Can the Nehru-Gandhi family find another Dr Manmohan Singh – this time to keep the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi in the party?
This question has been on everyone’s mind in political circles ever since Rahul Gandhi declared his intent to step down as Congress president following the party’s rout in the general elections. Except for a brief, choreographed drama outside his residence to protest against his decision and resolutions by some state units, Congressmen across the country have been quiet, albeit indifferent. It must be breaking the Congress’ first family’s heart, for sure.
Withdrawing his resignation offer would expose Gandhi to more barbs. But seeing it through could be fraught with risks in terms of his family’s political relevance.
Therefore, as Rahul Gandhi returns from his week-long jaunt abroad Monday, he must begin the process to find another Manmohan Singh, who would be the modern-day incarnate of Ramayana’s Bharat who ruled in the name of Ram’s paduka (sandal) until the elder brother returned from exile — or until the next Lok Sabha election, in Gandhi’s context.
But before we discuss the impossibility of this mission, it must be stated that the entire idea of someone outside the family replacing Rahul Gandhi as Congress president is impetuous, preposterous and as hair-brained as his so-called democratisation move through internal elections in the Youth Congress and the NSUI. The huge public dislike and resentment against the politics of entitlement as nurtured through dynasties is a reality, which explains the electoral losses of Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia and several other Congress dynasts.
But there is another side to it — the victories of the BJP’s dynasts, be it Anurag Thakur, Poonam Mahajan, Dushyant Singh or Varun Gandhi. And if one credits the ‘Modi wave’ for their victories, what about Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party? The newly elected Andhra Pradesh chief minister is an essential dynast, who had quit the Congress because the party denied him inheritance of the chief ministerial throne after his father’s death. The YSR family is, in fact, the Andhra version of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Yet, Reddy got a massive mandate. Or the Badal couple’s victories in Punjab, even though their party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, was routed.
One may surmise that the public dislike for dynasts is not as much about their ancestry as about how they conduct themselves in public life. Jagan Reddy, for instance, was on the road for his padayatra for 14 months, living in villages and coming to see his family in Hyderabad only on weekends. The feudal ways of the Gandhis are legendary. But then a Mayawati with a very humble background can have more feudal streaks than say Capt. Amarinder Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Patiala. Rahul Gandhi might rue his party’s senior leaders seeking tickets for their sons, but could someone outside Kamal Nath’s family win Chhindwara for the Congress? So, the assumption about a non-dynast changing the Congress party’s image and fortune is simplistic. The Left and the liberals who once craved for Gandhi family’s indulgence are gunning for Rahul’s head today — not because of his political follies but because they hold him responsible for at least five more years of Modi’s rule and their own irrelevance.
One can’t ignore the fact that even in its humiliating defeat the Congress got the support of 12 crore voters, 2 crore more than those who supported it in the 2014 elections. Of course, the Congress president made many stupid mistakes. He was the only one in India — along with, perhaps, his data analytics head Praveen Chakravarty — who thought that a Nehru-Gandhi family member could convince voters of Narendra Modi’s involvement in a controversial defence deal. Think of the intellectual bankruptcy in a party that was promising a review of sedition laws and the AFSPA when the country was celebrating the Balakot air strikes.
There were myriads of other instances where Rahul Gandhi naively played into the BJP’s hands. In an ideal world, such mistakes would merit resignation. But the Congress being what it is, the Nehru-Gandhi family remains both its bane and the panacea. Can you imagine even one leader outside the family who would be acceptable to all Congressmen across the country?
Congressmen have no misgivings. Resigning as the Congress president is not a supreme sacrifice. It would have no impact on Rahul Gandhi’s stature or lifestyle. He will remain an SPG protectee. He will continue to enjoy all the privileges he does now. And he can come back after three-four years to reclaim the party presidentship ahead of the 2024 elections. Or, if he still finds that responsibility cumbersome, he can just remain the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Come to think of it, in the intervening period, there would no public scrutiny of his conduct. He could choose to attend a Parliament session or just continue his prolonged stays at exotic locations. And whenever he would happen to visit India, he would enjoy all powers without responsibility. So, why wear the crown of thorns as Congress president and face the heat and dust to re-build the party when there are better options available?
That brings us back to the main question: Can the family find another Manmohan Singh? The name has many connotations: selflessness, lack of ambition, perpetual show of gratitude, acquiescence, forbearance and always-at-your-service attitude. Look around. There is only one Dr Manmohan Singh. And he is 86 years old now.
Not that there is any dearth of family loyalists. If there is another person Sonia Gandhi could trust her family’s future with, it is Ahmed Patel, her former political secretary who has looked after the family’s interests since Rajiv Gandhi’s time. But a party of ‘janeudhari Hindus’ may prefer other options.
There are not many available as the requirements or criteria set by the family for its regents — as fulfilled by Manmohan Singh in the Prime Minister’s Office and as expected from the next Congress president— are too difficult to match. There are many senior Congress leaders such as Siddaramaiah, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Digvijaya Singh, Amarinder Singh, even Sachin Pilot — and not to forget Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh — with proven record as leaders who can shake up the moribund organisational machinery at the grassroots.
But Rahul Gandhi may not feel secure about handing over the organisation to ambitious leaders — even less so about the competent ones. Therefore, he has only three options.
First, he can pick up anyone of his cronies to keep the seat warm for him. But he may then also run the risk of driving the organisation further into the cesspool, blighting the prospects of his ascension to power.
Second, elevate his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to the top position in the party. Although she didn’t have a glittering start to her political career as the general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, her elevation would bring a whiff of change and enthuse demoralised party workers. Rahul Gandhi can live with the uncertainties of what would happen if his sister transforms the organisation completely and emerges as a powerful leader. But, another Nehru-Gandhi family member at the helm could only accentuate prevailing cynicism about dynasts.
The third option for Rahul Gandhi is to withdraw his resignation offer, publicly accept his failures instead of seeking to shift the blame onto others, and get down to re-building the party organisation, starting with a new team of advisors who keep their ears to the ground.
In the given circumstance, the third option sounds reasonable but Rahul Gandhi is known to spring surprises.