The timing could not have been worse for India’s grand old party. Still reeling under the severe battering in the Assembly polls in the four states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress is now staring at a bleak future as the 2014 General Election looms in the horizon. The party is at its lowest ebb. An indecisive leadership and a confused cadre are not exactly the recipe for winning an election.
At the thick of it all is the one man the Congress had pinned its hopes on — party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhi scion, who had made his intentions quite clear after the Chintan Shivir in Jaipur earlier this year, is now finding the going a lot more difficult. And that’s putting it mildly.
In four of the five states that went to polls during November-December, the Congress was handed a thorough drubbing. Mizoram in the Northeast was its only consolation. After the bloodbath, comes the cleaning up. Congress functionaries, both veterans and the young turks, are now openly talking against the flawed functioning of the party. Though this is not the first time that the Congress has lost Assembly elections in these states, yet the resounding thumbs-down it has been given, has come as a rude awakening. Even in Chhattisgarh, where it lost by a wafer-thin margin, the fact that the Congress has been out of power for 15 years in a row now is a cause for alarm. Party workers are fearing the worst: will the party’s tally for the Lok Sabha come down so much that it will struggle to breach the 100 seats mark? It would also mean less than 20 percent of the vote share. The knives are out and the unthinkable question is finally being asked — will the Rahul Gandhi magic even work?
To an outside observer, this “magic” was suspect to begin with. In the initial days after taking over as vice-president, Rahul did meet the office-bearers of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), state offices and MPs. Several Congressmen who attended these meetings, later said that Rahul would just listen to the problems and give his views, rather than talk of solving them. Given that those were early days yet, people still waited to see what he would pull out of his hat at an opportune moment. He was, they reckoned, after all, the scion of the Gandhi family, and politics had to resonate in every breath he takes. What they did not reckon, however, was that by the end of the year, Rahul’s idea of a facelift would end in a loss of face for the party.
Take Delhi, for instance. With seven MPs, all from the Congress, and a three-term chief minister, Delhi was the Congress bastion. From the beginning, in all the meetings that he chaired, one thing was perfectly clear to Rahul: that all was not well with the party’s state unit. There was a clear three-way division in the Delhi Congress. While Sheila Dikshit had the backing of both the central leadership and a majority of the state cadre, Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) chief JP Agarwal was pulling it in another direction. Ajay Maken, general secretary of the AICC, also had other ideas. As the day to the polls neared, Sheila complained to the party leadership that Maken was not doing enough as in-charge of publicity. Agarwal, on the other hand, complained that the former CM was being uncooperative in ticket distribution.
With the faultlines clear, this was the perfect cue for Rahul to step in and leave an imprint of his brand of leadership. What one got to see instead was masterly inaction. As one Congress insider aptly put it, Rahul is “more interested in selling his theory of giving power to village pradhans, while we struggle to fight elections”. Some even go further to add that in the spirit of the sage Manu, if the boss says the cat has eaten the elephant, we have to nod our heads and agree.
While sarcasm may be the prevailing mood within the Congress today, the real worry for the party — even more for Rahul — is that for the first time, doubts have been cast over his ability to lead the party. And these doubts are emanating from within the party, not without. The Congress vice-president has not helped his own cause either. In the two Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that were fought under his stewardship, the party came a cropper. So abysmal was its performance that in both, the Congress was reduced to the third position. This was after the state units and the AICC had put their weight behind him. After the losses, the state unit chief and the general secretary in-charge of it took the blame. Rahul’s charisma was already showing signs of losing lustre. Even the tearing up of the ordinance to protect criminal MPs and MLAs in a Marvel superhero fashion did not help matters much.
Rahul also faces the problem of making wrong choices. His handpicked people, who were entrusted with power, have let him down and how. CP Joshi, Mohan Prakash, Madhusudan Mistry and Mukul Wasnik were all picked by Rahul as general secretaries responsible for important states. However, these leaders do not command the kind of respect necessary to invigorate a state unit to action. Seen more as intruders than strategists, they have been unable to quell any infighting in the party. In fact, there are complaints against all of them from the states under their charge. This, many feel, should have been left to senior leaders, who enjoy a stature among the party rank and file.
