The Congress dissenters have not asked the Gandhis to relinquish organisational/party roles - yet. But, after the loss in two general elections and serial defeats in state elections (most recently, the disastrous run in Bihar), it has come down to this - when, not if.
For decades, the Gandhis' aggrandised role meant that critics could accuse the Congress of acting as a family cult rather than a functional political party. It seemed irrelevant when the Congress was winning elections. Now, the lack of party machinery and the rejection of Gandhi leadership, both by voters and by a section of the party, stands exposed, warts and all.
I asked my editor for time to extensively report this column. I spoke to several dissenters, some of the fast-diminishing breed of Gandhi loyalists, and several party leaders who say they are watching in dismay as their party implodes, taking their career prospects with it.
One dissenter who used to be a minister in the UPA government told me that this time, it would be a fight to the finish "the TPT policy is over". When asked, he elaborated, only half in jest, that "TPT" in dissenter parlance refers to "Tang Pe Tang Rakh Kar Baithen Hain" (not taking action). On a more serious note, he said "Rahul Gandhi cannot shirk responsibility for the Bihar elections. He called the shots. He sent his team which put up a disastrous show. Now he is in Goa. We know Mrs Gandhi is unwell, she needs to be away for her health, but he should stop using her as a shield".
So what do the dissenters, mainly senior leaders like Kapil Sibal, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, want? They are demanding organisational elections from top to bottom so that every level of the party is chosen, not nominated. Can this be seen as anything but a direct attack on the Gandhis? Sonia is interim party chief. (Admittedly, at the urging of the organisation) and children Rahul and Priyanka are General Secretaries. The dissenters may not spell it out but what they want is elections for every post including those held by the Gandhis.
Team Rahul, meanwhile, has gotten comfortable using Sonia Gandhi as a rubber stamp to run the party, while he takes all the decisions. They want Rahul to take over as President again without an election. Sources say that an election is on the cards but Rahul will not run if anyone chooses to contest against him, he wants a unanimous endorsement. This while he simultaneously attacks and cuts down to size the leaders he does not like.
"This general is at war with his own side" is how a young state leader puts it.
The crisis has spilled over for the second time in the public domain because Ahmed Patel, the party's treasurer and chief trouble shooter has been unavailable, hospitalised for over a month with Covid complications. With Patel out of action, the only communication channel most leaders had with Sonia Gandhi, who has long trusted him as her closest aide, is broken. Result: the Congress crisis is on Full Monty display.
Leaders watch in dismay as Team Rahul allies with the Left in West Bengal, where elections are months away. They say that an alliance with Mamata Banerjee's party would have counted for something; the Left, they argue is a spent force in Bengal, admitting that it performed decently in Bihar earlier this month. "TMC has 20 MPs in Delhi," said one Congressman, adding that if the parties worked together, they could be a formidable bloc. In the absence of an alliance, they will end up attacking each other in Bengal and at the centre, he said.
The flip flop in Kashmir over the Congress' status with regard to the newly-formed Gupkar Alliance is also frustrating a section of the party. Are we working with Farooq Abdullah and Mehboob Mufti or against them, they ask. It isn't a trick question. But the fact that there is no clear answer is telling of the confused state of the leadership.
Reports of a new letter challenging the Gandhis' vision and SOPs are not correct. The dissenters are going public with their problems. "Rahul Gandhi wants us out of the party, we think he is destroying the party," said a senior leader to me. Defeat after electoral defeat has empowered members like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal to formally reopen the case they made a few months ago when 23 of them wrote to Sonia Gandhi seeking elections and more visible leadership.
Clearly, the meeting ground has shrunk despite Sonia's attempt at a compromise by setting up new committees that accommodate some of the dissenters. This has become her go-to move: when in doubt, Committee. The holding operation she was performing till Rahul is ready to return is in shambles. The dissenters are in no mood to forgive or accept another Rahul-run term as foisted on them. They say they are equal stakeholders and want accountability.
While Team Rahul trashes them on Twitter (currently, Rahul's favourite stomping zone, apart from Goa), several of the dissenters who were senior lawyers talk of asking for court intervention to make the Congress hold elections.
This time around, Rahul Gandhi can't say the Congress is broken. The battle has been joined.
(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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