Look who’s killing the Congress
PR Ramesh | 10 Jul, 2020
Rahul Gandhi (Photo: Rahul Ravi)
IN A RECENT EPISODE of the talkshow The Rubin Report, hosted by Dave Rubin, historian Niall Ferguson talked about what his eight-year-old son Thomas had to say about 2020. “There are two pandemics this year—Covid and another equally contagious Wokid.” The teenager was talking about a certain trend, the highlight of which is extreme, if not excessive, focus on issues not quite relevant to a particular situation.
It appears that Rahul Gandhi, former president of the Congress, is also preoccupied with such fashionable notions of the liberal world. The flip side, though, is that he and his team of advisers are holding the Grand Old Party hostage and pushing it on a slippery slope towards oblivion, accelerating a process that had begun in the 1980s, especially after the assassination of Indira Gandhi that saw Rajiv Gandhi holding its reins and losing the grip on the people.
Reversing the diminishing fortunes of the party seems to be the last thing on Rahul Gandhi’s agenda. The confirmation of that came at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting held on June 23rd, with China baring its fangs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. It was a time when political leaders of all hues were expected to back the government of the day. The Congress had already been part of a multi-party video conference called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi where he had said that there was no intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in any Indian territory on June 15th, when 20 Indian soldiers had died at the hands of the Chinese. At the meeting, the head of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and senior ally in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, stated firmly that this was not a time to make political capital and that he was firmly with the Government. Even West Bengal Chief Minister and head of the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, who has no love lost for the Modi Government, threw her weight behind the Centre, asserting that questions and clarifications should be reserved for later.
The Nehru-Gandhi family at the head of the Congress was isolated as the sole political entity which, wording itself carefully, avowed full support to the Indian armed forces but not to the Government, which it held guilty of mismanaging the situation with China. The first family of the Congress was most miffed with the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Mayawati, who supported the Government despite expectations that she would stand with the family. The ire was evident in party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s tweet that dubbed the BSP, without naming it, a mouthpiece of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
At that the CWC meeting, though, it was clear that not all the party’s leaders agreed with Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive posturing towards the Union Government. Neither did his sister Priyanka Gandhi’s reiteration of her brother’s mid-2019 claim that he was fighting a lone battle against Modi enthuse the party leaders present. For her part, Sonia Gandhi called for “mature diplomacy and decisive leadership” from the Modi Government, contending that there was a “growing feeling among people that the government had gravely mishandled the situation.” That too could not cheer many of the leaders present at the high-level Congress meeting.
Despite the party’s first family sticking to Rahul Gandhi’s apparently preposterous position, including his “Surrender Modi” remark, younger leaders such as RPN Singh suggested that the Prime Minister’s wrong policies should be attacked, and not him personally. Older leaders such as Anand Sharma, unwilling to be knocked off the ‘loyalist’ power pedestal, piped up to state that they had taken on the Prime Minister, the head of the Government, whenever necessary. Reflecting the discordant notes within, the party released Rahul Gandhi’s statement on the issue separately, apart from a CWC resolution. The latter chose a more moderate line expressing ‘unwavering solidarity’ with the armed forces and assuring support to the Government for ‘steps taken to safeguard national security and India’s territorial integrity’.
Clearly suggesting that he was not in a mood to accommodate the views of his own party leaders, Rahul Gandhi’s statement blamed Modi directly for what the Congress leaders described as a “failed” foreign policy that had disturbed traditional relationships with neighbours and attacked his remark denying any intrusion into Indian territory. “The established institutional structure of diplomacy has been demolished by the PM,” it said. Political analysts view such dictatorial tendencies, at a time when the party is facing its biggest challenge yet for survival, to be suicidal moves guided merely by egoism. “More internal democracy would mean that other Congress leaders would also feel that they too have a say in the party. Authoritarian instincts will alienate leaders, especially the young who want to revive the party as well as the old who are more pragmatic,” says a person close to the matter.
