In the commentary on the crisis in the Congress party, we hear a lot about the old guard versus the new guard, including even Rahul Gandhi versus Ahmed Patel. What doesn’t add up, and what no one attempts to explain, is the contradiction between Sonia Gandhi presiding over the old guard and wanting to promote the career of her son, Rahul Gandhi, as the inheritor of her mantle.
We hear a lot about this in the grapevine. But this is too important to be left to mere gossip. The great unknown about the crisis in the Congress party is the nature of the political relationship among three people of one family — or four, if you count Robert Vadra.
What do Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi talk about when they talk politics at the dinner table, with no non-Gandhi around? This mystery may well hold the key to the Congress party’s inability to find direction. If the Congress feels pulled apart in two directions, the root of this dispute may well be tied to the Gandhi family itself.
A former Union minister close to Rahul Gandhi told me last year that he wanted Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia to be chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. Despite being party president, Rahul was unable to have his way, and the old guard-aligned Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath became chief ministers. “Rahul’s point is,” the former minister said, “if I don’t get to decide who will be the chief minister, then why am I party president?”
Who calls the shots — Rahul, Ahmed Patel, or Sonia?
Such disputes are often explained as Rahul Gandhi versus Ahmed Patel. But what about Sonia Gandhi? If she wants to pass the mantle on to Rahul, why doesn’t she let him have his way? We know that Sonia Gandhi is the all-powerful leader of the Congress party, no matter who occupies the president post. It is not possible that she doesn’t get to have the last word. So, the dispute is not Rahul Gandhi versus Ahmed Patel. It is Rahul Gandhi versus Sonia Gandhi.
Another example of this was when Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president and indicated that a non-Gandhi should be chosen for the post. This was Rahul Gandhi’s way of probably saying, ‘Let’s see how you can run it without the Gandhis.’ But Sonia Gandhi vetoed Rahul and became interim president. No doubt that she did it in the interest of Rahul and Priyanka, fearing that once the top job goes to a non-Gandhi, god knows how long that phase would last, how far it would go. Remember Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri?
But Sonia Gandhi’s decision — no doubt sold to its supporters with an extended drama in the Congress Working Committee — was a public repudiation of Rahul Gandhi’s authority. It is well known that Rahul Gandhi wanted Mukul Wasnik for the top job, because the latter would have served the same purpose for him as Manmohan Singh did for Sonia.
If it did not involve the mother and son, this whole affair would have been a matter of great public humiliation for the party’s top leadership.
The public understanding of the Gandhi family is of a close, coherent unit that acts in unison. Yet, the differences are clear as daylight. Since we have almost no knowledge of the political relationship between the mother and son, it must be said here that according to the grapevine, Rahul feels stifled by his mother. Sonia is a status quoist; Rahul wants to experiment and be allowed to fail and learn.
Priyanka Gandhi has made it amply clear that she is with Rahul Gandhi. In the first CWC meeting after the 2019 debacle, she is said to have led the offensive defence of Rahul. But even with Priyanka, there is a family dynamic. It is well known that she wanted to contest against Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and even in 2014, but was not allowed to do so. Who stopped her? Once again it is the unknown family dynamic.
The obvious inference is the fear that Priyanka could overshadow Rahul and that would destroy any chances he has. Priyanka Gandhi’s eventual entry into politics and her current political status largely limited to Uttar Pradesh are also in keeping with the objective of not threatening Rahul’s position as the heir apparent.
Many leaders in the Congress party can see time flying away, and the remainder of their political careers going to waste, since the Congress is unable to come out of a deep coma. Some such leaders have written a letter to Sonia Gandhi, demanding a full-time leadership at all levels, thereby simply saying that the Gandhi family is not giving its best to the party. They have also demanded elections to the Congress Working Committee, a way of saying they want a non-Gandhi. Mukul Wasnik, earlier said to be a consensus candidate for a non-Gandhi president, is one of the signatories.
This is the time for the Gandhi family to let go. The three members will take years to resolve the dinner table dispute. Until then, they should bow before the wisdom of these courageous letter writers who are well aware of the punishment that awaits anyone who dares to rebel against the Congress leadership. Sonia Gandhi should think of history and not family, and resign for real, not as an emotional blackmail. Just let go.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.