From two not so long ago, the Congress now has three clear power centres, but no one knows how and where whose writ runs
From two not so long ago, the Congress now has three clear power centres, but no one knows how and where whose writ runs
There is an old joke that Congress politicians have reason to recall today. After a shipwreck, a Christian, a Sikh and a Hindu found themselves on a rubber dinghy out at sea in a storm. A massive wave turned the dinghy over. The Christian called out to the Lord for dear life, and was saved. The Sikh called out to Waheguru, and he too was rescued. The Hindu summoned all his gods—and was drowned. On reaching heaven, furious, he stormed into Indra’s court demanding an explanation. “Each time you called upon a god, he started preparing to head down for your rescue,” Indra replied, “But by then, you were already summoning another.”
As a series of scandals rocks the Congress ship, those within and those without cannot but see the parallels. The party now has three clear power centres, but no one knows how and where whose writ runs, let alone who to turn to now that it is beset by a sinking feeling. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still remains the ‘creator’ of the party’s fortunes. Like Brahmadev, no one pays him obeisance, but even so, it is his famed integrity that the party hopes will shield it from the current firestorm on corruption. Sonia Gandhi remains the final port of call, the Mahadev, who is surrounded by worshippers and is still the sole wielder of enough power to destroy anyone who runs afoul of her wishes. Natwar Singh, Shashi Tharoor and Ashokrao Chavan know this only too well. But if anyone wants a career for himself in the Congress, and wants his ambitions preserved for the future, there is only one person he can turn to: Rahul Gandhi.
The just concluded party plenary, held in Delhi to mark its 125th year, has made it obvious that Rahul Gandhi has taken his place in the Congress trinity. There were no drum beaters and sloganeers at the meet demanding more power for Rahul, as happened in Hyderabad back in 2006. What more would they ask for anyway? After all, the 40-year-old Gandhi’s sepia-toned picture adorned a 20-foot high standalone billboard in the company of the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Subhash Chandra Bose et al.
This has changed the old equations in the party. Between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, the division of labour worked well despite infrequent differences of opinion on isolated issues. Sonia, as president of the Congress and chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and Manmohan Singh, as head of the government, rarely allowed any confusing signals to go out. The harmony continues, and Sonia even underlined this in her speech at the plenary session when she called the Prime Minister “the embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity”, but the rise of Rahul has led to confusion at least in the short term and this is showing in the way the party is responding to a host of crises.
It is no one’s case that there is any mistrust between any of the three, but for the rest of the world, the power of this trinity manifests itself through others. Thus, if Sonia Gandhi operates through her political secretary Ahmed Patel, Rahul Gandhi’s ascent to political centrestage is being scripted partly by Digvijaya Singh. Between Patel and Singh, the relationship has always been ambiguous, marked by amiability on the surface but little else. Speaking at this plenary, Digvijaya spoke of how he had been inducted into the party’s power structure by the time he was in his late 30s by Rajiv Gandhi, and then turning to Patel, he remarked, “Ahmed bhai must have come in even earlier, at 34 or so.” It was a barb crafted to highlight how little experience Patel, the 61-year-old master of backroom politics, had in the rough-and-tumble of electoral contests.
The relationship between the party leadership and Prime Minister is even more fraught with complications today. The exit of Prithviraj Chavan—who was recently sent to Mumbai as Chief Minister of Maharashtra—from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has meant the exit of the sole interface between the Congress High Command and PMO. The upshot: confused coordination at the top. And there seems nobody around with the requisite political stature to plug the gap. For Rahul’s men, the confusion is even greater with Digivijaya adopting a line that seems to doubt the free market economy that the PM is so keen on.
Rahul himself, in his speech at the plenary, even took on ministers in the Manmohan Singh Government for not doing enough for party workers or taking time out to meet party functionaries. “The organisation is the bridge between the Government and the people,” he announced from the dais, “There are ministers and chief ministers here on stage. You should give more time to party workers. Wherever I go, I hear this complaint.” Rahul also spoke of linking the life of the common man with the growth engine of the country’s economy.
There is a sense of something amiss within the Government as well. Even for party insiders, the complex interplay among Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister AK Antony and Home Minister P Chidambaram has been befuddling. Though Pranab remains the main crisis manager of the Government as well as the ruling coalition, Antony’s stock is said to have gone up lately within the party. Chidambaram, who was missing from the dais on the first day of the plenary on 19 December, sought to bounce back the next day when he called upon Sonia Gandhi to review the performance of the Government every six months. Although Chidambaram said the Prime Minister should also scrutinise every ministry’s work thrice a year to track the pace of programme implementation, his main point was not lost on anyone. Ministers had once already balked in submitting themselves to such prime ministerial scrutiny, and there is nothing to suggest Manmohan Singh’s authority has risen since. If A Raja could flout the PM’s directives on 2G spectrum allocation, insiders say, it was because he’d seen ministers from the PM’s own party do so.
For a party that just a year ago was hopeful of a parliamentary majority in 2014, the confusion comes at the worst possible time. The party’s vision for the future is being articulated by Rahul, but it seems to have little relevance in the short term—which is what politicians care for, since their careers depend on it.