The Gandhi family was isolated as the sole political entity that avowed full support to the armed forces but not to the Government, which it held guilty of mismanaging the situation with China. The family was most miffed with Mayawati, who supported the Government
Evidently, the family, and Rahul Gandhi in particular, has not allowed facts to come in the way of their statements on the faceoff. The Galwan River Valley was the flashpoint of the 1962 war when Gorkha troops set up a post in the upper reaches as part of New Delhi’s Forward Policy in response to China constructing a road between Xinjiang and Tibet without India’s consent as early as 1957. Colonel Rajinder Singh, a China expert, states that Patrol Point 14 (PP-14) is the only area at the mouth of the Galwan valley that is now controlled by India: “The significance of this PP-14 is that it screens Chinese movement at the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers. India has recently built a bridge over this confluence. Besides, a link road to PP-14 is being constructed from this bridge on the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road, which is probably the bone of contention. It must be noted that LAC/ border with China is not marked. The Galwan Valley has been on the eastern side of the LAC, which is under Chinese control. And this has been the case for the last 58 years. Most of the Galwan Valley was lost during the Prime Ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. And it has been status quo since then.”
Modi was then stating the factual position at the all-party meeting. Reports after the violent scuffle said that a minimum of 18 PLA soldiers’ were killed. ‘It also turned out that Lt Col Maninder Nagpal, Capt Arjun Deshpande, Capt Manangma of 16 Bihar Regiment were most daring in avenging the death of their commanding officer Col Santosh Babu. Another soldier of Artillery regiment, Sepoy Surinder Singh, is stated to have killed 10 PLA Soldiers with a sword. He too got wounded in the head and is convalescing at Leh,’ Rajinder Singh wrote in a recent article.
Notwithstanding the historical flaws of Congress rule, and the new disclosures of the standoff along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, Rahul Gandhi seems to have chosen to run with the views of his three advisers—former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, blamed by the Congress establishment itself for the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco when India and Pakistan agreed to delink terrorism from bilateral talks and Delhi also allegedly conceded on Islamabad’s claims on Indian subversive activities in Balochistan; Lieutenant General (retired) HS Panag, who was removed as chief of Northern Command by the Congress-led Government when AK Antony was Defence Minister; and Lieutenant General (retired) Prakash Menon, known more for his intemperate assertions against the Prime Minister on social media platforms and calling for the latter’s trial for treason. Many Congress leaders view Gandhi’s stand, at this juncture especially, as both politically and personally counter-productive. More so, since Modi’s approval rating has not eroded in the course of the developments along the LAC. If anything, ordinary citizens look up to Modi to stand up to China and make it pay.
Rahul Gandhi’s personal attacks on Modi are seen as avoidable and also as a repeat of the disastrous “Chowkidar chor hai” sloganeering of the last General Election that could boomerang once again on the Congress. Rahul Gandhi, however, chose to paint himself once again as the lone rider hero, backed fully by his sister and mother, to ensure that his unquestioning loyalists came out openly and commanded full obedience. The older grandees, irrespective of whether or not they backed his view, could not have gone against the family’s wishes as their politics has all been about ingratiating themselves with it.
As political observers state, the two-hour-long CWC meeting provided an unvarnished picture of the Congress transforming itself primarily into the political tool of a family that no longer values even perfunctory inner-party dialogue and debate.
Rahul Gandhi has refused to budge from his line although his own party members admit that uncivil attacks and undignified barbs at the Prime Minister will work to the party’s disadvantage. Many believe that the party’s positions on the Pulwama tragedy that took the lives of several security force personnel and the retaliatory Balakot airstrike inside Pakistani territory, which the Modi Government launched, have been suicidal. While Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala attacked the Government for “politicising” the Pulwama tragedy in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that followed, the party leadership demanded proof in public of the Balakot airstrike. Neither position went down well with the public, as Modi’s resounding victory and return to power proved.
