Give up or gear up

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Faced with an unforgiving India and a redundant leadership, does Rahul Gandhi have any other choice?
All through the poll campaign, Rahul Gandhi was casual and hirsute. This was deliberate posturing because managers of Brand Rahul were convinced that being unshaven— a four-day-old beard—gave the not-so- young scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family the look of a leader forthright, blunt and mature. For a man who simply rolled up his sleeves and cultivated a casual demeanour about him, the new look, however, couldn’t ward off heckles by people angry over the pathetic state of his family’s pocket-borough, Amethi, a backwater of a constituency where you don’t find a good meal or decent place to stay overnight. Far from being a model Lok Sabha constituency, it is a forlorn outpost as good as hell on earth on a scorching summer day. People do have choices: either get used to hardship and vote by force of habit, or get angry and heckle.

Once the results were out, the 43-year- old vice-president of the 129-year-old party found no reason to keep up appearances. On Judgment Day—when the Congress took a battering that a senior Congress leader confessed “was far more humiliating than we had seen in our nightmares”—Rahul appeared alongside his mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, clean-shaven enough to be on an advertisement for the new five-blade Gillette razor, smiling boyishly, rolling up his sleeves as usual. He spoke in an easygoing manner, owning up responsibility for the drubbing, the enormity of which looked totally lost on him. Mama’s boy wanted to field questions from reporters, but Sonia wouldn’t hear of it. She said ‘no’. And he was gone, vanishing closely behind her.

The poll loss was largely expected and efforts were in full swing to guard the Family from criticism. But with the size of a poll setback beating all projections of a worst-case scenario— with a tally of 44, the Congress won 27 seats fewer across India than what the BJP won in Uttar Pradesh alone—the party’s grandees knew it was time to huddle around the Family and pitch the blame on the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) acted as if on auto-pilot: it turned down the Sonia-Rahul duo’s offer to resign over the poll debacle. “The logic circulated within the party is that now is the time to place ultimate faith in the Family,” says another Congress leader with a chuckle, emphasising that for the time being it looks as if the UPA is solidly behind the family.

Not quite.

Milind Deora, the young Congress leader who lost in Mumbai South, has, in an interview, attacked Rahul’s advisors for getting everything wrong. He was piqued that whoever got a free hand at running the campaign—a team of lateral entrants to the party handpicked by Rahul much to the anguish of the old guard—is not taking any responsibility for the biggest reverse in Congress history.That the old guard, which includes senior leaders such as Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and political lightweights such as Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid, is upset with sweeping powers enjoyed by the “new team of loyalists”, as a party leader explains, is no secret.

To add to their woes, this new set of advisors who sidelined several party leaders had no electoral experience whatsoever. “And see, they were the ones to handle the biggest challenge ever for the Congress party, and from an opponent as formidable as Modi,” says a Mumbai- based Congress functionary. He adds that Rahul and his team didn’t listen to “sane pieces of advice from some weather-beaten Congress leaders who have handled tougher elections”. These so-called advisors included Madhusudan Mistry, a Gujarat-based leader; Mohan Gopal, director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies; Sachin Rao, a Michigan Business school graduate who handles internal research; Deepender Singh Hooda, Bhupinder Hooda’s son; KB Byju, a former SPG officer; Kanishka Singh, his Wharton-educated close aide; Jitendra Singh and Meenakshi Natarajan; Haryana Congress chief Ashok Tanwar, and so on. Another close Rahul advisor Sam Pitroda, who spends most of his time in Chicago only to fly down at state expense briefly every month to ‘advise’ the ‘core team’, has come under sharp attack from Congressmen over causing such ‘wasteful expenditure’ to the party. While Rahul recruited them in the name of decentralisation and internal democracy, he ended up centralising power instead, rues a senior Congress leader.

While Congressmen have more or less confined their criticism of ‘Rahul’s wayward ways’ to private chats, some constituents of the UPA—which the Congress heads—have been bolder and more unsparing. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) has launched a diatribe against Rahul, saying that he failed to touch the ‘soul of India’. The IUML mouthpiece, Chandrika, lashed out at the Congress vice-president for restricting the war-room of the party’s campaign committee to his 12 Tughlak Lane residence and for disallowing access to senior party leaders, who had to seek appointments with the leader through e-mail. The Chandrika editorial also castigated Rahul for not learning lessons from the defeat in state assembly polls held late last year in which the Congress lost all four states. It also regretted that the erstwhile ruling party failed to campaign effectively.