Even the Congress’ political resolution, a crucial exposition of the party’s views and political line, devotes most of its space to bashing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), offering almost nothing to the plenary’s delegates on the specific strategies to be adopted in the days to come. Of no greater significance were the amendments that were suggested when the draft political resolution was taken up for finalisation in closed door meetings of party leaders on 18 December at the Parliament Annexe. For example, the draft resolution used the term ‘zero tolerance’ on dealing with terrorism. According to a Congress leader at the meeting, Sonia Gandhi had it replaced by ‘firm action’. “Remove this word,” she is reported to have snapped, “Americans keep using it. They have no tolerance themselves.” In another instance, Rahul Gandhi is said to have had the word ‘vandalism’ replaced with ‘crime’ in a reference to the Babri Masjid demolition.
A change of expression here and there is hardly expected to improve the quality of a political resolution. Even so, it was moved with the usual self-congratulatory fanfare at the plenary session the next day. Unsurprisingly, the resolution had little other than polemics to offer even on the crucial issue of the party’s attitude towards coalition politics: ‘The necessity of coalition politics at the central level does not prevent our state-level workers from hoping and dreaming of a larger political space wherever they may be and we as a party must be cognizant and supportive of their aspirations. Every Congress worker and state party unit has a responsibility to strengthen the organisational base of the party.’
If anything, this reflects the confusion even more. Everyone in the Congress knows how crucial coalitions are and how they will be difficult to maintain if Rahul’s line on going it alone is taken too far. Despite the debacle in Bihar, where the party has made new enemies of old friends Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, Sonia declared that Rahul’s solo campaign would be sustained.
The Hyderabad plenary’s Congress, having returned to power after a long gap, was conscious of coalition realities and ally sensibilities. The Delhi plenary’s Congress seems ready to shrug off tensions with its existing and former allies. Taking a cue from Rahul’s remarks during his last tour of West Bengal (when he said the Congress respects its ally, Trinamool Congress, but won’t bow to it), Congress MP Deepa Dasmunsi lashed out at its Bengali ally for not treating the Congress with enough respect. She spoke of “conspiracies against the Congress”, urging the Congress president not to give away seats to allies where the party is strong enough. Meanwhile, Rahul’s aide Manicka Tagore, now an MP from Tamil Nadu, took on the DMK. Echoing Rahul’s idea, he spoke of the “self-respect of the Congress worker” and the need to establish Congress-rule in the southern state.
The transition to a new Congress, it’s now clear, is only a matter of time. Digvijaya Singh has presaged Rahul’s next move in politics often enough. He was the first to suggest that Rahul take over as general secretary, he was the first to recommend a bottom-up strengthening of the party organisation, and he was the first to spot a way to begin that process with the youth wings. In his plenary speech, Digvijaya Singh suggested it was time not just for Rahul but his team to take charge. After his passionate attacks on the BJP and RSS, he mentioned that the likes of Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot were brought in by Rajiv Gandhi when they were in their mid-30s. “Now, our expiry date is nearing,” he said, “I am confident Rahul Gandhi will make his own team.”
Non-Congress observers have been watching all this with disbelief. The RJD, for instance, thinks the Congress is fooling itself by looking upon Rahul as a vote magnet. “The Bihar results are evidence. The UP Lok Sabha results were a surprise, but only a fluke,” says RJD General Secretary Ram Dev Bhandari, adding, “The plenary was just a rally that demonstrated that the party is on the backfoot due to corruption charges.”
The BJP, on its part, is all set to charge headlong against the Congress with graft as its battering ram. BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley is livid that the PM chose to discuss the 2G scam at his party’s plenary instead of constituting a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to look into it. “If you are so clear that you have nothing to hide,” he has asked of the PM, “then you should be prepared to come upfront and be prepared to answer before any forum—and a JPC is a legitimate, constitutional parliamentary forum. There are many other questions [you] have to answer.”
In short, the Congress has several immediate issues to worry about. The opposition’s JPC demand and deadlock in Parliament are just one among many. For the first time, the PM’s own integrity is not proving a strong enough shield, and even he has not exactly emerged unscathed from the firestorm over the 2G scam. The concession that he is willing to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is facile at best because this entity would be looking at spectrum allocation only in the context of the CAG report, while concerns over the 2G scam cover a much wider array of issues.
For a party that wants to appeal to the aam aadmi, this government seems to have spent too much time allaying corporate worries, and too little on addressing the ordinary voter’s sense of outrage on how this country has been functioning. And it is the common voter who matters, come election day.
To be fair, Rahul Gandhi said so in his own way. “Anyone not connected to the system,” he said, is the ‘common man’. “We call him the common man, but in fact he is unique. He has immense capabilities, intelligence and strength. He builds this country every day of his life, and yet our system crushes him at every step,” he said in his speech. “We will never build a nation until we build a system in which this man’s progress is based not on who he knows, but on what he knows. This is the challenge of our generation.”
Ideal though this vision is for Congress members at large, it lies in the far too distant future. Rahul may want them not to worry about who they know, but they are more concerned about finding out who they need to know if they want their work done. At the end of the Congress plenary, there seem to be no easy answers to that question.