Many Congress leaders are wary of Rahul Gandhi persisting with old tactics. Unhappy with the affairs of the party, they have been confiding in others in the opposition and even in friends on the ruling benches, but no one seems to have the stamina to take on the family yet. In any case, seniors in the party have no political real estate of their own and completely depend on the family for their command over what they have. They have for long been held hostage to the dynasty and are prisoners to the prince’s petulance.
DESPITE ITS STEADY political decline, the Congress in the past has taken the utmost care to retain its centrist political position. But Rahul Gandhi has consistently cast the Congress in a Bernie Sanders kind of leftist mould by taking extreme stands on issues. He has gone in directions and traversed distances the party had avoided so far. Sanders, it is to be recalled, is no longer running for president and has apparently wound up his campaign which took a decisive turn after his aggressive calls for heavy taxation of America’s wealth creators even when demanding a significant hike in blue-collar wages and cancellation of student loan dues, linked to universal higher education as evidenced in some Scandinavian countries. He also attacked childhood hunger in the US as a direct result of rapacious retailers selling food that leads to malnutrition. Also perceived as controversial was his unalloyed backing to the likes of Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite some of their statements being viewed as anti-American. The friction between Hillary Clinton and Sanders in the run-up to the Democrats backing the more moderate and far more acceptable Joe Biden as the official candidate for the presidential election forced Sanders to finally call off his campaign. As columnist Michelle Malkin noted: ‘In Sanders’ world, it’s the “greedy”—America’s real makers, builders and wealth creators—who must be punished and shamed…In Sanders’ bubble, childhood hunger is the fault of selfish consumers, self-serving entrepreneurs and rapacious retailers who engage in voluntary transactions in a free-market economy.’
Rahul Gandhi has failed to connect with the young voter by projecting a new and bold political and ideological vision, despite the clever photo-ops of him interacting with ordinary citizens and distressed workers
Rahul Gandhi’s economics suffers from the same flaw as his politics: cheap populism. He doesn’t seem to realise that the country—with rising aspirations and a progressively younger demography—has moved on. People now believe in being taught to fish and not being handed the fish. But Gandhi continues to press ahead with new versions of what the Congress believes was the killer blow in the 2004 General Election. This time, it is about universal basic income or UBI; and to generate intellectual backing for it, he has lined up a group of yesterday’s public policy experts—some of whom have now come out of the ideological closet and admitted to their political predilections.
The latest project appears as illogical as Rahul Gandhi’s previous idea of a single rate for the Goods and Services Tax (GST)—cooking salt and a Mercedes Benz would carry the same tax rate, apparently! Now, his firm conviction about providing everyone with a basic income would empty the already depleted exchequer. “Time that Rahulnomics woke up and smelled the coffee,” says a Congress leader.
Rahul Gandhi has been taking what would appear to be extreme leftist positions, more than those of the extreme Left itself. He gave dramatic evidence of this when he rushed to support the ‘tukde tukde’ brand of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The student gathering there saw seditious slogans being raised against India and in support of the hanged militant Afzal Guru. It was a theatre that showcased a mindset thumbing its nose at India’s unity. Among the slogans reportedly raised were the following: “Bharat ki barbaadi tak, jung rahegi ”, as well as “Tum kitne Afzal maroge, ghar ghar se Afzal niklenge” and “Kashmir ki azaadi tak, jung rahegi, jung rahegi”.
These slogans echoed within the university grounds, with even elected student-body leaders overtly participating. And the gold-standard slogan for all India-hating mindscapes, “Pakistan zindabad”, too, was raised on the JNU campus. None of this appeared to have upset Rahul Gandhi in the least.
