A quaint formula?
Projection of Rahul Gandhi as a progressive party leader by sidelining old guards appears to follow Indira’s comeback trail; success, however, remains foggy
The recently held Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting has made quite a few things clear. First, the Nehru dynasty is not ready to give up the control of the party. Second, it is Rahul Gandhi who will be the next party president notwithstanding his earlier statement that "it is time for a non-Nehru family member to lead the party". Third, anyone who opposes the first two things has no place in the party. The way Priyanka Vadra is involved in the party decisions, the way she is praised for the lead she has taken in the Uttar Pradesh party matters, it is clear that the third member from the family will have to be accepted as a hereditary leader and decision maker.
Congress is at the crossroads. When it was at its peak during Indira Gandhi's time, there was no party to oppose her confidently. It took almost two decades for the BJP to grow as a party and throw a challenge to Congress in the post-Indira era. When the party was taken over by the dynasty again in 1998, the Congress came in power for a decade, though it was not on its own strength but through a right combination of winning regional parties in the UPA. Sonia Gandhi lorded over the party and the PMO but failed to focus on regaining the lost space in critical states of UP and Bihar. Its influence further shrank because of the corruption prevailing under UPA rule. The loss in 2014 general elections under Sonia's leadership, and 2019 elections under Rahul Gandhi's leadership, pushed the Congress to desperation despite its temporary gains in 2018 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Its attempt to form a coalition in Karnataka failed. The Maharashtra coalition is shattering and the alliance with RJD in Bihar is also on the verge of breaking. TMC, TRS, YSRCP and the other regional parties in power are not ready to join hands with Congress. SP and BSP have also moved away from the Congress.
Congress is in such dire straits after its loss of face in 2021 assembly elections that it is looking for a miraculous way to sail itself out of the troubled political waters. With internal dissent growing, the party think tank looked for a new idea but, unfortunately, they got only an old one, and adopted the 1969 successful model of Indira Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi had built up a political vote bank of SCs, STs and Muslims through pampering schemes, but retained the leadership in forward castes. She directly appealed to the women voters through her feminine charm and compassionate concern exhibited towards women. That was a huge unbreachable vote bank. That vote bank was weaned away by the regional parties in the post-liberalization era. SCs and STs communities moved to BSP, Muslims moved to regional outfits like SP, RJD, TMC, and upper castes became the strong supporters of BJP. Getting back those deserted groups is a big task for the Congress. The recent announcement by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, of giving 40 per cent of Congress' tickets to women in UP elections, is aimed at recovering the lost vote bank. It is with an aim to consolidate SC vote bank that the Congress nominated a member from SC community to the CM's post in Punjab and promised to nominate CM from the same community in Uttarakhand if voted to power. To get the forward castes back into its fold, the 'soft Hindutva' card is being played. Only change from the Indira Gandhi model is not wooing Muslims, as party leaders feel that such wooing may hurt their soft Hindutva image. Roping in of Kanhaiya Kumar from CPI and Jignesh Mevani and Chandrasekhar Azad from SC communities is another attempt in this direction.
The only thing left in replicating the Indira Gandhi model is the required ideological shift. That is possible if the party is willfully split to suit Rahul Gandhi's coronation. The situation in which Rahul Gandhi is now is similar to that of Indira Gandhi in 1969. The difference being that she was the PM and party president then, and Rahul Gandhi is in control of the party only. Then Indira Gandhi faced opposition within the party from senior leaders like Morarji Desai, Kamaraj Nadar, Nijalingappa, Sanjiva Reddy; just as G 23 members are questioning the competency of Rahul Gandhi's leadership. Indira was helped by her Kashmir Pandit lobby to affect the split in party on ideological lines. It was a successful move to get rid of the old guard. The then seniors were labelled as 'reactionary' and 'pro rich syndicate' and Indira was projected as progressive, pro-poor. This image was substantiated through the nationalization of banks and offering of liberal loans to the poor. Socialism, which was till then the slogan of the Communists, was hijacked by Indira Gandhi. Left-leaning politicians like Kumaramangalam and Raghunath Reddy were roped in besides the Young Turk group within the party including Chandra Shekhar and Krishna Kant. It was this ideological coup that gave Indira Gandhi a chance to recover the political image and score a stunning victory in 1971, riding on the 'Garibi Hatao' slogan. Even the senior CPI leaders like SA Dange and Chandra Rajeswara Rao had fallen prey to the guiles of Indira Gandhi.
This model of generational shift in leadership by throwing away the seniors is underway in the Congress party to project Rahul Gandhi as an ideologically progressive leader. The recent indirect warning from Sonia Gandhi to the G 23 leaders may be indicative of the things coming in future. Gulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal and other seniors may be projected as 'speed breakers' to the party's run which Rahul Gandhi has taken up. The pro-poor image of the party is going to be built up by proposed protests on the petrol prices and prices of essential commodities, Corona deaths, migrant labour problem and the negative rankings for India on the hunger scale and poverty. Those findings showed India behind Pakistan, Sri Lanka and that is certainly an issue which the Congress can cash on.
But the eternal question for Rahul Gandhi remains. Unlike Indira Gandhi, who could communicate effectively with masses, Rahul Gandhi is a poor communicator. His image of Pappu is yet to get erased. So, though there is a model to copy, can Rahul Gandhi do that is to be seen.
Views expressed are personal