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Les Misérables

Les Misérables
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This perfectly sounding ‘Once Upon A time …’ beginning hit the pause button, as Narendra Modi phenomenon shook the Congress party along with the entire nation. It’s said that wishes are not always horses. Gandhi faced a massive jolt in the midst of his ride with his party being reduced to lowest ever number of seats in the Lok Sabha – 44. The party had never ever found itself at
such an ebb.

The election results created a ripple effect in the party, diminishing the power of the young brigade which had a major say in party matters earlier because of Rahul’s support. A source said, ‘Unlike the pre-poll scene, Rahul’s team of youngsters too has faced a setback. Meanwhile, the party’s old guards have managed to retain their positions of power. The influence of Rahul’s young team has been limited now as they don’t enjoy the same privileges as before.’

After the terrible performance, Congress president Sonia Gandhi set up a committee under former union minister AK Antony to look into the reasons for defeat. The Antony committee report submitted recently is said to have completely absolved party’s top leadership, including Rahul Gandhi, for having any role in the debacle. After the defeat, in fact both Rahul and Sonia had accepted personal responsibility and offered to resign but were asked by Congress Working Committee to stay on and revive the party.

The much-talked-about report was submitted to Sonia Gandhi on 14 August. The four-member panel, apart from Antony, consisted of AICC general secretary Mukul Wasnik, secretary RC Khuntia and Avinash Pandey. Antony when asked about the report said, ‘Actually during this election, only Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, these two people extensively toured all over the country. Difficult terrain, difficult weather, but they extensively campaigned all over the country. They are our leaders. They worked very hard. And there is no criticism about the party leadership.’ He also said the ‘reasons for the Congress defeat were something else’ but did not elaborate.

A veteran leader explained that it (Antony report) was essentially an internal report, the contents of which are only meant for the Congress president.  ‘If it is required then after consultations amongst party members corrective measures can be taken on the basis of this report. But all this takes place at party level and if any final decision is taken then it is issued out in the public domain,’ he said. Internally this leader is known to be quite critical of Rahul’s way of working, in fact when asked about it, he dismissed the question saying,’I will not comment on any individual in the party.’

Party insiders reveal that actually there exists a divided feeling (both for and against) Rahul Gandhi in Congress. A section of senior party functionaries are quite unhappy with his style of functioning and management of party affairs. There is an unsaid disquietude brewing among these senior leaders who are perturbed by the fact that Rahul sends his representative or emissary to meet party stalwarts like Moti Lal Vohra. A source in the party also revealed that as an expression of his displeasure with the way Rahul had been working, Vohra (who is also the party’s treasurer) had in fact stalled releasing of funds for some of Rahul’s ambitious projects.

Senior functionaries of the party feel that comparatively Sonia was a much more accessible leader who took not just the party but also the allies along.  ‘She was more patient and listened to views before taking a decision,’ added the source. Meanwhile, Rahul is seen as rubbing the allies the wrong way invariably. An insider recounts that when an alliance with Ajit Singh was nearly finalised in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul sent Kanishka Singh from his office to meet him. An irked Singh was upset and even decided to rethink his decision when Sonia intervened and resolved the matter.

‘Rahul operates like a CEO and his functioning does not depend so much on the political set-up. He operates from a war room which is run by young leaders due to which the senior leaders feel alienated,’ said a source.

In the recently concluded Budget session of Parliament Rahul became the first member of Nehru-Gandhi family to storm the Well of the House. He was leading a protest demanding a discussion on communal violence, which he claims the Speaker wasn’t allowing. When the issue was finally taken up, Rahul did not speak on the issue which left party leaders disappointed and gave the opposition a stick to beat with. In fact one Congress MP said when Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanath commented that the Congressmen were behaving like ‘agents of Pakistan’,  all Congress leaders rose in protest while Rahul Gandhi remained seated fiddling with his mobile. A senior Congress leader in fact pointed out later that it seemed that ‘raising this issue in Parliament was a big mistake because we were pushed on the back foot.’

Also what lies ahead for Rahul Gandhi is a fresh litmus test as state elections in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir are coming up. In each of these states Congress is in power, alone or with allies. The chances of retaining power in these states looks remote and if this prophecy comes true murmurs for removal of Rahul would get louder.

Meanwhile, the entire youth brigade is loyally hailing the charisma of the ‘young’ Gandhi. They feel he is the one who will change the existing dynamics in the party. Indian Youth Congress president, Rajeev Satav explained, ‘During the election time Rahul Gandhiji was not holding a government post.

