The only place one does not hear this swelling demand is within the party itself. And yet it is the business of the party - and the party alone - to determine who will lead it. Had there been any serious dissent on this issue, the last three years have provided ample opportunity for a party revolt. There was first the worst outing ever for the Congress when we went down to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha from 206. Then there was the Delhi election in which we returned to the pavilion with a duck. Several reverses - Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Assam - left the Congress standing hapless in the outer field. Bihar was a relief, but now we have the drubbing in U.P and Uttarakhand. Punjab has provided a moment of respite, but many attribute that to Captain Amarinder Singh alone. Why then, covered in the debris of election defeat after election defeat, does the Congress not demand retribution from the Gandhis?
Only because the party knows that to look for savage reprisal is to miss the point, to distract itself widely from the real malaise. Even if there were to be a leadership change, nothing would change for the Congress, because the root of the problem is not The Family, but the existential issues elaborated in this space a few days ago that, I am given to understand, attracted a wider audience than any other Opinion piece I have served up in the last many years. I will, therefore, not repeat that analysis, but attempt to set out a road to resurrection that will expand the Congress' national historical role, from that of the leading "Party of Inclusion" to becoming a leading member of a national "Alliance of Inclusion".
To this end, the party must, of course, elect its leader. That should not be difficult. It has consistently done so. Rahul himself has said he wants free and fair party elections to confirm his imminent elevation to the Presidency of the Congress. The last time we had a contested election was in the year 2000 in the wake of the previous year's worst-ever defeat for the Congress (till then) in a Lok Sabha election. Jitendra Prasad took on Sonia Gandhi. He polled 94 votes. Sonia's count was upward of 9,400. This time round, after all the reverses we have suffered, I see no one in the party who would want to stand against Rahul, let alone with any serious intent or expectation of defeating him. The fault, dear Brutus, does not lie in our party election process - but in our party's clear understanding that the Gandhis do indeed constitute the bonding adhesive of the party, the glue that sticks the bricks together.
The trust is justified. If in an act of childish despair, the Congress had sacked Sonia Gandhi right after the 1999 set-back, would we have won in 2004 - or disintegrated in internecine fighting over who was to succeed her? The indisputable fact is that it was Sonia and her team who spotted opportunity when it came, and in 2004 brought together the rainbow coalition that finished a truly first-class PM like Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the middle of his India Shining campaign. All the statistical evidence does indeed point to 2003 - the last year of the Vajpayee regime - as marking the beginning of the surge that took us later, under Dr. Manmohan Singh, to within a whisker of double-digit GDP growth. Yet neither Vajpayee's towering personality, nor the remarkable upturn in economic performance, could match Sonia Gandhi's political legerdemain in forging the mahagathbandan that was the UPA.
It was then that the Congress Prime Minister and the Congress President between them, and notwithstanding neither being in the best of health, pushed through the Indo-US nuclear deal that so raised the prestige of the party in the people's eyes that together, in the face of the challenge mounted by another veteran BJP political giant, Lal Krishna Advani, took the party soaring to 206 seats - an increase of about 50% over 2004. Ten full years of power - with Dr Manmohan Singh becoming the only PM after Jawaharlal Nehru to run the central government continuously for a decade.
True, it was the same team that suffered monumental defeat in 2014, but that was not because they had suddenly lost all capacity for political management and governance. It was because the rainbow coalition that Sonia Gandhi had put together in 2004 and 2009 had, by 2014, so unraveled that the Congress was left on its own in virtually every state. Standing for the seventh time in a constituency that had in the past returned me with a majority of 1.5 lakh in 1991, and 2 lakh in 2004, I went down in 2014 as a Congress candidate without an alliance to a miserable 58,000 votes in all. Similar was the fate of all but 44 of my colleagues all over the country. In the name of "accountability", should all of us have humbly surrendered with Sonia Gandhi taking sanyas and Rahul disappearing into thin air? That would have been the sure way to a "Congress-mukt Bharat". Modi and his cohort know that - which is why they advocate it. Why on earth should we let our opponents tell us how we should resurrect ourselves?
I have argued in the previous column that the best way out of our present cul-de-sac is by returning to the Sonia model of 2004/09 - stitch together again the inclusive alliance of anti-Hindutva forces that together polled 70 per cent of the vote in 2014 and 60 per cent of the vote in UP in 2017. The imperative of doing so is much greater today than it was in 2004, when we were opposed by the most reasonable and least communal of sanghis, Atal Bihari-ji. Now, the Dark Ages have returned. If we do not rescue the country in 2019, we will sink, perhaps irretrievably, into further darkness. Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Akhilesh, Stalin, Farooq Abdullah, Sitaram Yechury - all have openly urged such an alliance. Indeed, the alliance has found astonishing acknowledgement from even the head of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, who warned his parivar in their meeting in Coimbatore a few days ago to "Watch Out! The Alliance is Coming!"
