The Gandhi family emerged victorious on Monday, putting down a mini-rebellion by a band of 20 Congress leaders who wanted to end ad-hocism and uncertainty about the party leadership.
In a seven-hour-long, well-choreographed meeting of the extended Congress Working Committee (CWC), family loyalists rallied around Sonia Gandhi. As expected, they persuaded her to continue as interim party president until the All India Congress Committee (AICC) elects a new president (read Rahul Gandhi).
In the Gandhi family’s victory though, the Congress ended up as the big loser. Here was an opportunity for the party to introspect about the continuous erosion in its support base and its leadership’s failure to match up to Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. No one was expecting the CWC to run down the party’s first family or to even think about its dispensability. The Gandhis remain the only glue binding the party from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. But there have been many questions about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and style of functioning. The CWC could have used the letter from the 20 Congressmen as an opportunity to address those questions.
The leaders, who thought of shaking up the party from slumber and inertia, ended up with bruised noses. Rahul Gandhi, the de facto party chief, virtually painted them as betrayers, questioning their decision to send the letter when Sonia was ill and the party was fighting it out with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
These leaders were seeking answers to questions that weighed on the minds of millions of Congress members and voters: Why must Rahul Gandhi continue the hypocrisy of not holding any post when he is the de facto party chief, taking all decisions? Why can’t he be a serious full-time politician? Why can’t he understand Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics? Why does he live in an imaginary world where the people must feel obliged to see his virtues and the BJP’s ‘evil designs’? Why must party veterans pay obeisance to the political greenhorns who are his advisers?
To be fair to these 20 leaders who are set to have a tough time in the party henceforth, they didn’t specifically ask these questions. But these were the obvious questions that emanated from their letter that raised many pertinent issues— need for a full-time president, collective leadership, re-constitution of a parliamentary board to make crucial policy decisions, et al.
There will be no answers now. The rebellion has been put down and the Gandhi family’s supremacy has been re-established.
Dent in Gandhi family’s image
The skirmish has, however, damaged the Gandhi family’s image, especially Sonia’s. “The family made sacrifices for the country and the party” was the clamour of the hurriedly organised ‘Rahul-Priyanka Gandhi Sena’ that had gathered outside 10, Janpath just before the CWC meeting. If Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had laid their lives for the country, Sonia made the ‘supreme sacrifice’ of refusing to become the Prime Minister of India when she had the chance in 2004. She had refused to join politics after the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, but changed her mind seven years later because she said she “owed it to the party” and her family members to not sit back when communal forces were in the ascendant. In 1999, when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar led the rebellion against her over her foreign origin issue, she walked into the CWC meeting to tender her resignation.
Congressmen who didn’t tire of citing these instances to hail the Gandhi family and justify the dynastic rule in the party must be doing a re-think Monday evening. They would now see in Sonia Gandhi a mother who wouldn’t mind sacrificing the interests of the party to protect those of her son. The image of a son hiding behind his mother is not an image suited to a former-and-would-be Congress president. A self-proclaimed champion of internal democracy in the party chose to hit out at his party colleagues for raising questions about leadership.
Rahul is no Indira and has none of her leadership
It’s not the first time that the Congress party’s first family faced a challenge to its authority. In 1969, Indira Gandhi successfully took on the Syndicate, comprising powerful Congress veterans, splitting the party and relegating them to the footnotes of history in subsequent years. Indira did it again nine years later and came out still stronger. Sonia Gandhi, too, had her battles to fight—first with Narasimha Rao who sought to sideline the Gandhi family, then with Sitaram Kesri who wouldn’t make way for her, and then again with the Sharad Pawar-P.A. Sangma-Tariq Anwar trio over her foreign-origin issue. Sonia emerged unscathed, with the family pride and aura intact.
Rahul Gandhi has, however, come out wounded from this small skirmish with a band of 20. He had resigned after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He was apparently expecting mass resignation in his support but was let down by his party colleagues. He will regain the post again at the next AICC session. But to ensure that it happens smoothly, Rahul Gandhi will have to bank on the same party veterans that he and his sister, Priyanka, have been berating for the rot in the party.
Since his appointment as general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) in 2007, Rahul has been seeking to dislodge those entrenched veterans. He started his experiment of democratisation through internal elections in these organisations. The ostensible aim was to bring the youth into the political mainstream, but the idea was to develop an alternative crop of leaders at each level—from the assembly to Lok Sabha constituencies— to displace the entrenched leadership. The experiment failed as scions of entrenched politicians used the same elections to get organisational positions.
The second phase of his battle with the old guard started in 2013 when he became the party vice-president. With the backing of his mother, then Congress president, Rahul Gandhi made fresh attempts to dislodge the veterans. Bhupinder Hooda, one of the signatories to the recent letter, was a victim of this experiment because Gandhi got his lieutenant, Ashok Tanwar, appointed as Haryana Congress president to undermine the former CM. Tanwar was no match to Hooda in terms of mass base and organisational skills, and so he failed. In Rajasthan, Rahul sent Sachin Pilot to replace Ashok Gehlot and the tussle continued for over five years until the two came face to face last month. In Maharashtra, Rahul kept experimenting to undermine former CM Prithviraj Chavan, another signatory to the letter. In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh is still under the firing line of those enjoying Rahul’s patronage.
The Congress vice-president, who got elevated to president in 2017, kept making these experiments to undermine the veterans, but couldn’t succeed because his lieutenants couldn’t match up to them. Resigning as Congress president in 2019, he made his displeasure with party veterans public, saying how he was alone in his fight against Modi and the BJP. He and his sister recently lambasted them for not speaking against Modi.
The Old Guard may be grateful to the band of 20. For Rahul must fall back on the same veterans to get elected as Congress president now.
Views are personal.