Return of the prodigal son
As the Congress gasps for recovery, still facing the aftershocks of humiliating defeat in last year’s Lok Sabha poll, it faces the challenge of rejuvenation. Will it’s Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as President give the party the oxygen it needs? Maybe India’s grand old party needs RaGa in his new avatar, instilling fresh ideas and embellishing it with youthful energy. But therein lies the dichotomy.
A deep ideological chasm separates the Congress’ Old Guard and Team Rahul members in executing this concept in its entirety. But the pertinent question is – are all the ‘foot soldiers’ of the Congress ready to accept the accession of Rahul Gandhi as Congress President? Will the Sonia Gandhi loyalists who have worked hard all these years to garner her trust and loyalty,
readily shift to the Rahul camp, or will they be rendered redundant in the process?
Most importantly, has the ideal time come for Rahul to take over as the party’s chief? Noted sociologist Dipankar Gupta pertinently pointed out, “Organisationally people get cross-eyed when there are two or more people on the top of equal eminence. So to be able to remove that problem, it is best that either the mother or the son take over as chief of the party. I would think if the Congress' plan is that if Rahul Gandhi should move in that position then it is best that he should do that now, without his mother standing in the shadows or obviously pulling the strings. So, it is either mother or son whoever it is, otherwise it creates a lot of confusion in an organisation. Especially if the leadership position is not clear this holds true for a political party as much of a corporate structure as much for a university.”
Rahul’s succession as party’s President is in the pipeline, but when is the question that looms. “It is clearly not a decision that will be forced down our throats. If his name comes up for the post of President then of course there will be open resentment in the party. It is not that all of us are willingly sitting to accept him as our President,” said a senior Congress leader.
After Rahul’s dramatic comeback to the country, his party and also the political terrain, have discovered a ‘new-found’ energy. Featuring daily in news, Rahul has ensured his comeback is visible to everyone. In fact his homecoming was highlighted in the mega farmers’ rally that he addressed on 19 April in the Capital.
Post sabbatical, media went gung-ho about Rahul Gandhi’s power-packed return to the Parliament and his political antics. Whether it was about raising the issue of Net Neutrality in Parliament, attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign tours or the suit-boot sarkaar jibe, Gandhi was all over the place repeating his favourite tagline “This government is anti-farmer and pro-corporates.”
The newly installed or updated software in Rahul’s system, ever since 19 April, has been playing this line. Slip back to the pre-Lok Sabha poll scenario last year. When Rahul was asked about any possible issue in the country, his befitting reply invariably echoed three things – “MNREGA, Women empowerment and RTI”. Now those three issues have been replaced by the “farmer-corporate” phrase.
Let’s now analyse Rahul’s tryst with the farmer issue, something which has been made to be very close to his heart... an issue he has been proactively involved in for a long time. Recently he did a kisan padyatra in Vidarbha and visited farmers in Punjab’s mandis. After which he came back to Delhi and in the Parliament
created a furore about the pricing in mandis, addressed rallies on the issue and later visited the hospital immediately after the farmer Gajender Singh died in an Aam Aadmi Party rally in the Capital.
While talking about one such visit some time back, a party insider, who had accompanied Rahul recounted, “This incident took place at a public interaction that Gandhi had with the farmers in Punjab. Several farmers from various districts had gathered to hear him speak. He started by saying, “Aap log ghehu ke paidh kaise ugate ho... (how do you grow wheat trees?)” Hearing this farmers were dumbfound. At this point a party worker intervened saying what Rahul means is how do you sow wheat. To which Rahul cut him short and asked again, “Nahi, main janana chahta hu ghenhu paidh pe kaise ugta hai”. The farmers and party workers remained clueless to what he seemed to be talking about. Finally someone intervened and told him wheat is not grown on trees it is sown in the ground.
Hilarious as it may sound, his disconnect with ground reality is a disturbing thought. “This man has no idea of basic things. I mean how can he not know that wheat is not grown on trees. It is sad. Even if his succession is pushed at us, there will be resentment from all quarters. We all have worked with Sonia and seen a clear distinction in their style of functioning. She at least heard us out, unlike him,” added the insider.
Questioning Rahul’s visit to Kedarnath, some Congress leaders viewed this exercise as a softening of stand towards Hindutva. “What kind of political advisers is he consulting? To garner a particular vote-bank you set off to Kedarnath and what next? Maybe hop onto a plane and head to Mecca for Muslim votes and then travel to Bethlehem for Christian votes? It is just being foolish,” said one such leader.
