What Critics Miss When Jeering Rahul Gandhi As Congress Boss

Published: October 05, 2017 15:27 IST
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I am so far out on the periphery of the Congress that I have no idea when - or where (or even whether) - the All India Congress Committee plenary would be held to elect the next president of the Congress. Indeed, I have no idea who that President will be, although the name most in circulation is that of Rahul Gandhi, provided always his mother does not seek another term. 

Rahul Gandhi himself has said he would rather not seek the presidency as a birthright but through the freely expressed will of the party. That's easier said than done - because who in the party would want to stand against him? In 2000, Jitendra Prasada, who had been closely associated with Sitaram Kesari, decided to contest against Sonia Gandhi. He was certainly allowed to, perhaps even encouraged to do so. In the event, he got, if memory serves right, some 94 votes in contrast to some 9,400 for Sonia Gandhi.

Hence, Rahul's apparent readiness to fight an election lacks one important requirement - a rival candidate. It is all very well to say that inner party democracy demands an alternative choice, but the eternal question remains: who is going to bell the cat? I would be pleased - if astonished - were a candidate to show up, but unless he or she is a dark horse cached away for the present in some quiet corner, I can see no alternative to either mother or son becoming the next president of the party - only because that is the entirely democratic desire of the party, however eccentric or idiosyncratic that might appear to those outside the party. After all, neither Modi nor Amit Shah nor the cocktail crowd (read Tavleen Singh) are going to determine who heads our party.

Such a large number of my friends and well-wishers, not to mention an army of ill-wishers, say the Congress is "doomed" if Rahul takes the lead that I try to teach them a little Congress history to put matters in perspective. Most of my interlocutors do not have either the time or the patience to hear me out. So, let me take advantage of this opening for a monologue - for that is what an Opinion piece is - to try to explain why I do not share the palpable distress of so many of my armchair colleagues at the imminent prospect of Rahul Gandhi emerging victorious at the end of the current process of party elections that is certainly being pursued with heart-warming vigour from booth committees upwards. I should know because I too am fighting to secure a place in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee by way of struggling into the AICC as a duly elected member with the right to vote - for or against Rahul, as I choose. I expect, however, that I will be spared the need to make an agonizing choice for I doubt there will be more than one candidate. We have to please the party - not those who have made it their life's business to die rather than vote Congress.

So, what is the Congress history to which I am so keen to draw attention? It is the personal histories of the four leaders from one family who have dominated the Congress since at least 1929 - Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. This might explain why, despite the apprehensions of many about the suitability of Rahul for the job and their concern at the Congress not throwing up a viable alternative, the Congress is most likely to place its 2019 electoral bet on Rahul Gandhi.

Jawaharlal Nehru returned from Harrow, Cambridge and the Inner Temple in 1912, after seven years of idling his time away in England, "a bit of a prig with little to commend me" - as he says in his own words in his Autobiography. He was no awkward adolescent at the time; he was over 23. One would have expected him to do something about making a career or at least occupying himself usefully. Instead, over the next seven long years till the rather advanced age of 30, he did next to nothing to move from mindless indolence to meaningful activity.

He attended his first Congress session at Bankipore within months of his return, playing no part at all but gawking at the leaders and being particularly irritated at Srinivasa Shastri (who loved putting "Right Hon'ble" before his name). Nehru says he "felt dissatisfied with life in those early years". His profession as a lawyer "did not fill me with a whole-hearted enthusiasm". He "indulged in some diversions like shikar" but gave that up when he shot a baby antelope. "This harmless little animal fell down at my feet, wounded to death, and looked up at me with its great big eyes full of tears". He adds, "those eyes have often haunted me since".

He led a very relaxed life, often holidaying, trekking (even on his honeymoon) in the mountains of Kashmir, quoting Walter de la Mare to himself:

"Yea, in my mind these mountains rise,
Her perils dyed with evening's rose;
And still my ghost sits at my eyes
And thirsts for their untroubled snows".

A lazy, easy, untroubled life that soon "lost its freshness...being engulfed in a dull routine of a pointless and futile existence " that Nehru attributed to his "mongrel education" in England. A "sense of the utter insipidity of life grew upon me. There were not even worthwhile amusements or diversions". Yet, he did little or nothing about it for seven long years, from 1912 till 1919. He did not have to because he was swathed in the lap of his father's luxury. "My own political and public activities in the early war years were modest and I kept away from addressing public gatherings. I was still diffident and terrified of public speaking." 

