Cover Story

A Crisis Called Rahul

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
Page 1 of 1

The Congress faces its biggest existential question

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party nominee for the presidency of the United States, recently described her Republican opponent Donald Trump as “temperamentally unsuited” to hold the highest office of America. The comment struck many Congress members in India as an apt description for their own party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. And when US President Barack Obama set off ripples of laughter with his response to a TV anchor’s query on whether he thought Trump was the right presidential candidate for the Republicans, “I don’t know about them, but we think so,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a US visit, might well have felt the same way vis-à-vis Rahul. Just a few weeks earlier, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a political rival of Modi, had called Rahul the real ‘USP’ of the BJP.

It isn’t just politicians who hold such a dim view of the Congress leader. After the historic 44-seat low that India’s grand old party hit in May 2014, the historian William Dalrymple described Rahul as ‘the very bottom of the Nehru Gandhi barrel, tongue tied and uncharismatic on campaign, conceited and slow witted in private; in short, the complete electoral prophylactic as the Congress must now realise to its despair’. It isn’t just a crisis, it’s a leadership catastrophe for the party. Many believe he is the Shah Alam II—the 15th century Mughal who inspired a saying in Persian, ‘Sultanate-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam’, referring to the boundaries of the empire he inherited from Delhi to a suburb—of the Indian National Congress. The anointed leader of the Congress is simply unable to grasp the enormity of it, unable to show the slightest trace of leadership needed to keep the edifice from crumbling all around him. Yet some party leaders such as Delhi’s former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit believe that Rahul is exactly who the Congress badly needs now.

That’s ironic. Rahul’s track record hasn’t been very noteworthy. Not only did the Congress fail miserably to retain power in states such as Assam (a bastion it held for 15 years until 2016), but even Arunachal Pradesh. In Uttarakhand, it managed to retain power under Harish Rawat only by the skin of its teeth. In all three states, Rahul was credited with inadvisable decisions that resulted in revolts by younger leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma, Kalikho Pul and Vijay Bahuguna against local incumbents. While Biswa Sarma and Bahuguna are now members of the BJP National Executive, Pul formed the People’s Party of Arunachal and is now the state’s Chief Minister (in place of Nabam Tuki) with support of the saffron party.

Biswa Sarma was among those who tore ferociously into Rahul’s style of conducting politics, charging him with being utterly feudal and arrogant, suspicious of young regional leaders and more keen on fiddling with his mobile phone and petting his dog during crucial poll strategy discussions than taking informed decisions for the party. In Biswa Sarma’s assessment, Rahul’s a leader who sees but does not perceive, hears but doesn’t listen, gets key strategy inputs but is incapable of making good judgement calls. Even a few months ago, say observers, such words would not have surfaced in Assam even in murmurs. But Biswa Sarma’s wasn’t a lone voice on this. Other party leaders who have sought an audience with him say that Rahul just does not connect with them. “I had sent three letters to the Congress leadership in my capacity as leader of the legislature party in Tripura. When I sent the fourth, I was served a show cause notice,” says Sudip Roy Barman, who recently left the Congress along with five other MLAs to join the Trinamool Congress.

Less than an estimated seven per cent of Indian voters live in places under Congress rule now

A significant proportion of India’s population today is below 35 years of age. It’s a generation that has new aspirations and yearns to make a mark globally and not just nationally. It wants to shake off India’s yesteryear image as a land of snake charmers and be famed for technology and globalisation. But Rahul, say critics, refuses to acknowledge this transformed India, let alone assimilate its views and appeal to it accordingly. Older leaders are being rejected by voters and the party doesn’t have young, dynamic leaders in place to move forward. The irony here is that Rahul’s late father Rajiv Gandhi was ahead of his time on matters that appealed to the youth of the 1980s when he rang in computerisation at schools and banks, set up ministries for Telecom and Food Processing, and switched away from Russia as a monopoly supplier of arms to India, among other measures.