Criticism against Rahul has been flowing in from all quarters. Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit had clearly said that he wanted “Sonia Gandhi to remain as party chief.” He had also talked about the culture ailing in the party, “The culture [in Congress] has become elitist and arrogance grows from it; our cadres are uncomfortable in such a situation,” he said. Meanwhile Rahul’s
loyalist Digvijaya Singh had tweeted, “If Rahul wants to reflect what went wrong why criticise him? Everyone wants some peace to reflect. Only timing could have been better.” The party’s general secretary had said the timing of his sabbatical could be better and then later he said Rahul needed to be active on social media to counter the BJP.
The Old Guard is furious at what this young man is doing. Sources say that senior leaders have poured their heart’s woes to Sonia’s political secretary and party’s old timer Ahmed Patel. The question now is where are the big guns of the previous government, be it Kamal Nath, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal and most of all P Chidambaram. The Old Guard that helped Sonia run the party successfully primarily include Ahmed Patel, Janardhan Dwivedi, Motilal Vora, Ambika Soni, A K Antony and some others.
The new age faces which are seen to be on the fringes of Rahul’s inner circle include – Anand Sharma and Mallikarjun Kharge – that too because of their pivotal role in the Parliament. The young team of his loyalists include – Ajay Maken, R P N Singh, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada and Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia. One of the members of Rahul’s core team explained, “He is a nice man with a clear heart but then does that really help us politically? For example in LS polls he and in fact all of us just couldn’t see what was coming our way. Modi was selling a dream to the people of the country, but at least he was doing so. Rahul was clueless. There was no vision or dream to be delivered to the people. This bankruptcy of ideas and reeling under the tarnished and corrupt image of the UPA II government led us to a dismal fall in the elections. Still we never anticipated 44 in our dreams.”
The usual grouse of any party worker includes the fact that Rahul cannot be reached. “We are unhappy with the way Rahul deals with people in the party. One tries to get time with him and it has been months since he would even reply to a text or take out time to meet. The way he has dealt with issues related to state units is also very harrowing. I have particularly raised several issues affecting our state unit but he has not got back till now,” said a minister from UPA-II, who has been close to Rahul.
Talking about Rahul’s comeback making headlines, former union minister and senior party leader Salman Khurshid said, “He is there and has always been there. In fact Rahul Gandhi has always been a very active vice president. It is just that unfortunately the media wanted to paint him in a certain colour and now the media has got tired of doing that. This little break seems to have worked, because the media now is giving him a chance. They are giving him space which is good because he has always been very active. There are certain areas where he has laid priorities like the issue of farmer’ lands, young people and he is doing it in his own style.”
What about Rahul taking over as party’s President? “I don’t give any response to this as Soniaji is my President, Rahul is my Vice President and Manmohan Singh is the third part of our leadership. When they take a call we will respond. It is not for us to speculate when and how it will happen as this will just add to unnecessary gossip. All of them are doing their job along with our leaders. They have our unflinching support. The decision about generational change must be left to the leadership and we will join in once the leadership takes the final call.”
On record, this is essentially what the Congress leaders have mostly said. Echoing similar sentiments as Khurshid’s, his party colleague Anand Sharma explained, “This is a needless speculation. The Congress is traditionally the oldest political party of India which is pan Indian and representative of India’s rich diversity. It has remained vibrant till this time because it has ensured the infusion of fresh blood through transitions and space for the younger leadership to grow. Therefore there was definitely a reason that a collective decision was taken in January 2012 at the AICC session in Jaipur.”
“We are a traditional party and in our collective wisdom we will take the appropriate decision at the right time. We have an established process in the party and even regarding this issue (of Rahul being made the President), the Congress will take an appropriate decision at the right time.”
The tone set by Rahul in January 2012 when he was elevated as the party’s Vice President, raised expectations of people. A popular notion was that the prodigal son would bring positive change in the party and radicalise dynamics of politics in the country. But then from then and now... there have been a series of disappointments, making not only the voter but many in his own party question his antecedents. The decision for Rahul’s elevation “will be taken at the right time” indeed, but with the current flux of contradictory ideologies in the party, the probability of a smooth takeover seems dismal.