This was the same retiring young man who, once he came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, was to sweep through the country over the next decade like a tornado to become President of the party at the incredibly young age of 40, and lead the nation to "Purna Swaraj".

Jawaharlal thus set the Nehru-Gandhi tradition of taking their own sweet time to grow into leadership. But from then on, there has been no stopping them.

Indira was the same. At Somerville, Oxford, she was utterly undistinguished, spending most of her time rushing off to London to meet Feroze. Says her biographer, Katherine Frank, "She only spoke once on a platform - and it was a fiasco. She froze with nervousness and when she finally opened her mouth to speak and uttered an unintelligible sound, someone in the audience yelled, 'She doesn't speak, she squeaks'. "

I well remember how during the first few months of her becoming PM, cinema audiences would giggle uncontrollably at her convent accent and piping voice. Lohia mocked her as a "goongi gudiya" (a dumb doll). That sneer got obliterated only five years later when, after the 1971 war, Vajpayee hailed her as "Durga Mata". That is the long road she took to grow to reverential stature.

Rajiv Gandhi matched his mother's undistinguished academic career at school and failed his exams both at Cambridge and Imperial College, London. He returned to India as an airlines pilot that, but for punishing training schedules, involved little more demanding than flying Fokkers to Chandigarh and then taking a private chopper to Patiala for a day of leisure with his school buddy, Amarinder. His favourite pastime was to walk at an incredibly fast pace all the way from Safdarjung Road to Qutub Minar and back, as also to take the most outstanding black-and-white photographs with his ever-renewed slick cameras. Fit as a fiddle, his best friend was a New Delhi stationer who would slip him a Coke when Sonia was not looking. He had no taste for politics or public life, content to be swaddled in the warmth and affection of his family.

But when the call of duty came, he did not look back. Arguably, no PM after Nehru has had such an excellent first year in office as Rajiv did, but when challenges mounted, he was man enough to tackle them. He was on his way back when an assassin blew him up. But in five short years, whatever his errors, he did awake the nation to his vision of taking India into the 21st century through science, technology and morality. Another late starting Nehru-Gandhi who, after a very hesitant beginning when it took him 12 takes to record his first TV statement of under a dozen lines the evening he became PM, grew into a world-class statesman and a political leader of national stature, win or lose.

I was personal witness to Sonia Gandhi's first 18 months as Congress president. That had been preceded by seven years of monastic existence following her husband's brutal end, during which she kept her very limited political role under wraps to preserve the privacy she so treasured. In her early days as party president, I once made the mistake of persuading her to participate in a very limited, local press conference involving no more than six press representatives in the tiny Karnataka town of Bidar. After the event, as I was seeing her off, I remarked, in a stupid endeavour to boost her self-confidence, that the press conference had gone quite well. She turned on me quite sharply, "No, it was terrible - and you know it".

Her next media appearance was a disaster; she announced on the grounds of Rashtrapati Bhawan that the Congress had secured the support of the required 272 members to form the government, even as Mulayam Singh Yadav was doing to the Congress what Sanjay Gandhi had done to Charan Singh - withdraw support after pledging it.

But consider her path to progress since then. After five years in opposition, she quietly stitched together a rainbow coalition that defeated such a stalwart as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his empty boast of "India Shining" to gift the Congress political office for an unbroken decade that resulted in Dr. Manmohan Singh becoming the longest-serving PM after Nehru.

Yet another Nehru-Gandhi who took her time rising to the top but, once there, became the symbol of all her party stood for - win or lose.

And now, the Moving Finger writes and prepares to bring to the Congress presidency the latest Nehru-Gandhi, young Rahul. He has had a long probation, but it was one thing to be preoccupied tinkering with some part of the engine and now being in a position to overhaul the whole machine. From some of his actions, and a lot of his remarks, he does seem to have a plan in mind. Only time will tell whether he holds in his hands the key to renewal and rejuvenation. The party believes - and I share the party's belief - that he has it in him to pick up momentum once he is fully in charge. 

The panic in Modi's voice betrays a creeping realization that time is running out for his brand of politics. It is with confidence that the Congress looks forward to the next Lok Sabha elections. If Rahul Gandhi, as Congress President, is able to persuade Mayawati to join the fold, Modi will soon be history. Then, with a sigh of relief, the nation can look forward to blooming again. Achche din toh aayenge hee!

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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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