As Crises Mount, Sonia Gandhi And Old Guard Take Charge

Published: September 01, 2017 17:02 IST
So Sonia Gandhi stepped up yet again while son and heir Rahul Gandhi was busy with meeting the mayor of Oslo in Norway. His break coincides with the party's units in Himachal Pradesh and Bihar heading for splits - this after last month's fiasco in Gujarat.

Sonia Gandhi immediately took charge of the store and met Virbhadra Singh, six-time Chief Minister of Himachal, who is livid with the party, and representatives of the 19 Bihar Congress MLAs who want to switch to Nitish Kumar's team.

Gandhi Jr is due back today, and significantly, his mother did not ask him to cut short his trip to fire fight for the party. Instead, the old guard of Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad were at her her side during her meetings.

"No one who is against the RSS ideology would leave the Congress. But those who are power hungry may like to consider (it)," said senior leader Digvijaya Singh, speaking to me. He emphasized that he was not handling Bihar but that his comment was in the context of the alarming situation of the Congress confronting en masse defections in many states.

The latest is Bihar. Nitish Kumar, who recently broke away from the opposition in disgust with their "reactionary narrative" and joined with the Narendra Modi-led NDA, is sensing opportunity and prowling the Congress' troubled turf. Nitish Kumar, according to some reports, tried to break arch rival Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD earlier but made no head way. Sources say that he has met 16 Congress rebel MLAs. Nitsih Kumar wants the Congress rebels as a sort of insurance against his new ally, the BJP, and phoned some of them today. However, the BJP is reportedly not keen on the additions.

Ashok Chowdhary, state unit chief, and another Bihar leader Sadanand Singh, were told by Sonia Gandhi that a plan us being worked out to revive the party in the state. Speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, a rebel MLA said, "Please tell me what my future is with the Congress party. Even if we are disqualified, if we join the JDU, we will be re-elected as our constituents will know we are still relevant in the local scheme of things. Our leaders do not connect with the local issues of Bihar. I tried to meet Rahul Gandhi to apprise him of the state of affairs. I was told by Mr Raju in his office to send an email. I can either play the mail game or the politics game. Nobody in Bihar now knows what the Congress stands for". Sources say Lalu Yadav has called Ahmed Patel twice in recent days to warn him about the potential Congress split.

BJP President Amit Shah said today that he is refusing foreign invites because they distract him from building the party. He did not need to mention Rahul Gandhi for the comment to hit home.

A senior Congress leader involved in trying to stem the tide of defections with Sonia Gandhi said, "The congress as the leader of opposition has to set the mass agenda and take up a genuine mass campaign on unemployment and Modi's failures in delivering election promises. Leaders have to move out of Delhi and hit the campaign trail - and I do not mean Norway and the USA". Rahul Gandhi is slated to go to the USA for two weeks this month. How this will help the Congress party's revival is a mystery to most party leaders and analysts.

Senior Congress leader Kamal Nath also met Sonia Gandhi this week before leaving for Madhya Pradesh. By all accounts, the Congress president is back in charge after giving her son a shot at running things his way and is and trying to ensure that the party does not see more breakaways. 

Significantly, she seems to have staved off Virbhadra Singh's rebellion for the time being in Himachal which must vote before the end of the year. But he is clear on his pound of flesh - the removal of state chief Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu (just as earlier, Amarinder Singh forced the removal of Rahul Gandhi favourite Pratap Singh Bajwa).

The old war horses are uneasy with Gandhi Jr's leadership. "We are in power in barely six states. Earlier it was a clear bargain - the Gandhi family was the final authority for us, and in turn, they won us elections. They were the glue that kept the party together, prevented strong regional satraps from fighting each other. Please tell me which election Rahul Gandhi has won for the party. Or even what his winning strategy is," said one of them to me.

Another said that a rebel MLA from Bihar told him, "Bihar is the most politically conscious state. We imbibe politics from our mothers' milk. What do we tell the people? Are we with Lalu Yadav when Rahul Gandhi himself had torn up the ordinance that would allow Yadav, convicted of corruption, to fight elections? Or are we against him. Right now, there is no clarity. The Gandhi family did not attend his (Lalu's) mega-rally, yet sent a representative? What do we stand for or with?"

That in a nutshell is the Congress's dilemma: who does the party stand with? At present, a motley group of opposition leaders sans any agenda. More importantly, what the does the party stand for as Modi and Shah seek to fast track India in to a majoritarian project?

Till this and the uncertainty about Rahul Gandhi's elevation to President is not resolved, the party seems to be in a self-induced coma. It now has innumerable issues to attack the government on such as rural distress, the failed demonetisation exercise, the appalling GDP figures that were shared yesterday, the lack of governance in BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh where more than 200 children have died in Gorakhpur which is Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's constituency. Last week's televised violence in Haryana after self-styled spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted of rape indicted Chief Minister M L Khattar. It was the third major riot on his watch.

But the Congress can't seem to activate itself into using these huge worries for any sort of assault.

Party leaders who I spoke to for this piece said the time has come for the family to take hard decisions. "Nobody will or can tell Rahul Gandhi to leave, he has to take that call himself. But if he is not interested, perhaps he and the family can step aside as mentors and let other leaders try to revive the party," said one.

This would have been heresy till recently; the fact that it's being said even on the condition of not being named is a testament to the dire straits the party finds itself. It has a bench strength of  talented young leaders such as Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Hooda. They are now experienced and have a level of mass connect but are penned up due to what the party calls the "RG factor" - it is assumed that they will move to the frontline only when he is promoted.

Meanwhile, every time there is a crisis, Sonia Gandhi rushes out of self-imposed seclusion and tackles it with her team. "You can't have leadership decisions being second-guessed in the era of Modi and Shah," said a Congressman referring to what effectively plays out as a tug of war between the camps of mother and son.

But what can the Congress do when one captain wants to retire and the other is reluctant to play?

(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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