This is a view shared by political pundits as well.

In an interview with Open, Professor John Echeverri-Gent of Virginia University, who has closely studied how India’s first family has maintained its hold over the party, had earlier said, “However well-meaning, Rahul has failed to show the mettle of great political leadership.” He was of the view that at a time when Sonia Gandhi has lost energy on account of ill-health and age and Rahul’s political leadership has not managed to meet the challenge posed by Modi, the Congress appears headed towards a decisive political defeat and serious political crisis. Several other political analysts had forewarned that banking merely on pro-poor schemes would cost Rahul dearly in the General Election. After all, the ‘young and impatient’ whom he had vowed to woo aren’t happy with lollies doled out by the Government. Instead they are looking at policies that promote entrepreneurship. MGNREGA, the flagship programme of the UPA, which has certainly saved lives in many villages, had come under attack from various sections for destroying the country’s rural work culture as it encouraged ‘lazy labour behaviour’. Analysts had also pointed out that not having pitched himself as a prime ministerial candidate against Modi was seen as Rahul’s sign of unpreparedness and lack of initiative.

A former union minister says that Rahul, whom he jokingly describes as the “longest political apprentice” in Indian history, has disappointed Congressmen with his dismissive attitude towards Congress workers. “He was supposed to re-energise the cadre after the Jaipur summit, in which he was chosen vice-president of the party, and lead it in the polls. Instead, he became distrustful of Congress leaders, even those of repute, and relied more on inexperienced hands,” he says, adding that having “loose-talking people such as Digvijaya Singh by his side” didn’t help either. The likes of Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar had also made politically incorrect and preposterous remarks about Modi. Aiyar went to the extent of inviting Modi to serve tea at a Congress meet, Modi being a tea-seller’s son. That sarcasm didn’t go down well at all, and the Congress had to immediately distance itself from his condescending remark. Modi, however, used it throughout his campaign to highlight his fight against what he called the leadership of the Delhi elite. Former Congress leader Natwar Singh felt that party leaders such as Singh played into the hands of Modi. “He campaigned tirelessly and cleverly,” in Singh’s words, “The Congress campaign was no match for his.”

The Congress has done very badly even in states it ruled and in those it was expected to do well thanks to alliances. In Maharashtra, where an NCP-Congress government is in power, the NCP- Congress combine won only six of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. The results from Mumbai city and Thane, often considered safe bets for the ruling alliance, were a shock for the coalition as high- profile sitting MPs such as Sanjay Nirupam, Priya Dutt and Deora bit the dust. Political pundits expect ties between the Sharad Pawar-led NCP and the Congress to get even more strained in the months ahead.

In Jharkhand, known for its diverse and fragmented electorate where the Congress fought in coalition with the JMM and RJD, the party was wiped out with JMM winning a mere two seats and the BJP the rest 12. The party was hoping to do a 2004 this time around: in 2004, the Congress had won six seats, the JMM four, and the RJD two. Similarly, in Assam, the Congress was reduced to a tally of three while the BJP surged ahead with seven.

There were disasters galore across other states too. The Congress’ Telangana gamble proved a disaster. The humiliating show has already resulted in internal bickering and party general secretary Digvijaya Singh has come under criticism for not constituting a separate PCC immediately after the 30 July announcement of Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation.

Now, at least three senior Congress leaders have told Open that the party, which has not won more than 10 seats in any state, is expected to see multiple odds going against it: allies turning hostile, regional parties trying to go one-up on the Congress in their regions, and the BJP working with other parties to consolidate its power.

Battered by the BJP in UP, the SP and BSP, two parties that rewrote the politics of the state that has historically determined the country’s regime at the Centre, will now work hard to win over vote bases it had lost to the BJP and in the process hurt the Congress.

A Congress leader is opines that as the SP and BSP battle it out among themselves, the Congress might end up being the biggest loser. The SP, which won only five of the state’s 80 Parliament seats this time, had not fielded candidates in the Gandhi family’s pocketburoughs. “Such camaraderie will not exist any longer. The SP and the Congress will fight tooth and nail for votes,” says an SP leader. The SP had extended such courtesies to the Family in exchange for going soft on graft cases against the Mulayam Singh clan. The BSP, too, is expected to be hostile to the Congress as it hopes to win back the Dalit-Brahmin vote bank it lost to the BJP.

