The Congress Party has been a courtiers’ club so long that the revolt of a single courtier became a major political event last week. From high political circles to Delhi’s once powerful drawing rooms to the under-furbished Lutyens bungalows that the BJP’s big leaders now occupy, one word was whispered last week with awe: Gehlot. How did he find the courage? This uncharismatic man with the bad hairdo, known only for his devotion to the Dynasty, how could he defy Sonia Gandhi? How could he betray the Dynasty that helped him rise from being a lowly magician’s son to becoming Chief Minister of Rajasthan three times?
Other questions followed when it became known that Sonia Gandhi was livid and had summoned a meeting of ‘loyalists’ and family retainers in her very private residence. A battalion of TV reporters stood outside 10 Janpath till late in the evening to record the arrival of Kamal Nath, whose loyalty to the family goes back to Sanjay times. He smiled enigmatically as he always does. To the questions flung at him he gave, as always, no answers. So, the questions remain. Are we seeing the start of a courtiers’ rebellion? Could this be the beginning of the end of the Dynasty’s unchallenged control over our oldest political party? Has the march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir by the Dynasty’s heir now become a meaningless exercise?
As someone who has lurked on the outer edge of the inner circles of the court for decades, memories returned as I mulled over these questions. Memories of a time when the sons of big businessmen fought to take little Priyanka to the Diwali Mela. Memories of society ladies sending their spies out to find out where Indira Gandhi’s grandchildren were going on picnics so they could (by coincidence) send their own progeny to the same spot. Memories of society ladies finding ways to appear (by coincidence) at the art exhibitions and concerts that Sonia was going to. Memories of that caboodle of Rajiv’s dreary Doon School pals. And, when Sonia Gandhi became de facto prime minister, memories of rules being bent to install Mrs Vadra in a Lutyens bungalow and ensure that Mr Vadra’s name was on a VVIP list of people who did not need metal-detecting at airports.
These things happened in those long-ago glory days when the Gandhi name was enough for courtiers to not just get tickets at election time but for them to be able to win. But courtiers are, as everyone knows, an untrustworthy species of sycophants and when bad times come, they flee. When Rahul Gandhi’s belligerent campaign to prove that Narendra Modi was not just incompetent but corrupt failed to defeat him in the 2019 general election, courtiers began to agonize over their options. I would run into them, here and there, and they would admit sotto voce that Rahul had no ‘leadership qualities’ and that they were seriously worried about losing their own constituencies. So, it surprised me not at all when they began to leave the Congress Party with the dodgy excuse that Modi was the only political leader who was doing ‘something for the country.’
Then elections began to be lost so badly under the leadership of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi that in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly the Congress Party now has only two seats. This happened after Priyanka campaigned long and hard to impress upon the women of our most populous state that she would stand up for their rights. This humiliating defeat came despite Yogi Adityanath’s shameless refusal to admit that he handled the pandemic with criminal incompetence. The bodies that floated in the Ganga were not of COVID victims, he said. Asked about the shallow graves on the river’s banks he said confidently that some Hindu communities had traditionally chosen burial over cremation. Reporters who took pictures of dead bodies piled high in crematoriums he labelled ‘anti-national.’
If the Congress Party could not defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh after fantastical untruths, ineptitude, and communal polarization, it was proof that the Dynasty had lost its magical allure. Courtiers saw this and quietly started making personal exit plans. Then when the Chief Minister of Punjab was forced to resign because Rahul and Priyanka were convinced that a clownish former cricketer was better, it came for many courtiers as final proof of extreme political idiocy. The clownish sportsman they chose over Amarinder Singh is now in jail, and the man that the Gandhi children made interim chief minister fled to Canada after the Congress Party lost Punjab to the Aam Aadmi Party.
There are lessons in this that other family firms pretending to be political parties would do well to learn. One lesson is that courtiers are a capricious breed. And the second more important lesson is that Indian voters are no longer illiterate or politically stupid enough to vote for someone’s surname. The most powerful section of India’s electorate today is middle class and aggressively aspirational.
The Bharatiya Janata Party discovered this long ago but proof has come in the ease with which Narendra Modi has won two general elections. Hindutva did not win him these elections, as the Congress still believes. What gave Modi his second term was that ordinary voters found that he could deliver on the things they aspired to and that if he could not, he did his best to keep trying.