Today, the Congress finds itself wedged electorally between a rock and a hard place, and it is apparent that the party president- to-be has no coherent strategy to revive the Congress and take it to its next level.

That Rahul remains the sole choice for leading the party, despite his own proclamations of real democracy within the party, sticks in the gullet of many of its young leaders and workers who view dynastic politics as an anachronism at odds with a new era’s egalitarian ethos. A senior leader admits that it is the terrifying prospect of being left rudderless and balkanised that is keeping party leaders loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi family for the time being. “It is no longer possible to bank only on the goodwill of the Nehru or even Indira Gandhi era,” the senior leader says, “The youth are demanding rights and responsibilities and democratised decision making power.”

After the Assembly poll results this May, Rajasthan may be the only state where Rahul’s Congress party can honestly say that it has a young leader to take on the mantle, but even there, supporters of Ashok Gehlot continue to lock horns with the younger leadership. The sense of turmoil in the party, in the meantime, appears to be going viral. Gurudas Kamat, a senior leader from Mumbai in charge of the Congress’ moribund Gujarat unit, is among the latest to have rebelled in frustration against Rahul’s methods. The soft spoken man, rarely given to making shrill anti- leadership comments, sent waves of shock as well as awe within his party by declaring his ‘retirement’ from active politics. If he were to quit the party, say many, almost half of the 54 Congress corporators in Mumbai would exit too.

The fact that Kamat openly spoke of the party vice-president’s inaccessibility to party workers in the city was an indication that discontent had reached a flashpoint. The once-bustling party offices at Tilak Bhavan in Dadar and Gandhi Bhavan at Nariman Point have been deserted for many months now; street protests, so typical of the Congress at one time, are a thing of the past; and even developments such as BJP-ruled Maharashtra minister Eknath Khadse’s resignation over land scam charges have failed to stir the opposition party.

As for Rahul’s role, he is seen as a shielder of the general secretary in charge of the state, Mohan Prakash—inexplicably so, given the party’s string of poll debacles—even as the state chief Ashok Chavan was sidelined along with others. Neither Chavan nor Sanjay Nirupam, who heads the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, has made agitation politics the party’s mainstay. All this leaves Congressmen seething in anger against the ennui of their party high command. That several party leaders are scouting for other options is an open secret. If the issues raised by Kamat are left unaddressed, the party could see an exodus— perhaps to the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi’s revival strategy for the Congress, in the face of stark decimation, has consisted of patchy, ad hoc and desperate shopping for disparate causes

Maharashtra is not the only victim of Rahul’s ineffectual manner of taking decisions. In West Bengal, three party leaders are leaning towards Banerjee’s Trinamool. In Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress had a sound leader in YS Rajasekhara Reddy until his death in 2009, the party found itself routed after it ignored YSR’s son Jaganmohan Reddy’s claim to succession, leading the latter to break away and form his own party, the YSR Congress. The high command’s gamble of pitting the party veteran K Rosaiah against the youthful Jaganmohan fell flat, leaving it with little presence in the state. As for the state carved out of it, Telangana, rushed through at the behest of party President Sonia Gandhi towards the tail end of UPA-II’s rule, most of the party’s legislators in the Assembly appear set to switch to the ruling Telangana Rashtriya Samithi.

REGIONAL LEADERS OF the party have been fleeing what they see as a sinking ship. The most telling signal came when former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, who the BJP had for long alleged was a corrupt Congress leader defended by Sonia Gandhi for their shared religious affiliation, announced his decision to cut loose and form his own party. Before the poll results of mid-May, Jogi was spotted pottering around Parliament gauging the mood among fellow Congress leaders. It was after this exercise that he struck out on his own.

