It’s almost like watching a car pile up and wreck in orgiastic slow motion, as one car after another hits and the wreck assumes huge proportions. You want to look away, but you can’t; your eyes are riveted to the crash.
That car crash is happening to India’s oldest political party, the Congress, as young leaders who see themselves as having a political future and no future for the Congress desert the party in droves. The Congress virtually seems ready to commit political hara-kiri in its seat share agreement with the opposition INDIA alliance.
Consider Milind Deora, a two-time Congress Member of Parliament from South Mumbai who was a minister with two portfolios in the Manmohan Singh government. He resigned from the party, ending a 55-year-old association that started with his late father, Murli Deora.
He joined a flood of youth leaders voting with their feet and heading for the exit. Worse, leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, R P N Singh, and now Deora were considered part of Team Rahul Gandhi.
These were legatee politicians, born with a silver spoon, all like Gandhi carrying forward a political dynasty. The only one who remains from this original cohort is Sachin Pilot.
If you think it’s only impatient young leaders heading for the big exit, look at Kapil Sibal, Amrinder Singh, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who have also left the Congress, tellingly pointing out the leadership crisis within.
Ask why, and you are told that Gandhi is impossible to work with, pays no heed to any concerns, refuses to listen to counsel, and worse, is totally inaccessible.
If Gandhi refuses to meet Deora, his friend, and Sibal, who currently represents him and mother Sonia Gandhi in myriad court cases, you begin to see what the problem is. Worse is the way the Congress is making way for rivals who eat up the Congress’s vote share in the INDIA alliance.
It’s hardly a political secret that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has harmed the Congress party and eaten its vote share for lunch in Delhi and Punjab, where it has also replaced it in the Government.
At a time when Arvind Kejriwal, AAP founder and Delhi Chief Minister, is losing his political sheen and on the verge of going to jail in corruption cases, the Congress extends him a lifeline with Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress President publicly meeting in to ink out a seat share agreement.
Angry Congress leaders from Delhi and Punjab say that the Congress is committing political suicide by adding to Kejriwal’s political capital.
They argue that earlier, Gandhi understood what Kejriwal was doing to the Congress vote share, and his political flex included not meeting Kejriwal. Now Gandhi appears to be giving the AAP political legitimacy, even as the Congress cadres fight against AAP.
A senior Congress leader from Delhi told me angrily, seeing Gandhi and Kharge smiling with Kejriwal on television, “Does Rahul Gandhi want us to shut our political shop in Delhi and Punjab and hand over power to AAP forever? Why should I make way for Kejriwal, who attacked our iconic Delhi CM, the late Sheila Dikshit, in filthy terms and also abused Sonia Gandhi?”
Gandhi forced Amrinder Singh, former Congress Punjab Chief Minister, out of the Congress and literally made way for the AAP government in Punjab.
At least you could argue that Delhi and Punjab have always been multipolar states, but take Gujarat, a BJP citadel for decades where the Congress remains the only opposition in a bipolar polity. Kejriwal has asked for the Bharuch seat, which was the home seat of the late Ahmed Patel, the political adviser to Sonia Gandhi, and the family loyalist who was an icon for party workers.
Bharuch has a minority vote share, and Mumtaz Patel, daughter of Patel, wanted to contest from Bharuch. Patel has been assiduously cultivating the seat, spending time and effort there for more than a year. Yet last week, Kejriwal had a rally in Bharuch and unilaterally announced that his jailed MLA, Chaitar Vasava, would contest from the Bharuch seat.
This has upset the Congress party cadre who had rallied behind Patel. The only thing Congress and BJP cadre agree on in Gujarat is that the AAP should not be allowed to grow in the state. In 2017, Gandhi had got his caste arithmetic right and projected the then Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore, and Jignesh Mevani.
The BJP had gotten a shock with the Congress performance, and Gandhi had promised that he would return to Gujarat every month to build on the result, a matter of prestige in Modi’s home turf. Gandhi failed to show up, and today Patel and Thakore are both in the BJP, and Gujarat remains a Modi citadel.
Despite this, the Congress still has a vote share which local leaders say that Gandhi seems determined to cede to AAP. The Congress story is no better if you see Maharashtra, where Sanjay Raut of the Uddhav Shiv Sena, which is part of the opposition alliance, mocks Congress publicly and says it should start seat share from zero. Deora said Raut’s statement was the last straw for him in deciding to quit the Congress.
In West Bengal, having replaced the Congress, Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress founder and West Bengal CM, is also determined to cede no ground to the Congress in the seat share.
State after state, including Bihar, it is the same dismal story for the Congress where regional leaders are not willing to share space and are trying to bully what they see as an incompetent central leadership of the Congress.
Gandhi seems to be a decent human being, but he is terrible at politics, as his choices, the palace coterie around him, and his desire to run the party without accountability show.
Like his mother Sonia Gandhi, Kharge appears to be a mask for Gandhi to evade any responsibility while doing back seat driving. Gandhi has lost the Congress two general elections on the trot.
I can predict he will make it three post the general elections. Perhaps he should step aside to make way for new leadership.