Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Bathinda, October 2020
WHEN UTTAR PRADESH (UP) Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath found out three years ago that there was not a single statue of Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna in the state, he promised to build one. Last month, flanked by Bahuguna’s children, Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Vijay Bahuguna, both in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now, Adityanath unveiled a statue of the former Congress chief minister in Lucknow.
Adityanath’s tribute to Bahuguna, a Brahmin who had reached out to Dalits as chief minister in the early 1970s in undivided Uttar Pradesh, touches a raw nerve in the history of Congress. In November 1973, after Kamalapati Tripathi had to step down following the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) revolt demanding better wages, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent Bahuguna to UP as chief minister. Under him, Congress won the Assembly election in 1974 and he was again sworn in. But in 1975, Indira Gandhi replaced him with ND Tiwari, another Brahmin from the hills, now the state of Uttarakhand. In an interview to BBC, Bahuguna was candid about his differences with Indira Gandhi—mainly her wish to be consulted on every decision in the state and asking him to take her son Sanjay Gandhi across UP. Bahuguna quit and formed his own party which he named Congress for Democracy and later merged it with the Janata Party in 1977. According to political analysts, it was never the same again for Congress in UP.
Adityanath, the BJP chief minister, has rubbed it in about six months before UP goes to polls. The word of the Congress high command, or the Gandhis, was always final. Those who fell in line bowed before its dictates while the unbending had to quit the party. The disloyal were shown the door. “By 1974, Indira herself controlled Congress’ organization Party—including the Congress president Dev Kanta Barooah, most of the state chief ministers, and of course her own cabinet ministers,” wrote her biographer Katherine Frank. It was Barooah who, at the peak of Emergency in 1976, coined the term “Indira is India, India is Indira”, reflecting the extent of sycophancy in the party.
The joke among journalists covering Congress was that even as chief ministers and Cabinet ministers were sworn in, Gandhi’s confidant ML Fotedar was ready with pieces of paper on which they would write their resignation letters as and when the high command desired. When it came, it usually did as a last-minute surprise. In UP, where chief ministers were frequently shuffled between Brahmins and Thakurs, there were four Congress chief ministers in five brief terms from 1980 to 1989, after which power has eluded the party in the state.
VP Singh, a Thakur who took charge after Congress won 309 of the 425 seats in 1980, faced dissidence from within the party and quit two years later. Shripati Mishra, speaker in the state Assembly, who was a Brahmin, replaced him. Two years later, Mishra was dismissed and Tiwari was again made chief minister, and in 1985, a year after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brought in Vir Bahadur Singh. Three years later, Tiwari was brought back, just a year-and-a-half before the Assembly election which Congress lost. It was not until 2007, when Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) came to power, that UP had a chief minister for a full five-year term.
INDIRA GANDHI’S MICROMANAGEMENT of affairs in Congress-ruled states, even concerning their cabinets, began after her victory following her expulsion from the party for defiance in 1969, the split in Congress and the landslide victory for her Congress (R) in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. In 1971, upset with the old guards called the “Syndicate”, she removed Rajasthan Chief Minister Mohan Lal Sukhadia and later Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K Brahmananda Reddy. Having tasted revolt, she ensured that those who replaced them were loyal to her. “The real danger to India lurking within Indira Gandhi’s psyche in the late sixties was not ruthlessness or hypocrisy—the gestural radicalism or sham populism her critics invariably accuse her of—but rather her growing belief that only she could lead the country. This conviction came from her sense of her personal legacy,” wrote Frank.
This modus operandi of the high command calling the shots became a trend in the party, inherited by Indira Gandhi’s progeny. It was mostly done through intermediaries like Fotedar, RK Dhawan, Ahmed Patel and Jitendra Prasada. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took on Congress in Lok Sabha recalling an episode in 1982 when Rajiv Gandhi publicly lost his cool with Tanguturi Anjaiah, the then Andhra Pradesh chief minister, for arriving at the Begumpet airport to receive him with a large number of Congress supporters. A few days later, Indira Gandhi asked Anjaiah, whom she had herself appointed, to step down. In 1990, Rajiv Gandhi dismissed Karnataka Chief Minister Veerendra Patil, a move that led to alienating the Lingayats who later shifted their allegiance to BJP under BS Yediyurappa.
The family’s authority was unquestioned. It thrived as long as Congress had numerical and political clout at the Centre. Out of power in New Delhi since 2014, the cocoon of loyalists surrounding the family started turning fragile. The power balance began to tilt with political capital shifting to the states and their leaders. It no longer rested with the Gandhis. The party is in power in six states, with chief ministers in three. In these three states—Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh—each chief minister is facing dissidence from within, each is loyal to the Gandhis, and yet each is a leader in his own right. As a former Congress leader puts it, none of these chief ministers needs a Rahul Gandhi rally to win elections in their respective state. “Today, the problem is that the Gandhis have lost connect with the people from the centre to the grassroots. What’s the legitimacy of Rahul Gandhi losing Amethi? It’s a connection lost with the grassroots,” says AK Verma, Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics (CSSP), Kanpur.
