyone was hoping for some stirrings of a change from that end, they were dealt another blow on Thursday, the last day of the Parliament session. Having shown new aggression by entering the Well of the House for the first time ever — over rising incidents of communal violence — Rahul chose to chicken out of the debate on the issue, to the dismay of partymen.

Such half-hearted attempts at leadership, however, have been the hallmark of Rahul’s tenure so far. As the Congress rank and file waits, increasingly impatiently, for the First Family to bare its thoughts on the way ahead, the mother and son have rarely stepped out of Delhi in the last 90 days since the results. A collective brainstorming — a chintan shivir, as the party likes to call it — or even an extended AICC session that many expected, has not taken place.

The only time Rahul has been seen in action since May 16 was at Badaun, after two allegedly raped cousins were found hanging, during one of his token visits.

With no direction from the top, the party remains rudderless and most chaotic in its recent history, impacting both its organisational activities and its work in Parliament at a time when a crucial round of Assembly elections is knocking at the door.

The only visible change, sources say, is that Sonia, who had taken a backseat because of health reasons, is again in full control. Sources say the decision to let Chief Ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan continue and delay the replacement of Tarun Gogoi in Assam were solely hers. Her imprint was also visible in the selection of Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad as the Congress’s leaders in Parliament.

Ever since the defeat, Sonia has also been meeting leaders from across the country, taking their feedback. The “Speak to Rahul also” message that she used to give earlier no more follows such meetings.

Waiting for restructuring

Days after the May 16 shocker, Sonia had called for “structural changes” in the party. The Congress Working Committee, where she spoke about it, duly authorised her to take “whatever steps necessary in order to revamp the organisation at all levels”. It has been three months, but ask any Congress leader about the changes, their reply is “your guess is as good as mine”.

The party has not been able to even reconstitute the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee which was dissolved in June or to find itself a new president in the state to replace Nirmal Khatri. Sources said even the appointment of district presidents has proved a challenging task, with powerful satraps putting roadblocks, one of the indicators of the erosion in the authority of the high command after the defeat.

The anger in the UP Congress is running so high that at some places, local Congressmen have refused to attend meetings with visiting AICC secretaries, asking them to instead send general secretary Madhusudan Mistry.
Known to be close to Rahul, he was the party’s surprise choice as in-charge of UP during the elections. The Congress’s tally of two in a state with 80 seats didn’t win Mistry many admirers.

“No one repairs a ship in the midst of a storm. But now the winds have subsided. It is time we repair the ship. But then we do not know what is playing in the minds of the leadership,” a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh says.

“It cannot be business as usual after such a defeat,” says another leader. “The CWC met once and after that nothing has happened. We were told that the leadership is awaiting the report of the A K Antony committee. Now let’s see what happens.”

Even Mistry himself wanted the dismantling of the AICC after the election defeat. It may have been posturing, but that is a view shared by many.

Former MP and UP Congress leader P L Punia, however, claims changes are around the corner. “Three months is not a long time. The Antony committee has come up with its findings. Changes, I am sure, will happen in the coming days.”

Meanwhile, the Congress’s Haryana and Assam units are facing rebellions though the party has been able to placate a sulking Narayan Rane in Maharashtra. In Haryana, following several desertions, the party is desperately trying to hold back rebels.

Waiting for Antony

Antony said that his party’s apparent proximity to minority communities had led people to doubt its secularism. Antony said that his party’s apparent proximity to minority communities had led people to doubt its secularism.

He is St Antony for many in the party because of his clean image. To the high command though, A K Antony’s value lies in another quality of his — of a man who speaks less and reveals even lesser. He is believed to know Sonia’s mind and enjoys her confidence. So none was surprised when he was entrusted with doing the post-mortem of the polls.

A senior Congress general secretary describes the move as “a safety valve”. “Pressure was mounting in the Congress and partymen were given a forum to vent their anger,” he says.

The Antony report is meant for Sonia’s eyes only, but he has revealed its tone and tenor. Rahul cannot be held responsible for the defeat, he justifies to The Sunday Express. Dismissing the voices of discontent, he adds: “Many of those who are criticising the leadership have left the party or are on their way out.”

Notwithstanding their desperate hopes regarding the report, not many really expect any immediate or tectonic shifts. A party general secretary who admits to a rising impatience in the ranks says: “The Congress is like a ship whereas the BJP is like a boat. A ship cannot be turned so easily. So, it will take time, but surely there will be some changes here and there.”

One of those easy changes could be a reshuffle and some organisational course correction. Sources say the communication department could be the first to see an overhaul. The leadership is seriously re-looking its communication strategy, factoring in the impact of the social media.

Organisational elections will follow after that. The party has already set in motion the once-in-five-years polls — from the block level to the Congress president’s post. Sonia’s fourth term as party chief — she is already the longest-serving Congress president ever — ends in 2015.

Rahul wants the AICC office-bearers — general secretaries and secretaries — to be elected. But it is to be seen whether he will be successful in that.

Waiting for Priyanka

Priyanka Gandhi. Priyanka Gandhi.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has scotched all speculation about her formal entry into politics and taking up a leadership role, but she continues to be Rahul’s biggest emotional strength. Sources say she spends considerable time at his 12 Tughlaq Lane residence and is a constant presence at strategy sessions.

