In a letter to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, in 1930, Jawaharlal Nehru told her a story from Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang’s book. It was about a man from South India who came to Karnasuvarna, a city near modern-day Bhagalpur in Bihar. He wore copper plates around his waist and had a torch attached to his head. When people asked him about this strange get-up, he would tell them that he was so wise that he was afraid his belly would burst if he didn’t wear those plates. And he carried the torch because he was moved with pity for the ignorant people around him, living in darkness.
Nehru told Indira that unlike the conceited man in Hiuen Tsang’s book, he had limited wisdom and so he wouldn’t pose as a wise man and sermonise. The best way to find out what is right and what is not is not by giving a sermon, but by talking and discussing, he wrote. Nehru couldn’t have imagined then that his descendants would read his letters in Glimpses of World History and learn a different lesson from the story.
About 90 years after he wrote that letter, the Gandhi family seems to have acquired titanium plates around its waist. Instead of the torch, they have got night-vision goggles, which enable them to see in the dark while other Congress members and commoners remain blinded. Aside, Rahul Gandhi is also relieved that he is an MP from south India and not from the north (read Karnasuvarna, metaphorically).
The rebel G-23 leaders may be yelling themselves hoarse about the “weakening” of the Congress, but the Gandhi family is still oozing with confidence, with Priyanka Gandhi promising to repeal the three controversial farm laws and Rahul Gandhi vowing not to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Assam.
Their politics is also sorted: eating mushroom biryani and watching jallikattu with Tamil Nadu villagers, swimming with fishermen in Kerala’s Kollam, and reading Thirukkural, a revered Tamil classic that, Rahul said, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t opened the book of.
The Gandhi family’s political wisdom is rubbing off on its loyalists, too. When veteran leader Kapil Sibal, a G-23 member, said in the context of Rahul’s ‘north-south’ remark that the Congress should respect every voter, he got a sermon from Indian Youth Congress president Srinivas BV on Twitter: “Stop lecturing party while sitting on sidelines. Congress Party need leaders on the ground….(sic)”.
No ideology, leader or money
Six months after the G-23 wrote that controversial letter to Sonia Gandhi, one thing is absolutely clear: Gandhi family is so full of wisdom—like the one in Hiuen Tsang’s book—that it can’t brook any advice from others on how to run the party. It won’t allow any voice, other than the family’s, in the decision-making process—something the dissidents are seeking to achieve by demanding election to the Congress Working Committee and the Election Committee. But G-23 members aren’t ready to give up as was evident from the tone and tenor of their speeches in Jammu on Saturday.
There are broadly three elements that keep any political worker or leader bound to a party—sense of belongingness borne out of either ideological commitments or being part of a larger cause or movement; future prospects under a popular, charismatic leader who can deliver electoral successes; access to resources.
The present-day Congress has none. Most of the G-23 members—and many, many others—are committed to the Congress party’s ideology as they have come to understand it over decades. But they find the party leadership totally confused today, be it the latter’s vacillations between secularism and soft Hindutva or confusing response to national security issues, to name just two. Being a part of a movement or cause is no more about the people; it must be the Gandhi family’s cause. On the issue of charismatic leadership, most Congresspersons have as much faith in Rahul Gandhi’s ability to win elections today as Narendra Modi or Amit Shah has. As for the resources to keep their politics going, ask Congress candidates in recent assembly elections or just check with Gujarat Congress working president Hardik Patel who says that party candidates in recent municipal elections had to spend their own money and he himself cannot afford to do a Facebook Live because the camera would cost him Rs 7,000. (Wonder why he can’t do it on his mobile!)
The G-23 members are not the only ones in the Congress who are feeling alienated from the party (leadership).
A do-or-die battle
So, what’s the way out of this stalemate between G-23 and the Gandhi family?
Sonia or Rahul is no Indira Gandhi. In 1969 and 1978, she had taken on Congress heavyweights and split the party. On both occasions, she had left the original party with rumps and gone on to establish her outfit as the real Congress. Then party presidents, S. Nijalingappa and Brahmananda Reddy, were in her opposition camps and had expelled her. Sonia Gandhi knows Rahul or Priyanka doesn’t have their grandmother’s charisma to get the support of a majority of Congresspersons if they were to leave the party or be expelled like Indira Gandhi. Sonia won’t, therefore, give up the reins of the Congress. When push comes to the shove, Sonia, in her capacity as interim Congress president, would be the one to take action against them.
Even though G-23 has a mass leader such as Bhupinder Singh Hooda and some current and former Members of Parliament, walking out of the Congress to form their own outfit is not an easy option. They must fight from within– as long as it lasts. They know how the high command has treated Ghulam Nabi Azad. It’s not just about his re-nomination to the Rajya Sabha. The Gandhis have sent clear signals that he should opt for political retirement because they don’t see any role for him in the party. It was Azad who had wangled 41 seats from then Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief Karunanidhi in the 2016 assembly election—despite having lost 58 of the 63 seats that the Congress had contested in the 2011 assembly election. Yet, in the 2021 assembly election, the Congress high command has chosen Oommen Chandy and Randeep Surjewala to hold seat-sharing negotiations with the DMK. Azad must read the writing on the wall. And so must the other G-23 members. This explains their gathering in Jammu on Saturday.
But G-23 members also know it’s a do-or-die battle. If they can’t galvanise enough support in the party, the Gandhi family would get back at them sooner or later—probably after getting Rahul Gandhi re-installed as Congress president in June. That’s why he is making frequent trips to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Priyanka, who virtually disappeared for months, is back in the field, addressing farmers’ rallies and meeting aggrieved families. If the Congress forms the government in Kerala and becomes a part of the DMK-led government in Tamil Nadu, it should bolster Rahul’s claim for party presidentship. Given the party’s dismal prospects in Assam and West Bengal, he would rather stay away from those states—or make guest appearances.
If things fall in place as planned, dissenters can be taken care of after Rahul becomes the Congress president again. If that results in a split in the party, so be it. After all, the Gandhi family is bigger than the Congress—or thinks it is.
G-23 members know it. They have two options—to get a bullet in the back or in the chest. This means that the choice of backing down is not available any longer. They must be looking at opinion polls anxiously. As predicted, if the Congress gets another electoral drubbing, the Gandhi family may feel compelled to make a calculated retreat and talk peace while nursing its injured pride and preparing to fight another day. Otherwise, another split in the Congress looks inevitable.
Views are personal.