With Nitish Kumar Mishandled, Rahul Gandhi Damages Opposition Unity

Published: July 27, 2017 13:18 IST
Let me start with saying that Nitish Kumar's "inner voice" had been whispering for a while that he was trapped with a bunch of feckless leaders, clueless about how to tackle the rampaging Modi and Shah juggernaut and out of touch with political reality. Kumar, by throwing in his lot with the BJP, just acknowledged the writing on the wall: that 2019 is a lost cause for the ramshackle opposition.

Did Kumar's inner voice take on urgency after his Saturday meeting with Congress No 2 Rahul Gandhi, who was assigned by his mother and Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi to the job of managing Kumar and ensuring that he did not defect, thereby inflicting a body blow to opposition unity? Gandhi till last afternoon was reassuring anxious allies that everything was fine in the Bihar arrangement and that Kumar would not cross to the BJP. A senior Congress leader considered the party's biggest trouble-shooter told me last evening barely an hour before Kumar met the Governor to resign, "Wahan sab thanda hai" (all is calm in Bihar). How did the Congress, which had the most at stake in keeping an alliance government going as well as developing a united opposition for 2019, fail so spectacularly? Where has the country's oldest political party's will to power vanished? The answer is as clear as the lack of any credible opposition: Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year-old man-child who the party is busy baby-sitting and who they insist on inflicting on a disinterested country and increasingly desperate opposition leaders.

Gandhi could have flown down to Patna and got Kumar and Yadav sitting across the table till a solution was hammered out. He did nothing of the sort. Gandhi could also have insisted that his mother Sonia Gandhi, his nominal boss, use her considerable influence with Lalu Yadav to insist that Tejashwi Yadav resign, thereby at least depriving Kumar of his facile excuse to walk out. 

Yadav, aware of the enormity of the political implications, was dithering under huge pressure from his large family and wife Rabri Devi, who were dead against Junior's resignation. Gandhi could have acted as an honest broker, claiming equidistance from both sides. Yet he chose to act with lofty disinterest. The same disinterest which cost the Congress forming the governments in Goa and Manipur this year despite having won the most votes. Gandhi dismissed the UP debacle where he contested in alliance with the Samajwadi Party and won seven as "You have ups and downs - and we had a little down in UP". This reaction came after he left his young ally Akhilesh Yadav to address a post defeat press conference alone.

When will the party accept that the "downs" are mammoth and that Gandhi's political ventures are disastrous? Currently it's a sullen, dispirited lot virtually being driven from debacle to debacle and beset with defections such as Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam who left in a rage as Gandhi preferred to pay more attention to his dog than Sarma during a meeting.  Now, it's Shankersinh Vaghela in poll-bound Gujarat. Sarma took his revenge in the Assam election and is currently chalking out the BJP's foot print all over the north-east. Vaghela damaged the party in their ill-starred campaign for the Presidential election and is now putting in jeopardy the Rajya Sabha election of Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary.

The common thread in all the leaders' disenchantment is Gandhi. Vaghela left the Congress days after Gandhi did not pay any attention to his demands. Even Kumar yesterday went public on how he tried his best to make Gandhi see reason by reminding him of the ordinance he had torn up in 2013 that was designed to protect Lalu Yadav after he was convicted of corruption in the fodder scam. Yet Gandhi did not offer any reassurance to Kumar which resulted in yesterday's The End.

While Gandhi's effort to save the Bihar alliance was typically unenergetic and uninspired, Modi and Shah worked overtime to ensure the break-up as was evident with Modi tweeting his support to Kumar after his resignation, the BJP quickly announcing it would side with him, and more.

The BJP and Kumar's lightning-fast moves clearly took the Congress by surprise. Significantly, Kumar did not even bother to speak to Gandhi, his main interlocutor in the Congress, and informed Bihar leader C P Joshi of his exit. Kumar has always believed that Sonia Gandhi has a soft corner for Yadav, who was the first to welcome her to politics.

So what of the young leaders in the Congress? They are all impatient and chafing as their careers are stalled as long as Gandhi is not elevated. Madhya Pradesh, like Gujarat, is also being frittered away by Gandhi as he ducks the decision on who will lead the strife-prone state unit. Gandhi can't seem to take the call on nine-term MP Kamal Nath, and has left both him and Congress chief whip Jyotiraditya Scindia hanging. Both are mystified as despite, a decision being taken, it is not being announced. Meanwhile the leader of the third faction, Gandhi's erstwhile political guru who fell from grace, Digvijaya Singh, has announced a long religious yatra which will travel though all of Madhya Pradesh's districts and ensure people-to-people contact. Not really quite the best way for a faction-ridden party to put its best foot forward.

In Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, the state chief is working hard, but despite repeated complaints to Gandhi, is facing huge sabotage from former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Gandhi seems to listen, yet does not take even listless action.

Except for a brief spark in 2009 which saw Gandhi leading the Congress to 21 seats in UP, he has a track record of dismal failure and is seen as an accidental tourist in Indian politics with spurts of attention to his party between holidays. The party has tried to repeatedly launch and re-launch him but he is not taken seriously by the voters or other leaders.

What Gandhi stands for is a mystery as he hops from issue to issue. One day, it's farmers in Mandsaur, where seven died in police firing, followed by a long Italian holiday; another day, it's demonetisation when he claimed he would cause a "political earthquake" by revealing evidence of Modi's "corruption".

That earthquake never came, but it's time that Gandhi took a long hard look at the damage he's doing to his party and the opposition. It's like watching a car crash. 

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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