Under HN Bahuguna, Congress won the Assembly Election in 1974. But in 1975, Indira Gandhi replaced him with ND Tiwari. Bahuguna was candid about his differences with Gandhi. It was never the same again for Congress in Uttar Pradesh
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The party leaders report to the high command which, despite its predilections, is trying to play the balancing act. It has made it clear that elections in Punjab will be fought under Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, but has appointed cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief. The fissures within have only widened. In late August, after Singh targeted Sidhu’s advisors over controversial comments, 30 MLAs demanded removal of the chief minister. Singh’s retaliation came at a dinner hosted by his loyalist, Punjab’s Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi, at his official residence, where 58 MLAs turned up. Within days, senior party leader Harish Rawat, the general secretary in charge of Punjab, was in Chandigarh to convey the message to Sidhu and his supporters that their demand for replacing Singh was unacceptable and that with elections around the corner, the party should work in a united manner. At about the same time, in Chhattisgarh, where Congress returned to power after 15 years of BJP rule, the face-off between Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo, who was also an aspirant for the chief minister’s post in 2018, was simmering. After a meeting with Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, where 50 MLAs supporting the chief minister had also landed, Baghel hinted that his position was secure. Deo’s supporters say that when Congress won Assembly polls in 2018, Gandhi, Baghel and Deo had agreed on a rotational chief ministership. With elections in UP nearing, the timing appears to have given Baghel, an OBC leader, a longer tenure since Deo is a Thakur. Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot is still waiting for Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to address all his concerns as per the formula worked out by the Gandhis over a year ago to end the feud. Pilot, close to Rahul Gandhi, had rebelled against Gehlot, alleging that he and his supporters were being sidelined. Unlike Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are due for elections only in 2023.
According to Verma, the infighting in the party in the three states could turn out to be suicidal for the party. “How can you run a state where the chief minister and the ruling party’s state chief are at war? In Chhattisgarh, if it was problematic to rotate the chief minister, Rahul Gandhi should not have made such a commitment. The feud in Rajasthan not only deepened factionalism in the party, but also demoralised Congress’ young and promising leaders, doing irreparable damage to the party,” he says.
Congress leader Manish Tewari says it’s a matter of perception. “You may see it as factionalism, but I see it as a difference of opinion.”
It is Team Rahul which has borne the brunt of disillusionment within the party, waning as it loses some of its most prominent faces—Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Pradyot Deb Barma and Sushmita Dev—all of whom had their hopes pinned on Gandhi. Scindia and Prasada joined BJP, a party they and their fathers had fought against. Dev, the daughter of Assam Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev, joined Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). “I left for cogent political reasons. I don’t see Congress politics in the Northeast going in the direction it should. I see more hope in TMC,” says Dev, who was articulate as an MP in Lok Sabha. After these leaders left Congress, all eyes have been on Pilot and Milind Deora. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had quit Congress in 2015 after the central leadership had turned a deaf ear to his demand to replace three-term Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, joined BJP and became its strategist in
wiping Congress out in the Northeast.
Commenting on the reasons for the exodus, Dev says, “Internal politics of any party is about how well you balance and manage aspirations of all the people. No party can fulfil everyone’s aspirations and everyone understands that, but it boils down to how far a leader can manage it.” All of them feared time was running out for them while Congress was caught in a time warp.
IN A RECENT interview to a Marathi web channel, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, who began his political career with Congress, compared the 136-year-old party with the zamindars of UP, saying the leaders think they are still landlords and have the power to rule. “Every morning, they get up looking at the land and boast that the land parcels used to be theirs. The Congress has a similar mindset. They should accept the reality.” He said that after the Land Ceiling Act came into force, landlords lost their huge land parcels. Pawar did go on to say that though Congress’ strength in terms of numbers had dwindled, it is the only party with a pan-India presence to provide an alternative to BJP.
Some people in Congress believe that the party would fall apart in the absence of the Gandhis. Others are of the view that it is high time they handed over the baton to a non-Gandhi. The high command runs the risk of no longer being feared. Its every move is being watched from within
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Accustomed to sycophantic reverence, the high command was taken aback when 23 senior party leaders wrote a letter to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi last year seeking organisational reform. It reacted by not taking it into cognisance. But the letter brought out their trepidation. It sought a “full time and effective leadership” and establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival. What had till then been whispers in the corridors, came out in black-and-white, daring to make its way to the high command’s table.
Some in Congress believe that the party would fall apart in the absence of the Gandhis. There are others who are of the view that it is high time they handed over the baton to a non-Gandhi. After Sitaram Kesri was removed from the post of party chief in 1998, Sonia Gandhi held it till 2017 and was succeeded by her son Rahul Gandhi, who quit in 2019 after the Lok Sabha debacle. Deferring a decision on the leadership issue, Sonia Gandhi was given charge as interim president. The dilemma in Congress is reflected in the debate within on whether they should rope in election strategist Prashant Kishor, who has proposed to work as a member of the party.
If one goes by Machiavelli’s theory that “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both”, then the Congress high command runs the risk of no longer being feared. It faces its most testing moment. Its every move is being watched from within. It could have repercussions for itself, the party and its hopes of shepherding opposition unity against BJP. And there may be no fall guy.