Gandhis losing their grip on the Congress, writes Ashutosh

Many leaders who had left the Congress party would have not crossed the bridge if the family had been more accessible, accommodating and open

AshutoshUpdated: Monday, September 26, 2022, 10:49 PM IST
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Sonia and Rahul Gandhi | File Pic

The crisis in Rajasthan has once again proved that the Congress high command — ie the Gandhi family — does not know how to manage an internal crisis. The rebellion by reportedly more than 90 MLAs against their own leadership is unprecedented, and speaks volumes about how little the Gandhi family know about their own leaders. Rajasthan, till the crisis erupted late night on Sunday, was supposed to be a safe state for the Congress. It was led by one of the seniormost leaders of the party, Ashok Gehlot, who had successfully dodged the BJP’s effort to poach its MLAs and break the Congress government as it had done in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Mr Gehlot had proved himself to be a very skilful operator of practical politics. But now it seems that the same Ashok Gehlot, who was hailed as the Gandhis’ favourite for the party president, is suspect, and it is believed that he is the brain behind the rebellion in the state.

The Congress has always been a collection of factions. This was so even before Independence, but it was out of respect for Mahatma Gandhi that all the factions despite their differences used to work together as a team. Factionalism remained alive even after Independence and was one of the reasons that the Congress split so many times, especially during Indira Gandhi’s regime. In 1969 and 1978, major vertical divisions occurred in the Congress; both times, the faction led by Indira Gandhi prevailed and survived as the real Congress while other factions slowly disappeared. It is also one of the reasons that today one witnesses so many regional parties led by leaders who had spent many years in the Congress before forming regional outfits. Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, KCR in Telangana, Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra are such leaders. Therefore, the factional politics in Rajasthan and the bitter fight between the Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot groups is not surprising; what is surprising is the non-recognition of the conflict between the two groups and absence of a mechanism to resolve the conflict or manage the crisis.

In Rajasthan, the Gandhi family should have nipped the crisis in the bud after the Assembly results were declared in 2018. Sachin Pilot was the Pradesh Congress Committee chief and ideally he should have been made the CM as the party did in two other states — MP and Chhattisgarh, where Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel were appointed as CM respectively. Instead, the party high command decided to make Ashok Gehlot the CM. No wonder Mr Pilot felt betrayed and bore a grudge. And then, even if the party had no other option than to make Mr Gehlot CM, some mechanism should have been evolved to keep Mr Pilot satisfied. Making him deputy CM was not enough. Here lies the failure of the Nehru-Gandhi family. One can always argue that it was impossible to satisfy Mr Pilot’s ambition. And sooner or later Mr Pilot had to rebel, which he ultimately did in 2020. But this argument does not hold much ground as management of the ambitions of big leaders is also an important leadership skill. This becomes more crucial as the Congress, unlike in earlier times, is not strong. In the changed political ecosystem, the leadership has to be more proactive and more creative, which unfortunately it is not.

The basic reason for the failure of the Congress leadership is the mindset of the Gandhi family. They have refused to change with the changing political scenario. The family has to realise that the Congress is no longer the colossus it used to be when it lorded over the country at the Centre and in states. It has now been upstaged by the BJP and it is now reduced to a medium-grade power. To deal with the ultra-aggressive BJP, the family has to be more than alert, and super-active. But the leadership continues to live in the past with the old laidback attitude. It remains inaccessible to its own partymen, surrounded by the old clique, and has evolved no new feedback mechanism. As a senior leader told me, the problem with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi is that they still believe that they are prince and princess of Indian politics, and they behave accordingly. Many leaders who had left the Congress party would have not crossed the bridge if the family had been more accessible, accommodating and open. But then as is said that kings hardly change their habits, and if the empire has to crumble then so be it.

The present crisis is a classic case. Since Indira Gandhi’s days, Ashok Gehlot has always been considered to be a Gandhi loyalist. He has never questioned the family’s decisions, and has always followed the family’s diktats. Not surprisingly, he was chosen by the family to be the party president. And if his supporters have rebelled in such large numbers then the family has to be faulted. The blunder committed by the family is the timing of the exercise to change the chief minister. Why now? Why could it not wait for the party elections to get over? What was the hurry? Till now, Mr Gehlot has not even filed his nomination for the president’s post. As a part of the democratic process, how could one predict that he would be the winner? Once elected as president then, following the norms decided in the Udaipur convention of ‘one man, one post’, he should have been requested to resign as CM.

Then, even if it was important to remove him from the CM’s post, as a mark of respect his opinions regarding his successor should have been given utmost importance. Or instead of bulldozing Sachin Pilot’s name, the widest possible consultation with the Congress MLAs should have been carried out. That did not happen. Imprisoned by old habit, the family issued a fiat to convene the Congress legislative party to endorse Sachin Pilot’s name as CM. The family forgot that today they are the weakest party high command in the history of the Congress party, and their authority no longer commands the respect it did earlier. The result is evident.

Before Rajasthan, the Gandhi family created a mess in Punjab on the eve of the assembly elections. The Congress lost an election it would have won easily. If the removal of Capt Amarinder Singh as CM was a mistake, then the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as PCC chief was a blunder, and continuing with Mr Sidhu after he tendered his resignation was a Himalayan blunder. As a result of this the Congress lost a state, and the majority of the state leadership migrated to the BJP. And to rub salt on the wound, the AAP’s victory in Punjab has opened new opportunities for Arvind Kejriwal which can threaten the existence of the Congress in other states too.

The Punjab experience can be repeated in Rajasthan is the apprehension of the majority of the MLAs. Assembly elections are scheduled for next year. Since it is more or less a proven fact that the Gandhi family can’t win elections for the party, MLAs are left with no choice but to rebel and choose a path which in their opinion is the best for their own electoral politics.

If Ashok Gehlot’s group carries the day, as it appears likely to, it can open a Pandora’s box in other states too, and Congress leaders and units may openly defy the Gandhi family. The party, which after a long period of inaction was seen to be on the right path with the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the recent agitation against the Narendra Modi government, has neutralised its gains — and only the Gandhi family is to be blamed.

The writer is Editor, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B

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