Gandhi's wanderlust is peaking, apparently - this will be his 8th foreign trip this year, and it comes when there is growing speculation that former Haryana Chief Minister B S Hooda, an established Gandhi family loyalist, and his son, Deepender Hooda, a member of parliament from Rohtak, are ready to move to the BJP.
Scotching the speculation, both father and son spoke to me. "We are from a freedom fighter's family, we will never leave the Congress. This is the most ridiculous nonsense I have heard," said Deepender Hooda. "I don't know who is spreading these rumours and what they hope to gain by it. My father spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a few minutes in central hall (in parliament) and these rumours spread like wildfire. What is wrong in political courtesy?"
Hooda Sr, embroiled in a host of CBI cases for allegedly throwing open Haryana's doors with sweetheart land deals for the Gandhi son-in-law Robert Vadra, made similar denials. But in central hall last week, there was much gossip about central ministries or the role of a Governor being offered to the Hoodas.
Sources say that the Hoodas are extremely unhappy with the cases they are named in for different land deals dating to when the Congress ruled Haryana, as also decisions taken by Gandhi in terms of the leadership of the Haryana Congress. The Hoodas have a long-standing rivalry with Gandhi favourite Ashok Tanwar and Kumari Selja, who are getting meaty roles in the party. Ashok Tanwar is the state chief of the Haryana unit of the Congress.
The BJP's political strategy in Haryana is based on anti-Jat politics. The Jats are the dominant political caste in Haryana and the BJP came to power in the state in 2014 by consolidating non-Jat castes. Sources say that the Hooda family is convinced that with the flak drawn by the inexperienced Chief Minister M L Khattar for his missteps in governance, it's time for the Congress to script a comeback. Deepender Hooda told me, "Look at the situation in Haryana today. The BJP is running a disastrous government. Forget about us leaving the Congress, (it's) people in the BJP are ready to defect for the right leadership to the Congress".
Khattar, an RSS nominated pracharak, has mishandled three major crises so far in his tenure, the latest being the violence that tore through his state after Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape on Friday. The Punjab and Haryana High Court accused Khattar of letting "Panchkula burn for political gain". Last year, his awful handling of the Jat quota stir left Haryana burning for several days, nearly 30 people were killed. Before that, another cult head, Rampal, had a violent stand-off with the Haryana police in 2014 in which six people died.
Yet, with a critical gap in leadership, the Congress has been utterly unable to capitalize on Khattar's three big strikes. When Hooda talks of "(the) right leadership" it's a clear hint that Gandhi's leadership choices are not working in any of the states. Consider Maharashtra, where Narayan Rane, who left the Sena to join the Congress, is now leading an exodus from the party to the BJP.
The Congress has hardly attracted any new talent, content instead with its drip feed of what can only be described as "heirloom" politicians. There is continued suspense about Gandhi's own ascension as Congress President - rapidly turning into a Cry Wolf fable - with October now being floated as the time of handover from mother to son, but it's pretty clear he's calling the shots.
And calling them badly. There is no clear narrative or agenda that the Congress party offers under Gandhi. What should be presented as a clear-cut ideological battle to ensure the constitution remains the bedrock of Indian identity and the reining in of a majoritarian agenda, Gandhi flounder while grappling with issues.
A Congress leader told me with no small measure of sarcasm, "I have learnt from you that after Oslo, my leader is headed to the USA. Do we need to connect with voters here or think tanks there? Crucial elections are due. What exactly is our strategy? He does not tell us anything."
Nitish Kumar, the Bihar Chief Minister who jumped ship to the BJP, also spoke baldly of the Congress' poor role as leader of the opposition and its inability to stitch together anything but a "reactionary narrative." Clearly, no lessons were learnt from that defection as the Gandhi family did not attend Lalu Yadav's rally in Patna on Sunday. Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee attended the rally. The Gandhis sent senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, but Lalu, who has steadfastly supported Sonia Gandhi, was learnt to be upset. A member of the Yadav family told me "We were not corrupt when the Congress party joined the government in Bihar or entered in to an alliance (with us)? Because Modi says we are corrupt, Rahul Gandhi cannot be seen with us. So Modi sets the agenda for Gandhi".
While the Congress has pretensions of being the only national opposition party, the reality is that it is a greatly shrunken version of a once-robust party. It fancies itself as the fulcrum of opposition unity but can't even seem to keep together its unit in Bihar where trouble erupts daily. It's a repeat in states with crucial decisions pending such as an Gujarat, where an alliance with Hardik Patel, the Patidar leader, remains unsettled. Also, who will lead the party in Madhya Pradesh, which is headed to elections.
Gandhi prefers to devote his attention to foreign assignments while his party seemingly implodes in India.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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