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Rahul has increasingly followed his own path

Despite the fuss over the issues that dominate the letter signed by over 23 Congressmen which set the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Congress Working Committee,

there is really only one issue which is at the root of the current crisis in the party.

 

Rahul Gandhi.

 

   Ever since the Congress’s humiliating defeat at the last General Election, Rahul Gandhi has set the agenda for his dispirited and demoralized party. He announced he was stepping down as Congress President after that defeat leaving his reluctant mother with no choice but to fill in as interim President.(As she repeated at today’s CWC meeting, she had  no desire to hold on to that job.)

 

   But having stepped down and having declared that no member of his family would succeed him on a full time basis Rahul did nothing to set in motion an institutional mechanism to find a successor. Instead, he continued to function as the boss (sometimes with the assistance of his sister), deciding the party’s policies, devoting himself to personal attacks on Narendra Modi, and arbitrating on such issues as Sachin Pilot’s rebellion in Rajasthan.

 

   All this begs the obvious question: why bother to step down if you are not going to give up the power of the very post you have relinquished?

 

   Moreover, had Rahul, an early advocate of internal democracy in the party, called an election for Party President and contested himself, he would have won by a landslide. If he had chosen not to stand and backed another candidate, then that candidate would also have won.

 

   But he did no such thing. Nor did he encourage any deep introspection into the reasons behind the party’s second successive humiliation at the polls. Instead, he appeared to blame the top leaders of his party. They had not backed him in his personal attacks on the Prime Minister (“chowkidar chor hai” etc.) and had therefore weakened the party’s electoral campaign, he said. That was why the Congress had lost.

 

   Ever since that defeat, several things have happened. One: the Congress has drifted, rudderless, with only interim leadership. Two: Rahul has increasingly followed his own path, making strange little videos where he interviews other people or explains his political positions.

 

   Three: as his old allies in the party have left or been distanced, a new group (or coterie) has emerged that controls access to him and claims to speak in his name. Four: the constant refusal to seek any electoral legitimacy for Rahul’s defacto leadership has given the impression that he owes his pre-eminent position to birth, hardly a message that a liberal-democratic party should be happy sending out.

 

 "Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is not a consensual figure. He has his own people (though these people keep changing)."

   And five: the tenor of the messaging from his supporters and the party’s social media operations has changed. Earlier the BJP’s trolls spoke for Hindutva while the Congress’s tweets were about liberal values. Now, the BJP sticks with Hindutva. But the Congress trolls have switched from liberalism to dynasty and worship of the Gandhi family.

 

   All this makes leaders who have given their lives to the Congress extremely nervous. The Congress has gone through these phases before. In 1969, Indira Gandhi threw the old leadership overboard and created a new Congress. In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi and his storm troopers routinely humiliated senior leaders before leading the Congress to its worst-ever electoral defeat till that point.

 

   So senior (and not so senior) Congressmen are beginning to worry if Rahul intends to do something similar. Certainly, the language used by his supporters within the party and on social media echoes Rahul’s original hissy fit after he lost the election: Rahul fought alone, the rest of the Congress did nothing, only Rahul is willing to fight fascism, etc.

 

   That is what the current crisis is really about. In 1969, when Indira Gandhi fought Congress leaders, she was battling geriatric state bosses. This time around, the people who have signed the letter include the likes of Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor, among the party’s brighter and most high-profile leaders. Even they are worried about the direction in which Rahul and his merry men are taking the Congress.

 

   It is important to remember that Rahul is not like Sonia Gandhi. Sonia was a consensual Congress President who tried to bring all generations of the Congress together. The UPA government included such figures as Manmohan Singh, from Narasimha Rao’s time, P. Chidambaram, from Rajiv Gandhi’s time and Pranab Mukherjee from Indira Gandhi’s time. There was no coterie, no all-powerful Private Secretary and no battle between the old and the new. (Even at Monday’s CWC, Sonia’s first instinct was to call for an AICC session and find an institutional solution to the current crisis.)

 

   Though she was too shy to convey much warmth at personal meetings (unlike say, Rajiv Gandhi), Sonia earned the respect of the party because she was seen as being a fair leader who was unwilling to play favourites.

 

   Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is not a consensual figure. He has his own people (though these people keep changing). He does not come to conclusions only after consultations as Sonia Gandhi does. He knows what he wants and is sure of himself. And while Sonia was ready to forgive and forget in the interest of party unity (she even forgave Sharad Pawar who led a revolt against her), Rahul is much less patient with dissent.

 

   All this makes Congressmen insecure. It isn’t just that they disapprove of the policies Rahul is following (which they do). It is also that they believe that his strategy for the future amounts to madness. You cannot, when your party is at its lowest ebb, create insecurities among the leadership, blame other people for your own failures and be seen to be playing favourites.

 

   No matter how many compromises are reached in the days ahead, that basic issue will remain. If Rahul Gandhi is determined to do things his way, then the Congress will remain divided and dispirited.

 

   He can, of course, change all that around. If his personal popularity shoots up and he becomes an effective challenger to Narendra Modi, then he can remake the Congress in his own image as Indira Gandhi did.

 

   But so far, at least, there are no signs of that happening.

 

 

Posted On: 25 Aug 2020 12:00 PM
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