The BJP had managed to strike the right caste balance in this election; it gave one- third of its election tickets to numerically preponderant OBCs, and announced that power would not remain in the hands of an ‘upper caste’ leadership. ‘Backward’ voters, one may recall, had deserted the BJP after Kalyan Singh, an OBC Lodhi Rajput, left the party in the 1990s.

Similar trends are expected in Bihar, too, where the RJD, a Congress ally, trailed much below expectations as the new social coalition that Modi forged— ‘upper castes’, OBCs, MBCs and a sizeable section of Dalits—gave the BJP a lethal support base to take on opponents in electoral combat.

“The Congress under Rahul went for an ostrich-like approach,” according to an RJD leader, visibly upset at the party’s poor showing at the polls. As the avian world story goes, ostriches bury their heads in the sand whenever they confront an enemy or turn fearful of reality. “Yes, that is exactly what Rahul did, whether he realised it or not,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Congress leaders such as Shobha Ojha and some other senior leaders, voicing themselves on condition of anonymity, say that they were unaware of such criticism from allies.

By the assessment of a Congress leader based in Bangalore, the party is likely to see a “balkanisation of sorts” in some states like Gujarat, which is Modi’s home state. “See, it is not easy to keep fighting when your leader doesn’t trust you. You end up distrusting him as well,” he says, referring to Rahul.

Incidentally, Gujarat Congress leader and former Chief Minister Shankersinh Vaghela has praised Modi and requested the PM-elect to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya within the constitutional framework, now that the BJP has got a parliamentary majority. Vaghela, once a co-traveller of Modi in the BJP and RSS, now favours the BJP demand of a Uniform Civil Code and the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir. He quit the BJP in 1996 and later became Chief Minister after joining the Congress. “These are signs of trouble for the Congress in states,” adds the Congress leader from Bangalore.

Congress leaders aver that many things have changed in the party after Rahul’s errors became apparent—such as his distrust of his party’s own government and public shredding of an ordinance meant to overrule the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs. He called the ordinance ‘nonsense’. While Rahul was trying to endear himself to the ‘young and impatient’ India, he dealt a devastating blow to the image of the UPA Government and the senior Congress leadership. “The party became disjointed,” rues the first Congress leader.

Sure, Rahul’s poor show has evoked extreme responses. While Princeton University Professor Atul Kohli hopes that the setback for the Congress could push the ‘dynasty’ aside and open India’s oldest political party to a new and better leadership, several other Congress leaders, who are unhappy with the way things are, contend that the TINA factor— short for ‘There Is No Alternative’— still favours Rahul within the party. Natwar Singh notes that Rahul lacks fire-in-the-belly, and the Congress, a party full of Family sycophants, will pay a huge price for it. “Even if there is rebellion in the party, we expect Rahul’s sister Priyanka to step in as a buffer,” says a Congress functionary known to be close to the Family. He does not elaborate. Rahul may have flown to Amethi along with his sister to monitor relief work after a major fire broke out at Mauja Baraulia, leaving 65 houses gutted, but such symbolic gestures are fast losing appeal. “All this will not help. He is an MP in absentia and has failed to protect the people of his so-called pet constituency,” says BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan.

A member of the CWC says that pinning blame for the party’s rout on Rahul will not help it—“though there is much to blame him for,” he adds with a tentative laugh, his facial expression betraying a fear of impending trouble. After all, none of Rahul’s initiatives have helped. He even introduced US-style electoral ‘primaries’ this time in 15 constituencies to select candidates. The plan was to end nepotism and place merit over ticket distribution based on caste and community lines. Unfortunately, none of these candidates won. Prominent among them were Meenakshi Natarajan (Mandsaur in MP) and Ajay Maken (New Delhi). Besides, several highly vocal ministers such as Kapil Sibal lost. Only a few ministers— just 13 of them—such as M Veerappa Moily, Kamal Nath and Mallikarjun Kharge managed to claim victory, and 10 of the 44 Congress candidates elected are from political dynasties.

Dousing the flames of criticism across the country in the aftermath of the polls isn’t that easy. Rahul can’t afford to just keep smiling away and rolling up his sleeves. He must reinvent himself as a leader. “That task, at the moment, looks Herculean,” sums up the former Union minister. Rahul’s choice is stark: give up or give his all.