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Monday, March 01, 2021

Congress needs a hands-on leader who enjoys the confidence of the party

Congressmen have left Congress earlier. But they were different leaders, and it is not the same party

Written by Mani Shankar Aiyar | New Delhi |
Updated: July 15, 2020 8:45:06 am
Congress president Sonia Gandhi with her children Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi pay tribute to Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary at veer Bhoomi (Express photo by Renuka Puri)

There is something of King Lear about Rahul Gandhi. Those he loves the most are the first to betray him. Those who he loves the least are those who remain with him. I should know…

His two best friends when he entered Parliament in 2004 were Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot. He was always closeted with them. Remember the famous wink? And Rahul’s statement that the only one who could wander into his home at any time was Scindia? It was their proximity to him that created the mythology of the older generation versus the younger, engaged in a life-and-death tussle to climb the maypole of prominence in the Congress. There were other youngsters who were more modest in their ambitions and in their achievements. They are the ones who remain in the ranks of the faithful. It is the high achievers who leave for what they believe to be richer pastures.

They are by no means the first to seek their fortunes elsewhere. My generation remembers Jayaprakash Narayan (who Nehru desperately hoped would succeed him), Acharya Narendra Dev, and Asoka Mehta who deserted Jawaharlal — but their departure was occasioned by ideology. They thought Nehru was insufficiently socialist. Rajaji left because he thought Nehru was way too socialist. It was not for loaves and fishes that they walked out but to find their way to what they believed would be a better India. Then came the Syndicate. They left when, to their horror, they discovered that Indira Gandhi was no one’s puppet — and trekked the long road into obscurity. Chandra Shekhar and his team of “Young Turks” broke ranks over policy: They did not find Indira Gandhi radical enough. They also complained that she was not secular enough. But once they compromised on principles and lent respectability to the saffron brigade, their Janata experiment collapsed like a house of cards.

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Rajiv, too, went through this. His favourite minister was undoubtedly Vishwanath Pratap Singh. His Scindia and Pilot rolled into one was Arif Mohammed Khan. His “powerful” cousin was Arun Nehru. Together, this merry band formed the Jan Morcha, then the National Front, then formed a government with the unequal crutches of the Left and the Right, and stumbled and collapsed in just about the time it takes to make a baby. That, in summary, is the fate of those who walk out of the Congress.

So, Pilot and Scindia may sing, “Cry for me, India”, and the media may join them, but the Congress is going to wipe its tears and walk away from them to its own Destiny. That will be more difficult than ever before for the remaining Gandhi-Vadras, as the Congress has never before been as reduced as it is now. But that does not mean it is going to nurse vipers in its bosom. Pilot may have pulled off a sensational (but marginal) victory in the assembly polls but he fell on his face when it came to besting Modi in the Lok Sabha elections. He was not pipped at the post because he was “young”. Nor was Scindia because of his handsome, baby-youthful mien. They were not preferred because Gehlot had the numbers and Scindia was defeated at the hustings while Kamal Nath won.

In avenging themselves on the party that nurtured them, they can take what satisfaction they wish, but it requires something of a flexible conscience to reconcile years of luxuriating in all the rewards fed them by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi when they were still in their twenties and thirties, and then, as they enter middle-age, bite the hand that has thus far fed them so abundantly. Consider. Pilot joined the party when his father was killed in a road accident. He was 23. By the time he was 26, he had succeeded his mother as MP. At 32, he was elevated to the post of central minister. I watched him with admiration piloting the Companies Act through Parliament. He was president of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee at 36. By the time he was 40, he was deputy CM. Of course, his abilities had a great deal to do with his dizzying rise. But patronage too was working. Ditto, more or less, Jyotiraditya Scindia (with the difference that his father’s death in an air accident paved the son’s way to Parliament). Both were willing to share in the good times. It says something about their upbringing as spoilt children that they were not able to take adversity on the chin. To be cheerful in politics when winning is child’s play. It is to remain cheerful when the going gets bad that is the real test of integrity — to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two Impostors just the same” (Kipling).

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They are welcome to wend their way where they will (or back into the Congress, which is, after all, like a dharamshala) but the lesson for the Congress is that we need a hands-on leader who enjoys the confidence of the party. That boils down the options to three: Sonia or Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. This is written into the party’s DNA. Any one of them will do. Whoever of these three chooses to run the gauntlet must then accept, as I saw Rajiv Gandhi do, and as I understand Nehru and Indira did, the rigours of a 16-to-18 hour day, and the patience to listen to the same pleading over and over again from a thousand tongues: “Humein bhi kahin adjust kijiye”. That is the inescapable consequence of charisma. A leader who cannot dispense patronage or deny patronage with a smile cannot be leader for long.

The Nehru-Gandhi-Vadra “dynasty” has been uniquely able to indicate “No” with a grin of reassurance for over seven decades. That is why they are so necessary to the Congress ethos. The task is that much more difficult now that there is no space left in the central government and very little in the state governments to accommodate all ambitions and yearnings. The leadership would be best advised to not decide on the basis of young or old or even talented or not, but on divining the fidelity of the Congressperson concerned to the ideology and programme of the party over impatient personal ambition, and by having the instinct to tell the difference between dissent and dissidence — for, every living organism needs the stimulus of the free and frank airing of clashing views within a democratically elected organisation.

Goodbye, Sachin and Jyotiraditya. “See you later, alligator”. Or, to take a line from a hit song when I was in my twenties: “I beg your pardon/ I never promised you a rose garden/ Along with the sunshine/ There’s got to be a little rain sometimes…”

This article first appeared in the print edition on July 15, 2020 under the title ‘See you later, alligator’. The writer is a former Union minister

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