Across the country, as Narendra Modi’s BJP surges ahead, Rahul’s ascent to the top of the Congress is likely to face the eruption of a million mutinies—and an inordinately prolonged one at that too. Dynasty loyalists have been chanting in chorus for his elevation each time the party has stared at defeat. So stale has this become that on 2 June, just days after the chant arose in the wake of the morale blow suffered by the party at the hustings, Omar Abdullah, the National Conference chief, a friend of Rahul, tweeted: ‘Isn’t Congress fed up of planning imminent elevation stories? Been reading this for years now. Just do it and let him get on with it.’

Keenly watching such developments would be Siddaramaiah, Chief Minister of Karnataka, the only big state Congress runs today. With just two years to go for Assembly polls in the state and legislative council polls round the corner, Siddaramaiah, has had criticism coming his way from his own partymen over farmer suicides and his handling of the drought. This has complicated his efforts to pick council members. He is being attacked for his flashy style of governance and alleged corruption as well. All this has set off apprehensions that Rahul will botch up the party’s chances and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in this state as well.

Today, the Congress finds itself wedged electorally between a rock and a hard place, and it is apparent that the party president-to-be has no coherent strategy to revive the Congress and take it to its next level

When the Congress lost power at the Centre in 1977, 1989, 1996 and 1999, it still held power in more than a dozen states. In 2014, the party ruled 11 states, but under the baton of the party’s chief crash-n-burn man, its sway has been reduced to small states such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and the Union Territory of Puducherry. Less than an estimated seven per cent of Indian voters live in places under Congress rule now.

In Assam, the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s strategy included nuzzling up to JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and pasting his posters all over the state. That, too, backfired after Biswa Sarma left the party, giving the BJP its first Chief Minister in the state, Sarbananda Sonowal. While Rahul’s ideologically incompatible alliance with the Left parties in West Bengal against the Trinamool failed to set the poll registers ringing (it had the opposite effect, with Banerjee emerging the big success story of the Assembly polls with a resounding second-term win), another unconvincing alliance with the 2G-scam-tainted DMK in Tamil Nadu failed to get the duo past the finish line and past the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa.

In an earlier clutch of Assembly elections, the Congress managed to get a foothold on power in Bihar only by piggyback riding on the JD-U and RJD. Here too, Rahul had at first rejected any suggestion of ties with Lalu Prasad’s RJD before relenting under the reality check of Congress’ weakness in the state (it has had virtually no presence since 1990).

Across the Hindi belt, the Congress has been wiped out. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, it has been out of power since 2003. Haryana joined the list more recently, voting a BJP government to power in 2014 for the first time. In the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP swept in the 2014 General Election and hopes to win in the state polls due next year, the Congress has no plan for revival beyond enlisting the election strategist Prashant Kishor—fresh from the Bihar win—and toying with the idea of Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi playing a larger role. Any portrayal of Rahul as a chief ministerial candidate would amount to a comedown for him, insiders believe. Senior leader Digvijaya Singh’s suggestion that ‘major surgery’ be done on the party, in the meantime, has been interpreted as a call to draw Priyanka into the fray.

In the south, Tamil Nadu had rejected the Congress as far back as 1967. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana look lost for a long time to come, and thanks to Kerala’s former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, this state has seen the party battered badly. In the western region, Gujarat slipped out of the party’s hands during Modi’s long tenure as Chief Minister. The key state of Maharashtra was lost more recently.

Political observers contend that Rahul Gandhi’s revival strategy for the Congress, in the face of such stark decimation, has consisted mainly of patchy, ad hoc and desperate shopping for disparate causes. What it needs instead is a clear-eyed, structurally sound and efficient growth blueprint for the future. While Niyamgiri hills and the woes of hutment dwellers may have typified that shopping spree in earlier years, a desperation appears to have taken hold, with the young Gandhi dashing from a home-owner protest to a collapsed bridge in Kolkata to Kanhaiya Kumar’s side at Jawaharlal Nehru University and espousing the Dalit cause in the name of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad University student who was pushed to suicide. Ahead of the Punjab Assembly polls, Rahul has sought to hitch a wagon to the protests against censorship of Udta Punjab, a film on the problem of drug abuse in the state. As part of his attack on the state’s Akali Dal government, he proclaimed in Jalandhar that the Congress had the political will to crush the drug mafia in just one month. The Bombay High Court, however, has ruled in favour of the film. Coupled with the Certification Board chief’s U-turn on the issue, this has taken the wind out of Rahul’s pre-electoral bombast.

