When the patriarch of the family dies, the son who did not get along with the father needs to mature and become a bigger person. Whether or not he likes it, he’s the patriarch now. The pagdi passes on to him. No matter how the world saw him until just the other day, now they see him as the head of the family, for better or worse.
It is just such a situation Rahul Gandhi finds himself in.
A party split down the middle
The extent of the old guard-new guard rivalry in the Congress party for the last few years has been deep. Barely a fraction of it has been reported in the media. It has practically been two parties. I met leaders who have hoped for a split as the only way out. Now, the task before Rahul Gandhi is a bit like having to carry out an acquisition and merger.
The ‘old guard versus new guard’ battle has really been a euphemism for the tensions between Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel. Over the last few years, we have seen Rahul Gandhi take over the party and then give it back. The transfer of power at the top was never total, only a matter of degree, with both sides not letting each other have complete sway. This meant the Congress has lurched along, pulled in different directions, even the smallest of decisions delayed by weeks and months on end.
Talking to people in the Congress over the last few years has been like talking to bureaucrats. Either they are in favour with the party’s current rulers or they are not. That decides whether they get an important posting. So whenever the system changed from Ahmed Patel to Rahul Gandhi’s hands or vice versa, key players across the party hierarchy would change. Since the primary goal of both sides was to wrest control of the party (and not defeat the BJP) they would use loyalty as the yardstick to determine who is placed where.
So, for example, K.C. Venugopal was made General Secretary (Organisation) over Mukul Wasnik because of Venugopal’s loyalty to Rahul Gandhi. Wasnik, on the other hand, was seen to be Ahmed Patel’s voice. The Rahul Gandhi camp hoped they could use Venugopal’s occupation of the powerful General Secretary (Organisation) office to prevent Ahmed Patel from having his way in appointments. But, Congress people close to the Rahul Gandhi camp told me Patel would bypass Venugopal and get names decided straightway from Sonia Gandhi, the interim party president. They cite the example of Rohan Gupta, who was made social media chief in this way.
People in the old guard complain that Rahul Gandhi himself didn’t take enough interest in party affairs to be present and deliberating on day to day affairs since 2019, instead hoping that a political lightweight like K.C. Venugopal would take care of the interests of Rahul Gandhi’s people. Rahul Gandhi would be away, travelling and holidaying or just being incommunicado, and urgent decisions had to be taken because there’s always some election round the corner.
Adopt the orphans
That gives you a snapshot of just how divided the Congress has been. After 2019, when Rahul Gandhi quit the president’s post, people appointed or entrusted by him found themselves ‘orphaned’. And that is exactly the word that some Ahmed Patel acolytes are using today for themselves.
This is the time for Rahul Gandhi to act decisively and end factionalism. The leader of the other side has gone to the heavens. There’s only Rahul Gandhi left. He needs to show he’s the bigger person, sending a clear signal to all Ahmed Patel acolytes that he considers them his people too. If Rahul Gandhi can do this, he will strengthen both the Congress party and his own position in it. If he can frame this as a call for unity in the Congress, he may even be able to give Congress workers and leaders a new narrative to pin their hopes on.
To do this, Rahul Gandhi has to keep five things in mind.
First, time is of the essence.
A rallying call for unity cannot wait until the formality of Rahul Gandhi’s re-appointment as Congress president takes place in a namesake election. Four state assembly elections are due in April-May 2021, the party feels ever more directionless after Ahmed Patel’s passing away and many ageing elders are in the mood for a rebellion.
No, it won’t be enough for Rahul Gandhi to call up ‘old guard’ leaders and assure them he’ll be nice to them. An honest effort at reconciliation has to be somewhat public, even if it is couched in the language of unity. It will need at least one vague acknowledgement that the party was split down the middle. You don’t solve a problem without acknowledging it.
Second, no more loyalty tests.
One reason for the unseemly sycophancy in the Congress party is the promotion of people on the basis of loyalty. It will be unfortunate if Rahul Gandhi wants those in the doghouse to demonstrate their loyalty to him. It doesn’t matter if someone said something about Rahul Gandhi in the past, or over complained about him over drinks in social gatherings and the word reached 12, Tughlaq Lane.
This is where Rahul Gandhi needs to be what a leader must be, a bigger person who forgives and forgets and put an end to the loyalty test culture. Now that there’s practically only one faction, Rahul Gandhi and his team would do well to look at all Congressmen and women as equals, in good faith. Past is past.
Third, merit should trump loyalty.
Both sides — old and new guard — rampantly promoted people for reasons of loyalty rather than merit. In the process, they hurt the Congress party. If Rahul Gandhi has the maturity to understand that the feud is over with a demise, he should replace the culture of loyalty with merit. If merit is the sole test, he will find many meritorious people in the old guard and many dead wood amongst his loyalists.
The real test of whether Rahul Gandhi is outgrowing himself and not holding past grudges over the factional battles will be to see if he is willing to promote merit from among the old guard.
Fourth, proof of merit is in accountability.
The ‘new guard’ wants to know what Anand Sharma or Ghulam Nabi Azad bring to the table today, but equally they could be asked why Praveen Chakravarty should get promoted despite being blamed for the 2019 election, or why a Randeep Surjewala keeps rising in prominence even after not being able to save his own seat in Haryana.
It is time for Rahul Gandhi to stop thinking in terms of ‘my people’ and ‘not my camp’. He should only apply the test of accountability while making appointments and giving promotions. The test of accountability is in election results.
Fifth, Rahul should put Congress above Rahul Gandhi.
Last but not the least, Rahul Gandhi needs to give up on the lost cause of building brand Rahul. He is now in charge, and those who don’t like that fact no longer have Ahmed Patel to complain to. Instead of forcing the entire party to carry the burden of building brand Rahul, he needs to rebuild brand Congress by creating and promoting grassroots leadership, minus the coterie culture that has long bedevilled the party.
The author is contributing editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.