The letter by 23 Congress leaders, all of whom have a long and trusted association with the party, should not normally have raised such an alarm in 10 Janpath. After all, an ailing Sonia Gandhi last year had herself hesitantly accepted the post of temporary party chief, till the vacancy was filled. Rahul Gandhi has reiterated repeatedly that he is not interested in returning as party president and Congresspersons should not seek appointments with him to discuss party matters. Last year, his sister Priyanka was quoted as saying someone other than a Gandhi could lead the party. On the face of it, it appeared eminently reasonable after a year to suggest that in the circumstances someone should be elected to take over from the reluctant Gandhis to end the drift and uncertainty in the party. The letter proposed that an institutional mechanism for collective leadership be put in place.
But for the Congress, the first family is sacrosanct and even a hint that another can take its place, unless specifically nominated by the Gandhis themselves, amounts to no less than treason. In the Congress, the term high command is a euphemism for the Gandhi family and nominations, not elections, are the norm. And even the courageous letter writers have in the past been direct beneficiaries of the patronage system, courtesy the first family.
The chorus of outrage from Congress chief ministers, state and party’s frontal organisations was expected. At one stage it looked as if a breaking point had been reached, when Rahul Gandhi was reported to have accused the ginger group of being in league with the BJP. But then hot-headed tweets from both sides on these lines were hastily deleted. But the letter writers have probably burnt their boats in the Congress anyway.
Why would seasoned politicians, including the leader and the deputy leader of the Rajya Sabha, several former chief ministers and members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), make such a suicidal move? The party’s past history has shown us that any attempt to sidestep a Gandhi is bound to lead to an unhappy ending. Sharad Pawar learnt this the hard way in 1999 when he raised the question of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins. Sitaram Kesri found himself unceremoniously bundled out of the president’s office when he had the temerity not to quietly hand over his resignation letter as demanded. Narasimha Rao paid the price for presuming that once he was prime minister he did not have to consult Sonia Gandhi on every little decision.
The movers of this rather risky initiative seem to have been driven largely by genuine concern for the future of the party. But they were also conscious that they are remnants of the old order and would have little place in the new, when Rahul Gandhi formally takes over. Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma’s days as leaders of the Rajya Sabha are numbered with Mallikarjun Kharge likely to take over as leader. Personable faces like Shashi Tharoor, Raj Babbar, Manish Tewari, Prithviraj Chavan and Milind Deora realise they are being slowly rendered irrelevant, since Rahul Gandhi has his own set of favourites.
In one sense, the letter might have backfired and pushed Rahul Gandhi into the driver’s seat earlier than he intended. In Congress circles it was understood that Rahul Gandhi would eventually return as president. The only question was when. Rahul Gandhi has dragged his feet, because he wants an assurance that he will be given a totally free hand. Unlike his mother who sought consensus and took the guidance of a brain trust of seasoned hands, Rahul Gandhi is deeply suspicious of the old guard, whom he regards as compromised and status quoists. His pent-up anger spilled over when he stepped down last year as president after the Lok Sabha debacle, with the Congress down to an abysmal 52 seats. Rahul Gandhi accused the Congress leadership of ignoring the party’s strident slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai” and showing blatant nepotism in demanding seats for their sons.
After a stormy seven-hour meeting on Monday, it was agreed that the decision on leadership would be left till the next CWC meet and Sonia Gandhi would continue as president in the interim. It is likely that Rahul Gandhi could then formally take over as party chief. Until now, Rahul Gandhi’s position is that he is not in charge of the party, even though all key appointments in the last few months were cleared by him and his tweets are assumed to be the official views of the Congress. It was Rahul Gandhi’s sweeping powers without any accountability, which is perhaps one of the incentives for the letter.
The silent majority in the party may, like the rebels, also have reservations over Rahul Gandhi’s return, especially without his mother’s moderating influence. But they are shrewd enough to keep a discreet silence. Historian Ramachandra Guha recently dubbed Rahul Gandhi as a dilettante as seen by his inability to speak Hindi fluently after 16 years in politics, his poor choice of slogans and lack of single-minded tenacity. Rahul Gandhi’s selection of key aides has upset Congress seniors. K C Venugopal is clearly out of his depth in the key position of general secretary (organisation). A failed politician like Randeep Surjewala has rubbed many the wrong way as media adviser. An additional concern is that a majority of the people Rahul Gandhi has handpicked as his advisers and speech writers are not even from the Congress stable. They are academicians and activists with little grass roots experience and a leftist tilt, which is at variance with the Congress’s middle-of-the-road worldview. The overnight elevation of complete outsiders further irks the veterans. A mercurial Hardik Patel was appointed working president of the Congress Gujarat unit, much to the chagrin of a number of senior leaders.
The rebellion by the Congress stalwarts will undoubtedly be quashed. As the party stands today, a Gandhi at the helm is non-negotiable. But will the suggestions in the letter for collective leadership, reviving genuine debate in the CWC and the parliamentary party also be ignored? If the well-meaning advice from trusted loyalists is brushed aside, then the 135-year-old party is moving towards an existential crisis and the nation will not get the strong opposition party it deserves.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2020 under the title ‘If Congress does not listen’. The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express
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