“She often tells me that Rahul has immense trust in me and asks me to work hard. Rahul never interacts like that. He straightaway gets down to business at meetings,” a wistful young leader who is a regular at Tughlaq Lane says.

Many of the young leaders though believe that the on-off media talk about Priyanka’s entry into politics is the handiwork of some old leaders. “There is definitely an attempt to drive a wedge in the family by some elder leaders who have not been able to come close to Rahul. Both Rahul and Priyanka realise this. The family is very close that way,” says the young leader.

Waiting for Rahul

Rahul Gandhi Rahul Gandhi

The 43-year-old Congress vice-president’s reluctance to lead the party from the front in Parliament and his tendency for “cameo acts” both inside and outside the House continue to upset the leaders, prompting many to question his approach and seriousness.

“Many of us asked him to speak in Parliament on the communal violence discussion. He had come to the Well of the Lok Sabha with us. The party had decided to attack the government on this issue, but then it did not happen,” a Congress MP says.

There was some confusion, another MP confesses. He says Congress MP from Kerala M I Shanavas, who had given the notice for the discussion, was indicated that Rahul might initiate the debate. But in the end, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge did and many party leaders admit it was simply a disaster.

The BJP fielded the fiery Yogi Adityanath from the other end, and he carried the day.

“Rahul has to be active in Parliament. There is no other alternative,” says an MP from Kerala.

The task for the Congress in the Lok Sabha is anyway uphill. It has to make 44 look like 144. But, party leaders admit its leadership in the Lower House — particularly Kharge — has not been up to the mark. The Congress has neither been able to rally the opposition forces to mount a credible challenge to the government, nor has it shown the grit to do it on its own.

“We have been all over the place in the Lok Sabha whereas the Opposition has been combative in the Rajya Sabha,” an MP says.

Kharge started off well, drawing the Pandavas-Kauravas analogy to argue that the Congress cannot be suppressed because of its depleted strength. But as the session progressed, that aggression proved short-lived.
The Congress was also better at identifying issues in the Rajya Sabha where it could rally the Opposition, though its better numbers there helped. For instance, while the party could not push the government to agree for a discussion on the Gaza conflict in the Lok Sabha, it could do so in the Upper House. The issue of price rise too was used to target the government.

Even the Nitin Gadkari bugging issue saw the Opposition disrupting the Upper House for a couple of days, while the Congress could not make much of an impact in the Lok Sabha.

The isolation is so much that the floor leaders of the AIADMK and Trinamool Congress made it clear that they did not want to share front-row seats with Sonia and Kharge, apparently because they do not want to be seen in Congress company.

“That is true, but there has been coordination in the Rajya Sabha with the same parties. How so?” a UPA MP asks. “The Congress leaders, be it Sonia or Rahul, have to reach out to the opposition parties to strike a working relationship. They should have a give-and-take approach.”

Waiting for ‘internal democracy’

Many of the young leaders who interact with Rahul regularly say he is actually frustrated because of the dogged resistance he is facing from the old guard to the changes that he wants to implement. Cornered like never before, he has reportedly decided to play the waiting game.

For instance, Rahul met heads and members of the screening committees appointed for candidate selection by the party in the states going to polls later this year. “He met many of us individually. We knew he wanted the primaries experiment that he implemented in the Lok Sabha elections to be taken forward. But he was silent. It is a fact all of those who got tickets through primaries lost, but more than that he has realised that even that experiment was manipulated. In many seats, undesirable candidates won the primaries through use of money power,” a former Congress MP considered close to Rahul says.

“Everyone is attacking him for the democratisation process that he implemented in the Youth Congress and NSUI. But what about his other ideas, like not giving tickets to those who joined the party on the eve of the elections and not renominating those who had lost two consecutive elections or had lost by more than 15,000 votes? All these were given a go-by,” another young leader argues.

Rahul, those close to him say, is now choosing his battles. Despite his friendship with Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, he went with the Congress state unit’s overwhelming view that the party should snap ties with the National Conference. While Omar has gone on record to say that it was he who had told Sonia that his party wanted to fight elections alone, top Congress leaders contradict that.

“When he met Sonia, he only said we had to take a decision since many in his party and the Congress suggested parting ways. We took a decision,” a top Congress leader says.

Similarly, in Maharashtra, the sidelined former chief minister Ashok Chavan is back in the reckoning, as head of the coordination committee for the elections. He had been sacked because of charges of corruption — a pet issue once of the Congress vice-president.

On the other hand, Rahul has strongly rebuffed all criticism about internal elections in the Youth Congress and NSUI. “There may be flaws. Every new system has. But he has told us that there will be no going back on the democratisation process,” a senior Youth Congress leader says.

Consequently, Rahul asked NSUI office-bearers and state presidents to “elect” their new president, doing away with the nomination system and taking forward the democratisation process earlier this month.

Similarly, the Youth Congress was last month asked to make changes in its election system to address grievances but its leadership has been told that the system of internal elections will continue.

The silver lining for the party perhaps is that Rahul has started becoming more regular in Parliament, as well as taking more interest in legislative business. His attendance in the session that just ended was 76 per cent, up from an average of 42 per cent in the last Lok Sabha. As for Bills, one hears that Rahul personally spoke to the president of the Congress’s women’s wing seeking her inputs on the Factories (Amendment) Bill that allows women to work in night shifts.

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