Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar and his deputy Dushyant Chautala could well end up as casualties of the farmers’ agitation. A Jat farm leader, Dushyant has been fielded to defend the government’s farm Bills and he has per force to agree. Dushyant is aware that seven of his 10 JJP MLAs support the farmers’ protest and can bring down the government. Former Congress CM Bhupinder Hooda is waiting expectantly in the wings. Dushyant, however, does not want to surrender the perks of office. After all, his family spent 16 years in the wilderness. Even grandfather Om Prakash and father Ajay have benefited from his stint in power, securing long paroles. Dushyant’s unilateral style and tough talk have alienated his MLAs and he calculates they could leave regardless of whether they join Hooda or not. Dushyant is banking on the Governor not calling an early Assembly session for a no-confidence vote.
Since Congress high command remains unresponsive to its demands, the G-23 rebels led by Ghulam Nabi Azad realised the only way to challenge the Gandhis’ suzerainty was to insidiously rope in the UPA allies, none of whom want Rahul to head an electoral coalition. The trial balloon to make Sharad Pawar UPA chairperson was floated by the Congress ginger group and has infuriated Gandhi loyalists. Meanwhile, the impasse over appointing a new president persists because Sonia Gandhi would step down only to make way for Rahul, but her son, after resigning following the defeat in the 2019 general elections, would like to defer taking formal charge. He would prefer to wait till 2022, when the present presidential term ends. A nominee of Rahul as president, the most likely choice being Mukul Wasnik, is unacceptable to many.
The Modi government, coasting on its success in handling the fall-out of abrogating Article 370 and the introduction of CAA, did not bargain that it would not be so easy to ride out the storm brewing in opposition to the farm Bills. Its attempt at subterfuge failed. In July, when the then Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Badal objected to the ordinance for barrier-free farm trading, she was assured that necessary changes would be made when the Bills make it to Parliament. The Akali Dal walked out of the NDA when it realised that the Centre was not planning to alter its proposals. The unity of the farmers and their willingness to dig in their heels for the long haul took the Centre by surprise. The well-organised Sikh farmers can afford to sit tight in Delhi since their wheat fields do not need to be tended to till late February. Surprisingly, it is the normally combative Amit Shah who has displayed the most flexibility, while his Cabinet colleagues and the PM have hardened positions. With his ear to the ground, Shah realises it is politically counter-productive to attack farmers and Sikhs. The farmers have smartly distanced themselves from political parties and not allowed any individual to act as spokesperson. When intellectual and aspiring politician Yogendra Yadav tried to assume this role, he was asked dismissively by one doughty peasant how many volunteers he had actually brought to the protests.
After Ahmed Patel’s death, it was claimed that henceforth the Gandhis would speak directly to party members without intermediaries. But the Congress first family remained elusive. The only contact with Rahul is an early morning Twitter message which is sent between 8 am and 9.30 am, either paying tributes, offering birthday greetings or taking potshots at the BJP. The tweets are normally composed by Vineet Punia of the Congress media cell, not Rahul. Sonia continued to excuse herself from giving appointments to senior leaders on the plea of ill health. The sole exception was Kamal Nath, who met her more than once. Some speculated that Nath could get a bigger role in the party, others that the discussions concerned the AgustaWestland deal. But on Saturday, Sonia finally met the dissident letter writers. Significantly, Nath was also present.
Plans for an expansion of Modi’s Council of Ministers have been in the offing for long, but frequently put off, most recently due to Bihar polls and farmers’ agitation. It is an astrologically inauspicious period from mid-December, so those waiting for good news, including Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushil Modi, will have to be patient. Meanwhile, a few ministers have far more than their fair share of portfolios. For that matter, even governors are juggling more than one state.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 20, 2020 under the title “Shaky position.”