Ghulam Nabi Azad at home, New Delhi, April 4, 2023 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
I WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE THAT AS LOP [LEADER OF the Opposition] in the Rajya Sabha, I not only effectively countered many claims of the ruling coalition but also raised several issues pertinent to the country’s well-being. I never spared the government whenever any issue of public interest arose.
Throughout my speeches, I found [Narendra] Modi to be a great listener. Not even once did he rebut my arguments or speak against me, inside or outside Parliament. He would always remain calm, though he would taunt me by making some political references. But he never attacked me personally. This may also have been because, unlike other leaders, I would not call the PM or other members of the ruling party names or abuse them. But some other leaders would only think of pleasing the Congress leadership by abusing the BJP and its leaders without making any substantial contribution or suggestion on the floor of the House that could pin down the government. In the Congress party, some leaders feel that abusing the opposition and calling names is the only way to fight the political rival.
Prime Minister Modi’s farewell speech, which was given wide coverage by the media, should have been a matter of great pride for the Congress party as well as its leadership, as a senior member of the party was feted by none less than the PM and by the leaders of other Opposition parties. Unfortunately, instead of appreciating my efforts and concern for the people of Gujarat and tributes that the PM paid to the LoP of the Congress, the party leadership was extremely unhappy and critical. They dubbed me a BJP man. This clearly shows that they have no empathy for human tragedy and cannot think beyond petty politics. This is further reinforced by the fact that none of these Congress leaders or my opponents quoted a single good word said by almost two dozen other political leaders. If they were honest, they should have quoted those as well.
The G23 Letter
SINCE JANUARY 2013, THE CONGRESS HAS LOST AS MANY as 39 Assembly elections, some states once and others two consecutive times. In some of the few that it won, the party formed the government only to lose power a few months later, like Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. There has been, thus, no sign of revival.
Several senior leaders have brought this crisis to the notice of the party’s central leadership repeatedly, both individually and collectively, from time to time. In August 2020, a few senior leaders, including me, wrote a letter to the leadership, stressing on the need to undertake a course correction. There were many more in the party at all levels who agreed with us. Some of the leaders who supported us, openly or covertly, have devoted their life to the party, particularly since 1977, when the Congress party was down.
Our aim of writing the letter was not to run down the party, any individual or the central leadership. As a Congressman who had worked at various organizational levels, I was aware of the flaws that existed and the corrective measures that were needed. Thus, our intention in penning the appeal was honest, fair and just. We had the interest of the party at heart.
However, some party leaders lashed out at us, calling us dissidents, traitors and ingrates. I would like to tell them today that some of us had given many times more than what we got in return, unlike many others who took undue advantage but did nothing for the party except by showing their presence through tweets. These regular tweets by so-called leaders cannot build the organization. Some even accused us of being agents of the BJP! One senior party leader, a lateral entrant in the party and government, wrote an opinion piece that read: ‘Ultimately, it is a relevant question whether it is fair to kick the very ladder you have climbed to the top storey of life from where making speeches is easy.’
I would like to reiterate that we have not kicked the ladder that we had used to climb to the top. Rather people like me were the ladder that some leaders used to reach the top, and after reaching the summit, they found no need for the ladder anymore. Our aim was to strengthen that ladder, which had begun to creak under the weight of undeserving and inexperienced people. Those who were telling us that we had reached the top by using the ladder that we were kicking now forgot that others had reached the top by parachute. In addition, neither the contents nor the timing of the letter was cruel; if anything, it was timely and necessary. We did not fear any action against us because our conscience was clear.
Rahul Gandhi’s Leadership
THE CONGRESS PARTY’S DETERMINATION TO DESTROY itself was even more evident in Assam. We had our government led by Tarun Gogoi. He had become the CM in May 2001 and went on to serve in that post until May 2016.
For 14 years of his tenure, a young and dynamic politician, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was his right-hand man and a minister who held several important portfolios, including health and education. He was among the best-performing health ministers in the country, and I interacted with him on several occasions when I was the Union minister for health and family welfare. I had also an opportunity to attend a number of health-related camps and functions organized by him in Assam.
He came across as smart and politically astute, with a huge following of his own. He also commanded the support of many MLAs. After Gogoi became CM for the first time in 2001, he promised Himanta that he would step down if the party got a second term and recommend him for chief ministership.
After the party won a second term in 2006, Gogoi went back on his word and assured Himanta, again, that he would most certainly suggest his name for chief ministership if the party returned to power. However, yet again, Gogoi refused to keep his promise when he was sworn-in for the third time in 2011. Himanta was justifiably upset.
Sometime during Gogoi’s third term, Himanta decided to part ways with Gogoi. He had the support of a majority of legislators in the Assembly.
I called Himanta and his group to Delhi; he came with 45-plus MLAs to my residence, and I spoke to each one of them. A few days later, I asked Gogoi to come to Delhi or send his MLAs. He sent seven MLAs who were supporting him. I also deliberated with the rest of the 10 MLAs who had said they would abide by the party high command’s decision.
I reported the situation to Sonia ji, who remarked that it was obvious that Himanta had a clear majority and should be the new CM. She asked me to go to Assam the following day along with the general secretary in-charge and oversee the formal election of Himanta as the new leader. The evening before we were to proceed to Assam, Rahul, who had not been in the loop of deliberations so far, telephoned me with a request to cancel the visit to Assam. Instead, he asked me to visit his home the next morning along with the general secretary in charge of Assam.
