Twisted tales of the Congress First Family

One hundred years ago, in 1919, Rahul Gandhi's great-great grandfather was elected president of the Indian National Congress. A wealthy lawyer, Motilal Nehru was then at a cross-roads; he chose to sacrifice his practice, radically scale down his lifestyle and go the way of Satyagrah, knowing fully well that it was a sure-shot route to jail. Not for a moment did he regard himself as a martyr.

The current generation of Nehru-Gandhis, shaped by radically different circumstances, tend to make heavy weather of their 'sacrifices' for the nation and the party. Over the years, a peculiar narrative has taken shape around the Gandhis, that they have assumed leadership of the Congress at great personal cost and are disinterested in power for its own sake. In the same martyred spirit, Rahul Gandhi appeared deeply hurt by the alleged failure of the Congress veterans to adequately support him in the recent general elections. Indeed, a rumour that his exit from the presidentship of the party and Sonia Gandhi's subsequent reinstatement was engineered by the old guard, is doing the rounds. Assuming an injured mien, attacking Congress veterans and projecting all the party's failures as the result of a generational conflict, is a neat way of deflecting attention from the core issue, namely the fact that Rahul Gandhi proved no match for Narendra Modi. The party's current circumstances are not a function of generational transition, but his manifest inability to connect with voters.

A similar strategy was at work vis-à-vis the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. Well aware that the move met with widespread public approval, Gen Next Congressmen made it a point to voice their support, even as the Congress veterans opposed it strongly. The implication was that the latter are hidebound and out of tune with the times, whereas the youngsters are open to change. The premise that a Machiavellian old guard is at work to keep the Gandhi scion out is prima facie untenable. As party president (until he tendered his resignation), Gandhi had an absolute mandate. He could have easily jettisoned the old faces if he wanted them out and handed over charge of the campaign to Gen Next. Instead, he chose to go with the elders. He was given the opportunity to reorganize the party, but let it slip through his fingers.

With regard to Jammu & Kashmir, the crisis seems to have given the Gandhis a face-saving method of formally re-taking control of the Congress. The party's official position on the J&K Restructuring Act could not have been determined without the approval of the Gandhis, otherwise why would Sonia Gandhi have agreed to make yet another 'sacrifice' by assuming the interim presidency? Rahul had earlier declared that no member of his family would lead the Congress. If Sonia Gandhi has been manipulated by the old guard without his knowledge and approval, that would imply a split in the First Family. The rumour-mill has it that Priyanka Vadra will now assume the mantle, since her sibling has chosen to put it down. In that event, Rahul Gandhi should hold his family rather than the veterans responsible. In all likelihood, the decision to have Sonia Gandhi take charge was a mutual one.

Now that the Congress has shown itself to be sufficiently beaten down and incapable of finding a leader without the Gandhis, they have come to the rescue. The names of a number of potential presidents were floated, all of them non-serious and entirely for public consumption. It was obvious from the very beginning that the party would circle back to the First Family. The J&K crisis, where the Congress found itself isolated in Parliament, abandoned by its ideological partners and former allies, was the tipping point that everyone had been waiting for. Sure enough, a Gandhi was back in the saddle. The drama was dressed up in the spirit of 'sacrifice'. Since the Congress could not survive without the family, she was forced to give in to the entreaties of the old guard. It's time that Rahul and Co stopped playing the victim card and blaming their troubles on the party veterans. The fact that every member of Gen Next who contested, Gandhi included, lost their seats can hardly be laid at the door of the old guard. They may be more comfortable with Sonia Gandhi than they were with Rahul, but that is because she proved a cannier politician. Nor does her presence ensure their survival, because it is likely to be temporary. Whether she chooses to hand over the reins to one or the other of her children or to oversee a well-thought out succession plan involving a free and fair election, remains to be seen.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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