Sometime in 1994 when senior Congress leader Arjun Singh was having a titanic battle of supremacy with then prime minister and AICC chief P.V. Narasimha Rao, I remember running into Congress general secretary Buddha Priya Maurya. He was a Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh where a large number of Congress leaders and workers had turned against Rao. So, I asked Maurya a provocative question on why he was not supporting Arjun Singh. Maurya was not offended. In his measured voice, he said, “I hail from Atrauli, Aligarh where there is a saying that one wishes for a son-in-law or leader better than oneself. And I do not consider Arjun to be better than me.”
In the ongoing tussle between Sachin Pilot and the Congress high command, the personality of Rahul Gandhi and his impending return as the 89th president of the Indian National Congress is posing a similar resistance. Like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Pilot and a few others (who will probably quit the party in the months to come), fancy themselves as tad better than Rahul, in political acumen, social and management skills. Post the 2019 Lok Sabha election, many current and erstwhile members of ‘Team Rahul’ are beginning to look down on him. Instead of Narendra Modi as heir tormentor and wrecker-in-chief, in private conversations, they blame Rahul Gandhi for their defeat.
The Congress narrative of rewarding Sachin Pilot with a Lok Sabha berth at the age of 26, ministerial responsibility at 30 and post of deputy chief minister at 40 is proving to be counter productive because many young dynasts, who have been beneficiaries of similar largesse and patronage, deeply resent this ‘Mai Baap’ culture. According to them, the meteoric rise of Pilot, Scindia, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, Priya Dutt — all second or third-generation dynasts — was a result of their sweat and in spite of the Gandhis.
If Pilot indeed breaks away from the Congress, it will be the 49th time the grand old party will be witnessing some kind of split.
A third force
Congress ideologue V.N. Gadgil would say Congress leaders quit the party as lions and return as lambs. There is a grain of truth in it — just about 16 breakaway outfits survived, including some under illustrious figures like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Mohan Reddy, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
If Pilot’s rebellion does not go the Scindia way, and if the Gandhi family doesn’t placate him enough, there is a third way: he can break away and form a regional party. But there is a flip side too. Each time the Congress faced a third party in a state, it found itself marginalised. Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are some such states where the Congress staging a comeback on its own has become a distant dream.
Pilot’s immediate problem would be carving a niche for himself in Rajasthan while maintaining equal distance from the BJP and the Congress. Any tacit or direct alliance with the BJP would foreclose the ‘third force’ option. If he chooses to stay away from power dynamics and lets BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia dethrone Ashok Gehlot, Pilot can pitch himself as a credible alternative in the 2023 assembly election. This would require tremendous patience, application and resisting the constant temptation of high offices. More importantly, keeping elected representatives on his side would be extremely demanding.
Unlike religion, loyalty in politics is conditional and transactional. When Indira Gandhi was voted out of power in 1977, D.K. Barooah — who had (in)famously coined the ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ slogan — had switched sides. Veteran Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla had deposed before the Shah Commission of Inquiry after Indira Gandhi lost power. He also left the Congress, but rejoined later.
When the Congress under Sitaram Kesri was tottering in December 1997, Nehruvian Mani Shankar Aiyar joined the Trinamool Congress. Mani, however, returned to the parent organisation alleging that the Mamata-led Trinamool was nothing but a ‘fourth football club of Bengal’. The stories of Barooah, Shukla and Aiyar should be a lesson in politics — nothing is permanent.
A cursory look at contemporary Congress politics would show that friends, peers or white-collar professionals do not last long. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s parting with his childhood friend singularly contributed to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s downfall. As I wrote in my book, Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics, when a disillusioned Bachchan left politics, the Allahabad Lok Sabha by-elections in 1987 gave the fragmented opposition a sense that together they can humble the Congress, which then had 413 MPs in Lok Sabha.
But Bachchan wasn’t the only one who deserted Rajiv Gandhi. Arun Nehru and Arun Singh, who were successful corporate and business honchos selling paint and shoe polish, deserted Rajiv when the beleaguered prime minister needed them the most. In contrast, ‘blue collar’ political aides such as Yashpal Kapoor, R. Dhawan, M.L. Fotedar and Vincent George stood by Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi like rocks, even after experiencing neglect and humiliation.
The Dev Anand warning
While it is difficult to speculate about Sachin Pilot’s political future, rapprochement with the Congress or Gandhis is near impossible. The timing of Sachin’s defiance is baffling — Sonia Gandhi, as interim AICC chief, is set to complete a year inAugust 2020 and wants Rahul to step in her shoes. There are some in the Congress who ruefully say a formidable challenge to Rahul from within would have had greater impact than the ‘exit door policy’ adopted by the likes of Scindia.
However, a counter-argument is that given the farcical nature of party polls, even a ‘weak’ and lacklustre Sitaram Kesri could defeat the mighty Sharad Pawar and dynamic Rajesh Pilot simply because Kesri was the incumbent Congress president. The Sonia-versus-Jitendra Prasada contest was even more ludicrous, simply because ‘Jitty’ bhai was shown black flags and found state party unit offices shut when he tried convincing district and state-level party delegates.
A political life outside the Congress would not be easy for Sachin Pilot unless he travels on the Scindia path of either joining or aligning with the BJP. A third front in Rajasthan is non-existent as of now. There is no dearth of Congress leaders itching to come out of the party provided there is a non-BJP platform with a centrist agenda.
In the absence of resources, ideological clarity and pan-India identity, a pragmatic Pilot may not want to go the Dev Anand way. The actor had, in 1979-80, painstakingly formed the ‘National Party of India’ to oppose both the Indira Gandhi-led Congress and the Janata Party. The likes of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Nani Palkiwala had joined his party, but they all insisted on going to Rajya Sabha instead of fighting direct elections — much like Jyotiraditya Scindia now. Dev Anand’s shop closed abruptly, without leaving a trace.
The author is a visiting fellow at ORF. Views are personal.