The coronavirus crisis has brought to fore what many Congress leaders felt for long but chose to overlook: That the party’s ‘first family’ may be close-knit but its three members don’t necessarily share a common political outlook in terms of their responses to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his politics and governance.
To repeat an oft-made point for emphasis, Covid-19 is to Modi what Hurricane Katrina of 2005 was to then US president George Bush. Both leaders’ ‘war on terror’ secured them a second term in office.
Bush reacted to Katrina too late and lost the battle of perception. Modi, also in the tenth month of his second term, might have reacted a bit late but has managed to win the battle of optics, emerging as a guardian angel who is prepared to take tough decisions for the common good. Reactions of his political adversaries are on familiar lines — unsure, confused and full of self-doubt.
The approaches of the three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, especially the siblings, are noteworthy — not because of any radical departure from their usual self-preservatory practices but because of the seeming differences in their political outlook, a factor Congress leaders would be eagerly watching.
Sample the words and actions of each member of the Congress party’s first family since March 19 — when Prime Minister Modi addressed the nation, his first of three since then, to call for a day-long ‘Janata Curfew’.
Sonia Gandhi: Bide your time
Sonia Gandhi’s response has been on predictable lines — issuing statements of support to the Modi government but with a lot of caveats about the results of the “unplanned” nationwide lockdown. So, is the Congress opposed to how Modi has been dealing with the coronavirus crisis? No. The opposition party has extended support to the government and says the lockdown “may be necessary”. But does the Congress really support the government’s action? No. It has a lot of issues with the government’s delayed response, limited testing, neglect of the poor while planning the lockdown, and lack of foresight about the Covid-19’s impact on the Indian economy. So, if you are confused about the Congress’ stand, welcome aboard. Not many Congress leaders can decipher it either.
That’s the Congress party’s way of playing the role of a constructive opposition. The sum and substance of Sonia Gandhi’s politics is: Be patient and bide your time. Sonia Gandhi had waited six years for power at the Centre after taking over the leadership of the Congress in 1998 and she can wait for a decade this time, if not more, as long as she is able to ensure that her children (the son, preferably) controls the reins of the party.
Mind you, the politics of Sonia Gandhi doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the entire Congress; it represents a section comprising the old guards who have stood by her for over two decades. Rahul Gandhi’s loyalists have been demanding his return as Congress president but he wouldn’t do it under the shadow of party veterans, a wish his mother wouldn’t fulfil, given how his young lieutenants have reduced him to a butt of joke in Indian politics.
Rahul Gandhi: Would-have-been PM’s I-told-you-so moment
Let’s not divert from the main subject — that is, the politics of the three members of the Congress party’s first family in times of coronavirus crisis. If Sonia Gandhi’s response has been the familiar wait-and-watch policy, Rahul Gandhi’s seems to be the lament of someone who was once described as the would-have-been Prime Minister of India by a foreign magazine.
A perennial rebel in search of a cause, Rahul Gandhi has been living the I-told-you-so moment for the last fortnight. “The Corona Virus is an extremely serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is the government is not taking this threat seriously,” he had tweeted on 12 February. He has been harping on it since then. Although he does have a point about the Modi government’s relatively delayed response to the Covid-19 threat — probably because of preoccupations with US President Donald Trump’s visit and then the political instability in Madhya Pradesh — to expect the government of India to swing into action because of his tweet is a bit rich.
The former Congress president has been seeking to fulfil his responsibility as a prominent opposition leader by berating the Modi government on Twitter where he has 12.8 million followers — barely 10 per cent of even the total Congress voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. “Making people clap & shining torches in the sky isn’t going to solve the problem,” Rahul tweeted on Saturday, unmindful of the overwhelming public response to the prime minister’s calls. Rahul’s message is unmistakable: Only the Congress, especially the Gandhi family, knows how to rule and people must realise it by now.
Priyanka Vadra: No dig at Modi, constructive criticism of govt
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been in sharp contrast to her brother’s and mother’s. Tweets by her and her brother on 21 March, a day before the Janata Curfew, were indicative of this. Priyanka uploaded a 1:04-minute video, washing her hands with liquid soap to convey to the people how “small precautions” would strengthen the fight against the coronavirus. On the same day, her brother tweeted how small and medium businesses and daily wage earners were the worst hit and “clapping won’t help them.”
Unlike her brother, Priyanka Gandhi has refrained from attacking PM Modi’s popular decisions. Even while taking up the cause of migrant workers, she has been subtle in her criticism of the “government”, without bringing the PM into it: “Praja Kare hahakar, jago he Sarkar (citizens are in grief, government wake up).”
As the in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka has deployed Congress workers on the ground to help the people, a move the central leadership of the party has failed to emulate. So, while Union ministers are tweeting pictures of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s relief works — and sometimes of the BJP’s too — Priyanka has been showcasing the assistance being provided by Congress workers to the needy people in Uttar Pradesh. She even wrote to Mukesh Ambani of Reliance, Sunil Bharti Mittal of Airtel, and BSNL authorities among others to make incoming and outgoing calls free for the next one month to help migrants keep in touch with their families.
Priyanka’s politics in times of Covid-19 threat seems to suggest a conscious attempt to refrain from Modi-bashing, her brother’s favourite pastime, which has done little to improve the Congress party’s image among the people. She also refrains from retweeting Rahul Gandhi’s tweets in which he seems to be attacking the Prime Minister. Incidentally, Rahul seldom retweets her tweets. He is not known to retweet, anyway — except his own tweets, sometimes.
It’s too early to judge Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s politics by her words and actions in a fortnight. The fact is that all her advisers and associates, mostly Left-leaning, were picked up by Rahul Gandhi and it’s only a matter of time when they re-set her politics to make it more in tune with her brother’s. Congress leaders may just hope otherwise.
Views are personal.