Despite Sonia Gandhi’s advice to Congressmen to avoid “public acrimony”, rumbling of discontent about the party’s miserable performance in the recent elections have continued. It will be a mistake, however, if the party tries to brush aside the prevailing sense of hapless anger within the organisation as an apparently transient “expression of frustration arising out of defeat”, as senior general secretary Digvijay Singh has done. His observation deserves serious attention since he is believed to convey the family’s views. Taken together, Sonia Gandhi’s and Digvijay Singh’s comments suggest an attempt to paper over the cracks that have appeared in the party. The ploy is understandable because, for the first time, the dynasty has come under direct attack. Moreover, the person facing the flak is none other than the party president’s choice to be the next leader, Rahul Gandhi.
So far, the criticism of the heir apparent has been relatively muted, except for a Kerala Congressman who called Rahul Gandhi a “joker” and paid for his candour by being suspended from the party. Others have either been more polite or sought refuge in anonymity or directed their fire at Rahul’s advisers or confined themselves to lambasting unnamed “rootless wonders and spineless creepers”. There have also been attempts to pass the buck by blaming Manmohan Singh since his government was not a “good product” and, therefore, unsaleable to the electorate.
But the unambiguous upshot of the comments is the belief within the party that, first, Rahul has proved to be a failure as a leader and, secondly, that unless he makes way for someone else, the Congress will not be able to dig itself out of its present hole. Since the party members cannot yet think beyond the family, it isn’t surprising that some of them are calling for Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra to take charge. But such a move is fraught with difficulties. First, a change of guard in the top echelons will be a blow to Rahul Gandhi’s prestige. So, his sister is unlikely to respond to the proposals. Secondly, the move will not have Sonia Gandhi’s blessings since she apparently still reposes faith in Rahul’s abilities. This assessment is substantiated by Digvijay’s appeal to Rahul to be the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha because a leader “has to lead from the front”.
Disconnect with party workers
There is little doubt, however, that the Congress is in a jam. Its purported leader has not only been derided by an anonymous former Madhya Pradesh minister as someone who arrives in a helicopter, addresses a rally and then flies off without interacting with local Congressmen, but is also being increasingly seen as a person who is unlikely to attain enough maturity in the near future to fulfil Digvijay Singh’s hopes. To make matters worse, his aloofness and arrogance have become all too apparent, suggesting that the disconnect between him and the ordinary party worker will remain. Priyanka Gandhi is different for, as the former human resource development minister Pallam Raju has said, she has a “natural ability to connect with the people”. In this atmosphere of doom and gloom, it must have occurred to not a few Congressmen that in view of the dauphin’s prolonged adolescence and with their ingrained servility preventing them from looking outside the family for a leader, the party’s spell in the wilderness may not end any time soon.
Two possibilities arise from this scenario. One is that there will be a rupture of the kind when Sharad Pawar and Co broke away because they realised that the glass ceiling of the dynasty ruled out any upward mobility for them. But the Nationalist Congress Party’s record does not inspire any confidence in such an adventurous step. Even then, since politics is a matter of bread and butter for politicians, the Congressmen cannot afford to wait indefinitely for the party to revive. The other is that they will indeed wait for the party to come to life, not as a result of any special effort on its own but because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) missteps. If the Congress is dependent on the dynasty, the BJP at present is a one-man party with no one other than Narendra Modi to hold it together and lead it to success. If, by any chance, he stumbles, the Congress can hope to sneak back into the corridors of power.
However, as was evident from Rahul’s rather odd-looking smile at the press briefing after the results were announced, he doesn’t seem to have been able to come to terms with the reality of the massive defeat. Having always lived a sheltered life, he appeared to think that he wouldn’t be answerable for it. Had he really experienced the shock of the setback, he might have reacted in the way he did when he tore up the ordinance in favour of tainted politicians.
The least Rahul can do is to resign from the vice-president’s post. That he hasn’t is bad news for the Congress, for it shows that he remains mama’s boy to whom politics is a pastime and not serious business. If the party continues to protect him, it can only sink deeper into the quagmire.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.