Shimla: Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi don’t give importance and time to senior Congress leaders, which is why dissatisfaction is growing within the party, says Himachal Congress president Pratibha Singh, who is supervising the party’s campaign for the state election due in November.
In an interview with ThePrint, Singh, the wife of the late former Himachal chief minister Virbhadra Singh, added that “Rahul Gandhi needs to learn political manoeuvres and how to address the generation gap in the Congress”.
Singh’s statements come at a time when the Congress presidential election is due on 17 October and several state units have passed resolutions favouring Rahul as the party chief.
The Gandhi scion was the Congress president from 2017 to 2019.
When asked whether Rahul should again take charge of the Congress, Singh said: “It is up to Rahulji whether he wants to devote time to the party, or wants to do other things in life. It is for him to decide. In case he doesn’t want to devote time, there are many leaders and stalwarts in the party who can fill that space.”
Singh spoke at length about the communication problems between the party’s old guard and young leaders, what issues were hampering the Congress prospects in elections, and its chances in Himachal Pradesh.
In the 2017 Himachal election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 44 of the total 68 seats to form the government, ousting the Congress which managed only 21 seats.
The basic problem in the Congress, according to Singh, is that “senior leaders want attention and someone who can listen to their grievances but they [the younger lot] don’t give attention to such leaders”.
“This generation gap was addressed by Indiraji, Rajivji and Soniaji during their time, but the new generation doesn’t have patience and maturity to bridge the gap.”
“Rahul Gandhi, who is in his fourth term as a Lok Sabha member, should learn these political manoeuvres. Had he given time to party leaders and listened to them, the Congress would have been in a much better position today,” Singh said.
Singh was made the Himachal unit president in April. Elaborating on the generation gap in her party, she mentioned Ghulam Nabi Azad’s resignation last month and spoke about interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s stand on the state of affairs.
“Aaj ke bachche utna time nahi devote karte hain, toh nirasha hoti hai (today’s generation doesn’t devote much time (to listen to seniors); it is disheartening). Many people have left the party, such as Azadji. He served the party for so long… He openly said in an interview that ‘meri baat nahin suni jati, wait karna padata hai (my counsel is not taken in the party, I have to wait to speak)’,” she said.
“What the party men expect is a little respect. Whether work is done or not is a different matter, but most people get satisfied if you give them respect, time to meet and to air grievances. But the newer generation thinks it is ‘our time to lead’.”
“When I looked at the Ghulam Nabi Azad episode, and about how he spoke about his parting with the Congress, I realised that he was angry with the party for quite some time. But if you (young leaders) had called him and told him ‘come and sort out the matter’, the situation could have been better,” Singh pointed out.
On a question about why senior leader Anand Sharma resigned from chairmanship of the party’s Himachal steering committee last month, Singh told ThePrint: “Anand Sharma must [also] have felt that ‘I am such a senior leader working for the Congress for 30-40 years’. [He] was the commerce minister in the UPA government, but did not get respect from the party. So, he expressed his annoyance by resigning.”
She added that “when I called him, asking him to attend the state election committee meeting, he told me ‘since you have called, I will come’”.
Sharma and Azad were among the G-23 or ‘group of dissenters’ of the Congress who have been calling for an overhaul of the organisation and reforms in its leadership.
When asked if she had counselled Sonia Gandhi about the situation in the party, Singh told ThePrint: “Soniaji is a tall leader and (party) president for so long. I can’t give her suggestions, but Rahul should learn. I am not saying that I am giving him advice, but it is in the interest of the party. Congress would not have faced such a situation if he had heard senior leaders.”
Challenges in Himachal
The Congress has launched its campaign in Himachal Pradesh with former chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s photo in prominent display across the state.
“Virbhadraji is still in public memory, and he and his work will be a talked-about issue in the election campaign,” Singh said.
“State party leaders had said people will not look at posters if the photo of Virbhadra Singh is not there. People are very sentimental in Himachal… a leader who invested 60 years in the Congress, if you are not respecting him, this will backfire in the poll.”
Singh pointed to two challenges before the Congress in Himachal Pradesh: the crunch of resources and the BJP’s high-decibel campaign.
“The main challenge we are facing is [paucity] of funds. Our party doesn’t have the kind of resources the BJP has. Also, the BJP has made big promises to the electorate to impress them, though they have not started delivering.”
“PM Narendra Modi has started his visits to Himachal, but the people have also seen their [the BJP’s] tenure. They did not help in containing inflation, or giving employment. He [Modi] did not even mention inflation in his rally… the people will vote for us after seeing the BJP’s tenure,” the Mandi MP added.
What Congress can learn from BJP
When asked what the Congress could learn from the BJP, Singh spoke about the contrasting fortunes of the two rivals — “such a large number of MPs” to “we are only in two states”.
“We have declined over the years,” she admitted, wondering, “how things will get corrected if we will not make efforts for improvement”.
“It is not about one family,” she said. “Thousands of people have been connected with the Congress. Ask the BJP, who spent time in jail? Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself was in jail for several years… They [Congress workers] spent their lives in jail, but Modiji now says no work was done in 70 years. How can you talk like that?”
On the BJP’s allegation that the Congress was a “dynastic party” and why it could not choose a non-Gandhi to lead the party, Singh said: “I will not comment on what senior leaders are thinking, but they have to take a decision knowing the Congress’ situation in the country.”
“Let us also keep in mind that this [Gandhi] family has sacrificed leaders… Indiraji sacrificed her life. Rajiv Gandhi sacrificed his life. I want to ask how many people in the BJP sacrificed their lives?
According to her, the argument of dynastic rule “is baseless” and “in many countries dynasties are ruling”.
Prospects of AAP
Singh sees the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as having “no future” in Himachal as the state’s politics is bipolar.
The AAP has announced it would contest all 68 seats in Himachal, and has been promising schemes and sops to woo voters.
“They will not get traction in Himachal. I have visited many seats, and the people are least bothered about the AAP. Delhi is the only place [for the AAP],” said Singh.
“[AAP chief] Arvind Kejriwalji promised that ‘I will rectify the education system’, but the education system is much better in Himachal. It is a highly literate state, so people here won’t get impressed with these promises. Only those who will not get [poll] tickets will join the AAP.”
“The fight is between the BJP and Congress,” Singh asserted.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)