New Delhi: The response of Congress leaders to the Narendra Modi government’s efforts in tackling the coronavirus is bringing to the fore its intra-party politics.
There seems to be a clear difference between the tone and tenor of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and other senior leaders, especially the old guard, in taking on the government.
Gandhi has been criticising the Modi government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and has also not spoken much on the nationwide lockdown and the ‘janata curfew’ before it, which have been largely welcomed by senior leaders such as P. Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot and Ahmed Patel, among a host of others.
Rahul Gandhi’s tweets
A senior Congress leader said Rahul Gandhi sees an opportunity to target the Modi government on its inefficiency in handling the coronavirus pandemic, as he was the first to warn about its spread, in February itself.
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.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) February 12, 2020
Gandhi did term the Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 26 March as the “first step in the right direction”.
The Govt announcement today of a financial assistance package, is the first step in the right direction. India owes a debt to its farmers, daily wage earners, labourers, women & the elderly who are bearing the brunt of the ongoing lockdown.#Corona
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 26, 2020
However, he had mocked the ‘janata curfew’, during which PM Modi had urged people to show their gratitude towards those providing essential services by clapping and banging pots and pans, tweeting: “…small and medium businesses and daily wage earners are the worst hit. Clapping won’t help them”.
The #Coronavirus is a sledgehammer blow to our brittle economy.
Small & medium businesses & daily wage earners are the worst hit. Clapping won’t help them. Only a massive economic package that includes direct cash transfers, tax breaks & a moratorium on loan repayments, will. pic.twitter.com/xMBW3BGk10
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 21, 2020
Gandhi also targeted the Modi government on 23 March, asking why India did not stockpile protective equipment for health workers, as the World Health Organization had advised on Covid-19.
“WHO ki salah ventilator, surgical mask ka prayapt stock rakhne ke viprit Bharat sarkar ne 19 March tak inn sabhi cheezo ke niryat ke anumati kyun di? Ye khilwad kin taakato ki sheh par hua? Kya yeh aparadhik saazish nahi hai? (Instead of following the WHO’s advice and keeping adequate stock of ventilators and surgical masks, why did the government of India keep permitting their export until 19 March? Who are the powers behind this? Is this not criminal conspiracy?” he tweeted on March 23.
आदरणीय प्रधानमंत्री जी,
WHO की सलाह
2. सर्जिकल मास्क
का पर्याप्त स्टाक रखने के विपरीत भारत सरकार ने 19 मार्च तक इन सभी चीजों के निर्यात की अनुमति क्यों दीं?
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 23, 2020
Old guard backing Modi govt’s moves
Former Union finance minister P. Chidambaram, who has always been highly critical of the Modi government, has not only supported the lockdown, but observed the ‘janata curfew’ too.
“As desired by the PM, I am observing Janata Curfew strictly,” he tweeted on 22 March.
As desired by the PM, I am observing Janata Curfew strictly.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) March 22, 2020
Chidambaram also welcomed the lockdown, saying: “The lockdown is late, but better late than never. Those who mocked the idea of a lockdown will do the country a great favour by remaining silent for 21 days,” he posted on 24 March. He also urged all citizens to support the lockdown despite the hardships.
The lockdown is late, but better late than never. Those who mocked the idea of a lockdown will do the country a great favour by remaining silent for 21 days.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) March 24, 2020
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had also welcomed the lockdown, as did his deputy Sachin Pilot and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor.
Tharoor, on 24 March, tweeted his thanks, along with veiled criticism of the PM’s speech.
“Pleased that Narendra Modi heeded the calls of many of us for more than a week to #Lockdownnow. But his speech did not specify how people were to get essential commodities – food, medicine, milk, newspapers!? Still it is important that people #StayAtHomeSaveLives. Thanks PM,” he wrote.
Pleased that @narendramodi heeded the calls of many of us for more than a week to #LockdownNow. But his speech did not specify how people were to get essential commodities — food, medicines, milk, newspapers!? Still it’s important that people #StayAtHomeSaveLives. Thanks PM!
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 24, 2020
Differences of opinion not new
Such differences of opinion between Rahul Gandhi and veteran Congress leaders aren’t new. But their persistence, as is evident over the coronavirus crisis, comes at a time when Sonia Gandhi is said to be preparing the ground for her son’s re-installation as Congress president.
Although Rahul Gandhi has publicly maintained that he is not interested in taking over the party’s reins, he has continued to call the shots through his mother. All appointments in the party and even Rajya Sabha nominees are vetted by Rahul. The last list of Rajya Sabha nominees included two very close lieutenants of Rahul — Rajiv Satav and K.C. Venugopal.
Congress sources said that Rahul was willing to return as party chief, but only if Sonia agreed to give him a free hand in “drastically overhauling” the organisation, which means shunting out the old guard. Sonia is not ready to take that risk yet, said sources.
“Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019. It would be unjust to hold others accountable but ignore my own responsibility as president of the party,” Rahul Gandhi had written in his resignation letter after the 2019 Lok Sabha poll drubbing.
This, a senior functionary said, was a dig at the old guard.
Unhappy with the way things were moving in the Congress after the Lok Sabha debacle, the Wayanad MP showed little enthusiasm in campaigning in the Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra elections. The party put up a strong show in these elections, indicating his ineffectiveness. Rahul has, over a period of time, distanced himself from the party’s routine affairs, concentrated largely on targeting the central government on social media platforms.
The fresh tussle between Rahul and the senior leadership is taking place at a time when a section of the party, especially younger leaders, have been asking him to take on the position of party president once again.
The common feeling among many Congress leaders is that in this “war-like situation”, the government needs to be supported by the opposition.
“Many senior leaders are of the opinion that right now is not the time to target the government on each and every matter. Important issues should be raised, which are for the poor and needy, but it is not a normal scenario and the opposition has to support the government. Rahul seems to be only critical,” said a senior leader.
Another Congress leader said this difference in approach also highlights the overall differences between the old guard and Rahul Gandhi.
“Even during the CWC meeting after the poll drubbing, Rahul was quite angry, upset and his response was very aggressive as he felt the senior leaders had let the party down. The fact that he is not getting a lot of support in targeting the Modi government now also shows the clear divide,” said the second leader.