New Delhi: The Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be losing its grip over the Congress, with party leaders increasingly defying its hitherto unquestioned writ, contradicting the party line on contentious issues and quitting at the very first opportunity.
Five Congress MLAs in Maharashtra have already resigned from the party and over half-a-dozen more are negotiating with the BJP, a senior state Congress functionary told ThePrint. The development is a seeming vindication of BJP chief Amit Shah’s claims that if he opens his party’s doors in Maharashtra, nobody, barring former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, will be left in the Congress.
There are similar reports from the other poll-bound states of Jharkhand and Haryana where former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has virtually revolted.
“A big worry is that the Nehru-Gandhi family that bound the party together and around which the entire party rallied at all times may be losing its hold,” said an All India Congress Committee (AICC) functionary.
There have been a number of instances to suggest that the Gandhis’ influence on the party may be waning.
When Rahul Gandhi, the former party president who is likely to return to the helm sooner rather than later, was at the receiving end of the BJP for questioning normalcy in Kashmir, which Pakistan used in its petition to the United Nations, few party colleagues came out to endorse his stand.
They berated the ruling party for twisting his remark but none came out in support of his original statement regarding “reports about people dying” in the Valley, which sparked the controversy in the first place. It’s a far cry from the time Congressmen would rush to support every word and action of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
10, Janpath, Sonia Gandhi’s residence, used to be the first port of call for any party chief minister visiting Delhi. One of them recently spent a couple of days in the national capital but left without even seeking an appointment with her, confided a Congress leader, blaming it on Rahul’s “condescending behaviour” with his party colleagues.
After Rahul offered his resignation at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting, party leaders remained silent for a day, until social media was abuzz with talk of everyone in the Congress wanting him to go. The Indian Youth Congress then decided to organise a hunger strike in front of his house but very few turned up. The move did not find an echo in the power centre of the party — many in the Congress felt senior leaders refused to take ‘responsibility’ for the poll defeat.
“There is little respect for Rahul or Priyanka (Gandhi-Vadra) in the party,” political analyst Sudha Pai told ThePrint. “Sonia is still respected because she worked a lot for the party, but Rahul failed to foresee the 2019 poll disaster and Priyanka didn’t make a dent on the scene despite expectation.”
According to Pai, Rahul has definitely been isolated in the party, especially by the old guard.
“They’re hoping Sonia will be able to rally the troops as she did in 1998, but age and the political climate are not on her side,” Pai said. “She also doesn’t have the same kind of relationship she had with other political parties in the 2000s.”
Rebellion of the junior brigade
What is more alarming for the Congress high command is what veterans see as the first signs of rebellion from the party’s prominent young faces — Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, Milind Deora in Maharashtra, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, Deepender Hooda in Haryana and Jitin Prasada in Uttar Pradesh, to name a few.
These young leaders chose to go public with their dissent against the party line on Article 370 when Sonia was preparing to take over the party’s reins as interim president, reportedly to keep the seat warm for her son. Scindia and Pilot have been sulking since they were denied chief ministership of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan last December.
Scindia’s supporters in the party have been attacking Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath and senior leader Digvijaya Singh and have even threatened to resign if the party’s reins are not handed over to the former Guna MP. The party high command sought to mollify Scindia by first appointing him general secretary in-charge of western UP and then appointing him as the chairman of Maharashtra poll screening committee.
“We know Jyotiraditya and Pilot are unhappy but how do you explain their impatience? Will the BJP make them chief ministers?” said a senior Congress leader, adding that the party was aware of “all rumours” about their next move.
Pilot recently hit out at Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s failure to prevent the closure of the Pehlu Khan case, where the accused were acquitted. Pilot insisted that an SIT should have been set up earlier to prevent the acquittals.
Prasada has been repeatedly contradicting the party line, first supporting the NDA government on its Article 370 move and then echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion for population control. His close aides, however, maintain that he is only trying to drive home the point that the party needs to understand the public mood and change its politics accordingly.
Deora, claim Maharashtra Congress leaders, has been “in touch” with the BJP and is preparing to jump ship. He didn’t respond to calls and text messages from ThePrint about these claims.
“You are only looking at famous names. Every Congress leader who is serious about his political career is exploring his/her options outside the party,” a young party functionary said.
“What do you do when people are so enthusiastic about the scrapping of Article 370, population control, and many other things advocated by Modi? Rahul Gandhi wants us to oppose everything, regardless of the public support for them. You can’t blame the leaders for looking out.”
‘Leaders see no viable future in the Congress’
According to experts, the inability of leaders to see a politically viable future for themselves in the party coupled with the leadership crisis since Rahul’s resignation has encouraged them to speak their minds.
From a virtual revolt over the abrogation of Article 370 to a simmering resentment against the inclusion of watering down the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as a key Lok Sabha poll manifesto promise, many senior Congress leaders have over the last few months expressed their discontent with the party.
Political analyst Rashid Kidwai sees this differently. “This kind of frank expression is not new in the Congress,” he told ThePrint. “The only difference is that when Sonia took over in 1998, she could offer to accommodate dissenting leaders; now, the task is tougher as the leaders feel there is no hope left in the party.”
During Sonia’s first term as party chief in 1998, the Congress faced a similar situation across the country.
For one, it was in power in only four states but the Congress did, however, have 141 MPs. Sonia was responsible for reviving the party from the ground up, easing the friction between senior leaders from former PM P. V. Narasimha Rao’s time, to finally leading the party to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
“But at this point in time, they (unhappy Congress leaders) know they have no choice other than the Congress as the BJP is overcrowded, and the regional parties are not an option,” Kidwai said.
Sonia elevation does little to quell dissent
It was expected that once Rahul was out of the picture, the Congress could put up a more cohesive, united face. But even after Sonia’s appointment as interim party chief, Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi have questioned the party’s strategy with regard to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Demonising” Modi doesn’t work they said, not unmindful of Rahul’s unrelenting haranguing of the PM.
Kidwai has a different take again. “I think it is because of Sonia Gandhi that the party has been able to hold it together. Despite talk about many leaders quitting the party, we haven’t seen a single leader exit since she took over,” he said. “This is mere posturing. They know they don’t have any other choice.”
Sonia’s presence has quelled the dissatisfaction of the leaders, said Kidwai, as they felt they would at least get a patient hearing. “It’s fashionable to criticise the Gandhis,” Kidwai said. “But the party needs to introspect and look within, many of its leaders haven’t risen to the occasion when needed.”