However, the most important voice that has not been heard from is that of the Gandhis. They were, of course, away. Now that they have returned, the probability of an alliance needs to be turned into a certainty by Rahul adding his voice to the demand. And the critical missing piece in the jig-saw, as of now, is Mayawati. She retained 22.5 per cent of the UP vote; the SP-Congress alliance got 28.5%. Had they had a mahagathbandan in UP as in Bihar, Yogi Adityanath would never have become history. Akhilesh showed he was willing to bridge the gap by supporting a Mayawati government to keep out a BJP-led government. Push never came to shove, but that is the clearest indication hitherto available that a Mayawati-Akhilesh-Rahul settlement, enthusiastically supported by Nitish and Lalu Prasad, is not beyond the limits of political feasibility, especially when it is not the state but the nation that is at stake.
What, therefore, is required is an immediate declaration of intent by Rahul Gandhi followed up by the most earnest negotiations to stitch together a new gathbandan (and, if possible, a mahagathbandan) to take on the Modi machine in 2019.
No such gathbandan or mahagathbandan can constitute a credible alternative to the BJP unless it has a strong, positive alternative agenda of governance. That again cannot be dictated at the outset of the integration process. It must evolve out of the combined efforts, experience and vision of the proposed inclusive federal alliance, finding appeal not just at the national level but that also resonates to the aspirations of the majority in each state, state-wise, backed up, of course, by state-level manifestos. In 2004, the UPA's Common Minimum Programme was a post-victory manifesto. This time round, the proposed alliance would need an agenda of governance prepared in advance by all the partners together and propagated well before and during the election campaign.
There remains the question of who will lead the National Federal Alliance? To even ask the question at this stage would be to sabotage the coalition before it is formed. Let the leadership evolve organically from the processes of putting together the alliance. Rahul Gandhi has already shown that he is not avaricious or ego-ridden. He was the principal architect of Congress participation in the Nitish-Laloo gathbandan that became a mahagathbandan when Rahul accepted third position; then went on to score the highest ratio of seats won to seats contested, with 27 seats won out of 41 contested. Sometimes, it is best to stoop to conquer. Earlier, when he allied with the Left Front in West Bengal, he was indubitably the junior partner. He romped home with more victories than his partner. In UP, there was never any question that the older Rahul Gandhi was the younger political brother to Akhilesh Yadav. And in Tamil Nadu, for fifty years the Congress has been the last in line - willingly. Therefore, it would be ahistorical to believe that Congress prestige or Rahul's pride would come in the way of a realistically forged state-by-state alliance. The Congress will, of course, assert itself, as it has the right to do in Punjab, but happily eat humble (or, at least humbler) pie where it has been slipping for the last quarter century or more. Also, in central India, in a belt stretching from the Arabian Sea to Dandakaranya, the main challenger to the BJP is the Congress, but in Jharkhand and Odisha the primacy of others would need to be recognized. And differences with the YSR Congress would need to be sunk. Such pragmatic adjustments must be the order of the day.
Rather than make the leadership of the proposed alliance the make-or-break question, Rahul has his work cut out for him to undertake the "organizational and structural changes" in the party that he called for in Parliament before leaving for New York to bring back his mother from hospital. During his last four years as Vice-President, he has been constrained by not having his own people in crucial positions in the party. He needs a freer hand. He will get it only if he becomes President de jure. His mother must remain First Mentor - like Lee Kwan Yew. But in the day-to-day management of party affairs, a single decision point would be necessary to facilitate the required "organizational and structural changes". What those changes should be have been spelt out in a series of reports commissioned over the last thirty years by the Congress High Command - ranging from the Uma Shankar Dikshit committee, set up by Rajiv Gandhi after his renowned Congress Centenary speech on 28 December 1985, to the three successive A.K. Antony introspection teams from 1999 onwards. These recommendations have been deliberated upon in detail by the High Command. Some recommendations have been accepted formally, others put in storage. Hence, Digvijaya Singh's timely remark that the time for introspection is over; the time for action has come.
We must as quickly as possible reach stage where party posts from block president to district president to PCC presidents to PCC representatives and AICC delegates to the 10 elective posts in the Congress Working Committee (the 'High Command') are filled by election and the General Secretaries hand-picked by the President as his nominees.
Above all, the party President must be - and seen to be - elected. Rahul is on record as personally favouring endorsement by the party over right by birth to lead the party. His problem, as indicated earlier, will be to find an opponent - like Lee Kwan Yew, he may be forced to nominate his opposition! But the post needs to be transparently seen as won by party support, not smuggled in by umbilical cord. Such a strong, self-confident Congress would be the partner the proposed alliance needs. Only then might the Congress be considered by its partners as having contributed so much to victory that it is worthy of being considered to lead the alliance. But it should never be a question of leadership. It should always be a question of resoundingly defeating in 2019 the Forces of the Night.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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