He was not one of the ministers or the prime minister.  Those who were in power (holding office) did not campaign so much. It was Rahulji who had extensively campaigned everywhere. It was not like the finance minister or any other minister who was out campaigning, it was Rahulji who did that across the country. Also there were 10 years of anti-incumbency  so you cannot blame Rahulji for the performance of the government. He was the only star campaigner who went across the country.

In spite of all this we got 20 per cent increase in votes which means one out of 5 people voted for the Congress despite the Modi wave.’ ‘He was heading the entire campaign, making speeches, constantly travelling, meeting party workers. He should not be blamed for the results at all. In fact he has been the face saver for the Congress,’ he added.

Echoing similar sentiment as Satav, National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) national president Roji M John said, ‘The campaign of our vice-president Rahul ji was actually were effective. One person alone cannot be blamed for the debacle. It is completely unfair only to target him as a leader.  In fact the party took collective responsibility for the result.

Through the campaign Rahulji emphasized on positive steps as he talked about development unlike the BJP’s negative divisive campaign.  During his campaign Rahulji has managed to revive party cadres in Youth Congress and NSUI.  Rahulji’s focus on organisational revamp is a long-term process, cannot be done overnight, to infuse new energy and blood in the organisation and promote new faces from grassroots, will show results very soon.’

Passing the buck on the government has been the option exercised by Gandhi supporters. A confidant of Rahul Gandhi who was one the principal architects of his campaign explained, ‘Rahul Gandhi election campaign was a success as he managed to get the people who voted for the party in 2009 to vote again in 2014. The Congress in many states managed to hold on to its previous votes, but we also lost out in several places as well.’

‘Most pre poll surveys indicated that the Congress was not going to do well. Primarily because of price rise and corruption perceived inability of the government to perform. Why suddenly did the blame shifted from the government to the party to finally a leader? If there was a problem with the leader why was it pointed out after 16 May? Why is the blame being pinned on him now?’ he questioned.

‘The global economics situation hit a bottomless pit in 2011-12. Even after that problems continued for the next two years. The public reacts to immediate concerns and issues. Economic downturn and corruption can be seen as important explanations for the party’s performance,’ he added.

Meanwhile there has been a sentiment in some sections of party on the need to bring Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into active politics. But this cannot be done without sidelining Rahul. Also Priyanka, for now, has made it clear that there was no probability of her assuming a larger role in the party. ‘Constant conjecture about my assuming various posts in Congress and the manner this issue is brought up at opportune moments is incorrect,’ she had said in a statement, adding,’ I would be very grateful to all concerned if they desisted from encouraging such baseless rumours.’ But the unhappy lot of senior leaders has pushed for this move and in fact some of them have personally requested her to reconsider her decision and assume a politically significant role in the party.

A senior party leader feels that criticism against Gandhi cannot be attributed to a certain section but is a matter of individual voices being raised. ‘Even if there are dissenting voices in the party then it is individualistic concern. It is not a thinking which is being perpetuated by a certain group or section of leaders. This is a strong belief in the fact that without a Nehru clan leader heading the party, it will fall apart,’ he said.

Explaining the significance of Rahul leading the Congress in the future, political analyst Badri Narayan said, ‘Whether the Antony committee report has absolved Rahul Gandhi of the Lok Sabha poll debacle or not, I feel it is him who will lead the Congress in the future. Priyanka has already refused, while Sonia Gandhi’s health has been an issue, which makes Rahul the only choice to lead the party. The Congress has no one else to take them ahead.’

‘It is very significant to note the importance of the symbol of Nehru family in the party. Rahul although was the electoral leader during these polls, he cannot be solely blamed for the terrible performance of the party. Congress was facing massive anti-incumbency, now what could Rahul do about that alone? Next time when Congress comes to power it will be Rahul who will lead it. In fact he will be able to bring together and face the next election. Rahul has wonderful organising skills but he will have to work on his abilities to be a stronger mass leader,’ he added.

Reasserting the importance of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in the party, senior party leader Shakeel Ahmad said, ‘He (Rahul Gandhi) was our leader, is our leader and will always remain our leader. Irrespective to what people have had to say about him, the fact remains that he possesses all the qualities and capabilities of a big leader of national stature. He has his own vision and way of thinking, unfortunately he has always been misjudged by the media. Indian media especially and media at large has failed to realise the real potential of Rahul Gandhi.’
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