It is ironic that while the Congress is tottering from the blow of its ignominious showing in the Lok Sabha elections, the grand old party is engaged in an internecine war between the old guard and the youth brigade. The party has not learnt any lessons from the drubbing it got and does not seem headed for any great revival.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s sudden dash to Cambodia for ‘vipassana’ or meditation could apparently be a way to leave it to the old guard to make a mess of the results of the upcoming assembly polls in Haryana, Mahrarashtra and Jharkhand and then seek to re-assume power in the party with mother Sonia Gandhi’s orchestrated campaign to restore him on the pretext that the party is in deep crisis and only the youth brigade led by Rahul can resuscitate it.
A free hand to Rahul to ‘revive’ the moribund party will result in an attempt to wipe the slate clean on old incumbents and to make way for the young turks. As it is, Rahul has been hinting that when he launched a crusade against the Modi government and Narendra Modi personally for corruption in the Rafale deal in the Lok Sabha campaign, the veterans of the party remained mum and did not support him. That would evidently be touted as reason enough to break with the past and let the youth take over the reins to revitalise the party.
Reminiscent of how Mrs Indira Gandhi purged the Congress of oldies of the likes of S. Nijilingappa, Atulya Ghosh and S.K. Patil, Rahul, with support from Sonia, may heap all blame on today’s oldies explicitly or by implication and show that the new crop represents ability, dynamism and honesty. Whether he would do it brazenly or subtly is still a question mark.
Not only were the circumstances different in Indira Gandhi’s time with the so-called ‘syndicate’ an uninspiring lot, there is no denying that Sonia and Rahul have shown poor mettle to bounce back the way Indira did. They have shown poor sense of timing and oratory is not their strength.
In the days after the Lok Sabha elections, old warhorse Ashok Gehlot has upstaged Sachin Pilot to appropriate power in Rajasthan and the wily veteran Kamal Nath has got the better of the more deserving Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh. While both of them seemed to be flexing their muscles at one time, Pilot and Scindia have been brought around for now with discreet assurances. That they found the prospects weak without the organisational strength that goes with remaining in the Congress is also reason enough to stop short of extending their muscle-flexing to quitting the party.
The most notable casualty in Rahul’s brigade has been Ashok Tanwar who was well and truly sidelined, having been replaced as Haryana party chief. When he remonstrated and held rallies in which he took on the party leadership, the bait of campaign chief for Haryana Congress was held out to him which he spurned strongly.
Things were back to square one as former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was vested with real power as Kumari Selja emerged as State chief in name. If the party is mauled in Haryana, Hooda would predictably be made the scapegoat. Evidently, the Sonia-Rahul duo is under-estimating the capacity of Hooda to challenge the duo.
In Maharashtra, the other key state in which the Congress had a strong presence for quite a while, it is Sanjay Nirupam who is on the warpath, blaming the party for overlooking Rahul loyalists and pandering to the old-timers. Young turk Milind Deora who was flirting with the BJP on the sly has toned down his revolt and has apparently made peace with the seniors.
Nirupam has been sore with the party leadership for ignoring him in assembly seat selections and has indicated that he will not campaign for the party in the assembly polls.
The contagion has spread to other states too and is still spreading as the credibility of the party high command diminishes and opportunists take an adversarial stand.
The first salvo had been fired when former Tripura Congress chief Pradyot Debbarman had warned that those people in the party who were loyal to Rahul were being set aside by older leaders.
He said that since Rahul stepped away from the presidential post of the Congress, there had been a change in attitude towards younger leaders appointed by him. Many others did not say so but there has been an air of uncertainty over the future of the younger leaders.
If there are no second thoughts and Rahul presses forth with the game plan to make a second bid for the party presidency, the Congress could well split, rendering the whole exercise of dubious value.
Contrary to how the ‘syndicate’ opposed to Indira Gandhi caved in so easily, the old guard leaders, some of whom may challenge Sonia and Rahul, are no pushovers. Besides, the BJP today is unstoppable, growing from strength to strength. Prime Minister Modi is by far the most acceptable leader in the country and Rahul with or without his cronies would be no match for him.
It may indeed prove grossly counter-productive for Rahul to go whole hog in challenging the old guard and incurring their wrath. Contrary to speculation, better sense may prevail. The old guard may not be averse to making a few compromises to retain a semblance of order within the party. That a split could drive the Congress to further oblivion may be a deterrent indeed.
All said and done, the Congress is truly at the crossroads. The next couple of months would be crucial for it.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist.
He has authored four books.