Similarly, Rahul’s decision to make Ajay Maken the chairman of the Communications Department and a general secretary of the AICC, has also come to haunt him. Maken does not have the stature in the party that his predecessor Janardhan Dwivedi enjoyed. The current team of Congress spokespersons also leaves a lot to be desired. Pointing to the lacuna, a former spokesperson, on the condition of anonymity, said that on election days, he used to be on TV from 8 am till 10 pm, defending the party. Now, with the General Election just five months away, Maken is hardly to be seen.
Interestingly, even the young leadership of the Congress seems to be clueless about who is advising the Congress vice-president. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has openly stated that Rahul is thinking “too long-term”. Another young MP says that as they have to face the electorate every other day, unlike “Rahul ji, we do not have the luxury of making long-term plans. Moreover, if we lose our seats, we fall off the radar, so it is a double blow for us”.
Sources say that unlike his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul has not been able to differentiate between the political and apolitical or non-political people around him. Sonia understands the need and utility for both. For instance, on social issues, she firmly backs the National Advisory Council (NAC), which consists mainly of academicians and activists. But when it comes to cold, hard politics, it is the core group and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that takes precedence. That has been her recipe for successfully steering the party as president. Unfortunately, Rahul has fallen woefully short of that distinction.
With daggers drawn after the Assembly polls debacle, both Sonia and Rahul have started taking measured steps. Plans are being redrawn, steps revisited and advice is being sought from the senior and the seasoned. This was very apparent in a recent press conference in the capital on the Lokpal Bill. Flanked by Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Law Minister Kapil Sibal and the nodal minister for tabling the Bill, V Narayanasami, Rahul talked only about the macro issues. Questions relating to the micro details were being taken by the three senior ministers.
The past week has seen other senior leaders gaining prominence. Immediately after the results of the Assembly elections were announced, Ahmed Patel, Janardhan Dwivedi and former information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni met Sonia and Rahul Gandhi for a quick meeting to chart out the future strategy. Party insiders inform that Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily is also being roped in to give suggestions on managing the party.
A day later, in an introspection meeting headed by Sonia Gandhi and attended by all PCC chiefs and general secretaries, Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Defence Minister AK Antony were specially invited to discuss the Congress’ rout. In the past, Azad has negotiated for the Congress successfully and has been one of the more successful general secretaries of the party. Equally, Antony’s reach among the party cadres is virtually unmatched. Both had been left out of any major decision-making process in the past year.
People close to the Congress vice-president are critical of his refusal to acknowledge ground realities. Even when they are pointed out to him, Rahul has seldom acted on any advice. You can disagree, but at your peril, they say. As a young minister found when he was eased out of screening committees, after he did not toe the line and complained to the Congress president about it.
After the drubbing in the Assembly polls, it is a different Rahul one is seeing now. A young leader points out that it is not about young or old, but about knowing who to place your trust on, it is about relying on political people for political advice, rather than the non-political ones. However, that too has to be carefully considered. Age and experience do not necessarily mean ears to the ground.
During the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar Assembly polls, AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh had the ear of the vice-president and was a key cog in the wheel for all decisions taken by him. Digvijaya led the entire campaign trail. But accusations were soon flying thick and fast that he was acting on caste considerations in the ticket distribution. There are also rumours that it was Digvijaya who forced Rahul’s hand in announcing Amarinder Singh as the chief minister candidate in the 2012 Punjab election, another one the Congress lost. Adding to that, senior Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh Satyavrat Chaturvedi has gone on record blaming Digvijaya for the party’s debacle in the recent polls. While all this might not be a case against the vocal Congressman, it is definitely indicative of the cracks within the party.
With a modified approach and not so rigid stance, Rahul may have made all the right noises. The lone runner has become a team-player. However, has it all come too late or will keeping counsel of the reliable politician make a politician out of Rahul yet?