Can Rahul emulate Indira to revive Congress?
Indira rejuvenated her political fortunes by splitting the party. Is Rahul made of same stuff as his grandmother?
The Congress is in a curious place. Its president Rahul Gandhi has quit. He walked out of a working committee meeting in a huff on May 25, refused to reconsider his resignation despite pleas and tears (even the usually inscrutable P Chidambaram started crying) and has been incommunicado since.
Two weeks have passed. A new president has not been appointed. No one in the party knows who’s in charge. Meanwhile, state units all over the country are imploding and the Congress is in serious danger of losing at least three of its governments — in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka — as factionalism and infighting spiral out of control.
Strangely, Rahul doesn’t seem to care. Despite a pep talk to newly elected Congress MPs at the first meeting of the parliamentary party where he vowed to fight the BJP everyday with 52 members in the Lok Sabha, he has shown no inclination to douse the flames raging in his backyard. It’s almost as if he’s decided to let them consume the party, reduce it to cinders and then, maybe then, he will step in hoping to make it rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.
Since no one has access to him, one can only guess what’s going through his mind. It’s possible he’s turned to his grandmother Indira Gandhi for inspiration. She split the Congress twice, once after it lost elections in six major states, including UP, in 1967 despite winning the general election that year but with a vastly reduced margin and the second time after she was swept out of power in 1977 in an election in which she herself was defeated in her fiefdom of Rae Bareli.
The splits were deliberate and strategic. Each time, she offloaded members of the old guard and other deadwood and injected new blood in the form of younger people with fresh ideas. It worked like a charm. She led her faction of the Congress to spectacular victories in 1971 and 1980, leaving behind a legacy which her family has been living off ever since.
As his party lurches from crisis to crisis, Rahul may well have decided to take a leaf out of his grandmother's book. Certainly, his unexpected attack on senior leaders Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Chidambaram on that stormy May 25 meeting for virtually blackmailing the party into giving their sons tickets to contest the Lok Sabha election suggests that he wants the old guard out.
The chasm between the old (the Sonia Congress) and the young (the Rahul Congress) is wide open now. It is interesting that after Rahul's tongue-lashing, younger leaders, who have been chafing at the bit because of dominating seniors, are also speaking up. This may cost the Congress their governments but Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh seem to have decided not to hold themselves back any longer. Through their supporters, both are rocking the boat hard in a determined bid to oust the elders. Rahul is taking no notice and even Sonia Gandhi seems to have decided to sit back and let the situation play itself out.
Historically, Indira rejuvenated her political fortunes by splitting the Congress. But is Rahul made of the same stuff as his grandmother? Indira was a master politician who readily hit the streets with cleverly choreographed outreach events. She crafted slogans and political planks that reflected her times and, consequently, proved to be a hit with voters. Indira instinctively understood her times and tailored her politics accordingly with the help of a team of shrewd political aides.
Times are much tougher for Rahul. In Narendra Modi, he is up against a leader who is as formidable and sharp as his grandmother was. Rahul has not displayed great political acumen so far, either in terms of coming up with a narrative to suit his era or in choosing advisors with grassroots experience. His aides come with foreign degrees and an NGO approach. Nice guys but poor politicians.
And then there is the important issue of organisational strength. Despite the splits, Indira retained the better part of the Congress organisation which was still robust and rooted. Rahul's Congress has virtually disappeared from key states like UP, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
There are pockets where it is still alive and kicking, like in Karnataka where the party swept the local elections that were held just days after it received a drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls. The contrasting verdicts suggest that voters opted for Modi¡¦s strong decisive leadership at the Centre but the Congress is still the preferred choice in the state.
If Rahul hopes to follow in Indira's footsteps, he has to have a strategy, look decisive and act. A split is quite different from disintegration. Rahul has an existential crisis on his hands. There¡¦s not much left of the Congress today. And the way things are going, it may simply vanish in the blink of an eye.
The writer is a political commentator.