When we arrived at Rahul’s residence the next morning, we saw Tarun Gogoi and his son, Gaurav Gogoi, sitting with him. Rahul told us bluntly that there would be no change in leadership. We pointed out to him that Himanta had the majority of MLAs and would rebel and quit the party. ‘Let him go,’ Rahul said. The meeting was over. I am not sure if Rahul said this to assert himself or because he was ignorant that his decision would have far-reaching consequences, not only in the state of Assam but the entire Northeast. After leaving the Congress, he [Himanta] used this influence against the party and ensured the party’s complete rout from the entire Northeast.
After our interaction with Rahul, I met Sonia ji and apprised her of the new twist in the tale. Despite understanding the disastrous consequences that lay ahead, it is rather unfortunate that she did not assert herself as the party president. Instead, she asked me to request Himanta to not rock the boat.
Later on, Himanta quit the Congress and joined the BJP in August 2015. The BJP immediately appointed him as the convener of its election management committee for the upcoming state elections. He oversaw the BJP’s victory in the elections in 2016 and became a Cabinet minister, holding more than a dozen portfolios and the number-two position in government. After the BJP won a second term in 2021, he was made the CM of the state. Meanwhile, the Congress party continues to pay for the mistakes committed by its leadership.
Optics Over Substance
OF LATE, A TREND HAS EMERGED IN THE CONGRESS party—youngsters with good looks and oratorical skills are favoured over veterans. Promoting youth is welcome and necessary. After all, most veterans have come through that route, but the difference is that they worked hard for the organization. Despite holding top positions, they had no opportunity to stay or dine in five-star hotels or travel by air.
Sadly, a dashing persona and skills in English cannot be the only criteria for selection. Voters are intelligent enough to understand who stands by them. They are not impressed by dashing looks, smart attire, English-medium education or the colour of the leader’s skin.
The Congress has had leaders who suddenly don a dress or something else as a symbolic gesture to impress a certain section of the voters. If they think that influences the public, they are sadly mistaken. Leaders of my erstwhile party and other parties reach out by sharing food with poor families while sitting on a mat, especially in the run-up to elections. Symbolic gestures are mere optics and mean nothing.
However, even this fad is not consistently followed. In some states, younger leaders are pushed forward despite opposition from seniors, but in others, the veterans are chosen over deserving youngsters. The failure to balance the expectations of the younger leaders with the experience of the seniors has resulted in discontent among the younger generation, elders as well as the veterans.
The bottom line is: A good leader is one who is able to seize the imagination of the people. He/she should be able to convince them that he is one of them, understands their needs and aspirations and is willing to address them. He/she should feel the pulse of the people.
As a former Congressman, I note with deep disappointment and sadness, the continuing downfall of the Grand Old Party at both the national and state levels. There are leadership tussles in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. A sense of drift and directionless[ness] has set in. The party has also surrendered to the BJP the states that it had won—Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, for example—because they failed to meet the aspirations of influential leaders and did not fulfil the promises made to them.
The root cause for the Congress’s downfall is that it destroys its own potential leaders at the national and state levels by projecting parallel, incapable leadership against them, thus, destroying the party from the top to bottom in this process. Over a period of time, sycophancy has taken centre stage in the party. Sadly, no one wants to listen to the bitter truth.
The letter that the G23 leaders wrote to Congress President Sonia ji in August 2020 marked the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, instead of taking this letter as a wake-up call and strengthening the organization and holding party elections on the lines we had suggested, both Rahul and Sonia ji took offence and viewed it as a challenge to their authority. Instead of heeding our advice, they dubbed us as being pro-BJP.
THE LAST THING THAT I HAD WAS THE RAJYA SABHA SEAT, whose term ended in February 2021. I could have asked Sonia ji or Rahul for a renomination, but I didn’t since my state Assembly had been dissolved. I wasn’t expecting it either. They had taken away the post of general secretary and my position in the star campaign committee after four decades, so how could I expect that I would be renominated from another state like several of my other G23 colleagues? So, from February that year till August 2022, I had no party or legislative work to do. I was sitting at home, meeting people coming from different parts of the country. But I could not do anything for them since none of my recommendations was entertained at any level within the party.
I realized that the situation in the Congress party had reached a point of no return. It was then I decided, albeit with an extremely leaden heart, to call time on my half-a-century-old association with the party. On 26 August, in a letter addressed to then Congress President Sonia ji, I resigned from all positions including the primary membership of the party. From the complete demolition of the party’s consultative mechanism by Rahul to the rise of a new coterie of inexperienced sycophants to run the affairs of the party; from the remote-control model that destroyed the institutional integrity of this great organization to the manner in which proxies were being propped up to take over the leadership of the party, it was a no-holds-barred account of how the Grand Old Party had lost both the will and the ability to fight for what is right for India.
Once the political storm triggered by my resignation subsided, I was left with two options: either to sit at home, rot and degenerate or do something worthwhile. Being a postgraduate science student, I knew of and remembered Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse of an organ. According to this theory, the organs that are used more develop more, while those that are used less degenerate over a period of time or remain weak. I realized that if I didn’t use my brain and vocal cords, they would degenerate. In the US, Americans don’t retire as long as they are mentally capable and physically fit. I believed that I was both.
(This is an edited excerpt from Azaad: An Autobiography by Ghulam Nabi Azad | Rupa | 336 pages | ₹795).