Rahul Gandhi alone cannot be blamed for all the poll debacles. The party’s entire top leadership has failed to comprehend the reasons for its 2014 rout

That Rahul Gandhi has been losing his grip on the regional leadership in state after state, losing old strongholds and allowing Modi’s BJP a smooth ride into entirely new regions for it such as the Northeast, is a fact that even the most dimly aware within the party cannot miss. How badly the Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold has loosened was clear in the recent Rajya Sabha elections, where party legislators in Haryana defied the command of Sonia Gandhi. She had put her weight behind discredited lawyer RK Anand, who already had INLD support and needed additional backing, for a seat.

In contrast, the BJP’s leadership duo of the Prime Minister and party President Amit Shah remains unchallenged, and the Modi magic shows little sign of fading electorally.

RAHUL, MANY LEADERS admit in private, appears to have concluded that making a few left-of-centre noises, portraying the economy as a story of doom and gloom, and questioning the official figures of national income (Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India, in a recent article said this technical stuff was beyond the patience and competence of those doubting the numbers) would be enough to get back into the political reckoning. “That’s how Rahul Gandhi makes it through the day. He lives in a world of self delusion,” says a minister in the Modi Government. For him, the minister adds, “his grandmother’s script of 1970 holds the key to revival”. India, however, has changed and is changing. An aspirational India yawns at entitlement politics and wants an “entitlement plus agenda that Modi has been successful in providing.”

Rahul alone cannot be blamed for all the poll debacles. The party’s entire top leadership has obstinately failed to comprehend the scale and reasons for its 2014 rout. In their understanding, it seems, the outcome was a dalliance with totalitarianism and not an emphatic vote against corruption. The party has not taken into account the acute governance deficit under the UPA and the treatment of the Prime Minister as a regent (someone who keeps the chair warm for or rules on behalf of someone else).

For Modi, who made a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ a cornerstone of his own campaign, though, the near collapse of the Congress is a paradoxical cause for worry. While the Prime Minister’s style of functioning and his political message for India’s raring-to-go youth have been highly appealing, this was all the more so in comparison with a dull and tired party. The disappearance of the Congress nationwide would not only rob the BJP and the nation of a credible and sound all-India opposition party, it would make even more space for the rise of regional satraps. Over the decades, the Congress party has been increasingly forced to cede power to regional leaders who went their own way because it failed to acknowledge their stature and accommodate their ambitions.

How worried the party’s so-called high command, once so powerful that minions did not dare speak before it, and how out of sync it was with local leaders was sadly clearest in West Bengal, where the Pradesh Congress Committee went to the ridiculous extent of getting its MLAs to sign stamped sheets of paper pledging loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. All this did was make a big show of the distance between the party and its legislators in the state. Party members in many other states are seen to be turning into saleable commodities. In Haryana, they have demonstrated that the top leadership’s writ just does not run.

“Depending heavily on Modi-bashing as its only issue is no longer enough for the nation’s voters, but the Congress leadership is failing miserably in chalking out a sound blueprint of policies and vision for its own rejuvenation, forget the rest of the nation. Despite putting in 12 years in Parliament, the party’s biggest hope [Rahul] has failed to get any traction of significance or inspire any confidence that he is the Congress’ Great—White or not—Hope. Leaders across states are running around like headless chicken in search of new pastures,” says a party insider who does not wish to the identified.

Commentator and Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta sums up the predicament of Congressmen succinctly. ‘Rahul’s promotion is a beautifully crafted, lengthy suicide note,’ he tweeted.

Looks like Narendra Modi may make it assisted suicide.

(With inputs from Haima Deshpande)