Rahul Gandhi’s political positions have been pushing traditional Congress leaders into an acute discomfort zone. Worse, despite his contrived outreach to the downtrodden, the Congress has failed to gain any substantial ground pan-India and appears to be losing its hold further. Increasingly and irrevocably, it is becoming a Catch-22 for the party. The voter that traditionally supported the party has moved to the camp of its chief rival, as have several of its regional and national leaders, in pursuit of political survival and in consonance with changing times. The planks that it once considered its own—social justice, welfare and so on—are no longer so.
For the family to extricate the party out of this political quagmire is no easy matter, especially because India has transformed in the post-liberalisation era, slowly but decisively. For a fast-growing aspirational middle class, new wealth creators, start-ups providing unheard of opportunities for entrepreneurs, etcetera, the Congress is no longer seen as the vehicle to address their concerns.
It is a new India where the youth are self-confident and dominate the political and economic discourse. It is an India breaking its traditional political ‘mai baap’ mentality in which dynastic and entitlement politics is perceived only through the prism of achievements tested on the ground. An India that is rapidly rejecting dynasty as a political enabler. Rahul Gandhi has failed to connect with the young voter by projecting a brand new and bold political and ideological vision for a new nation. All this, despite the clever photo-ops of the prince of the Congress interacting with ordinary citizens and distressed migrant workers on their way back home on foot. Besides, Priyanka Gandhi’s desperate attempts to make political capital of bussing migrant workers back to their home villages in Uttar Pradesh, too, cut no ice with the locals.
The last real rebound for the Congress was in 1980. Although Indira Gandhi committed excesses, imposed Emergency, trampled on individual liberty, gagged the media and jailed opponents, there was no dramatic erosion in her support base. The Janata Party could not stay together and Charan Singh’s routine assertions of a Nuremberg-kind of trial for Indira Gandhi apparently denuded the Shah Commission of all its legitimacy. Despite several odds, Indira Gandhi could bounce back. But post-1980, the decline of the Congress gathered momentum. Of course, it bucked the trend when the party won the Lok Sabha elections after her assassination. But ever since, it has been up against leaders more popular, with political planks more appealing. Social dynamics have changed drastically since. Muslims, once the Congress’ traditional voters, no longer feel obligated to support the party. The appeal of Ummah now has more pull for the community that ‘secularism’.
At the same time, the majority community has become more Hindu-ised. This is no longer Nehru’s India where tradition was looked down upon in consonance with the West’s perceptions of India as a regressive nation of rope tricks and snake charmers. Although a Hindu vote bank remains a tough proposition, there has been a consolidation of the community on politico-religious lines.
A huge burden for the Congress is its previous role as a custodian of knowledge that promoted ideological dominance in the humanities and related disciplines. This was an era when leftists and Left-leaning people were placed in academia, especially in historical research. With the arrival of Narendra Modi at the Centre, however, the grip of leftists across campuses, cultural institutions, science bodies, and even in space-related research, has loosened and given way to multiple and differing voices and viewpoints. For instance, leftist icons like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib have been taken down from their pedestal.
It is against this backdrop that Rahul Gandhi is apparently sulking for being cheated out of political victory—disinherited from what should have been his family’s rightful entitlement. Most galling of all may be that the challenge is from a natural-born leader, a man without a family heritage in politics, who secured a massive mandate for his party on the strength of his own name. A man whose personal popularity nationwide refuses to slide despite every effort to trigger this, inasmuch as the popularity of the lawmaker from Wayanad refuses to go up.
Rahul Gandhi seems to have chosen to run with the views of his three advisers—former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon, blamed by the Congress establishment itself for the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco; Lieutenant General (retired) HS Panag, who was removed as chief of Northern Command by the Congress; and Lieutenant General (retired) Prakash Menon, known more for his intemperate assertions against the Prime Minister on social media
But can Congress leaders help the party come out of the black hole its own prince has pushed it into? Not unless they gather the courage to speak truth to power and think beyond their invested political fiefdoms under the aegis of the party’s first family, and to prioritise the future of the party, its reinvention in keeping with the times, even its political survival.
There is scant evidence that such an effort is on the cards.