After the letter from 23 Congress leaders, what does the future hold for Rahul Gandhi?
Shambhavi Thakur
Opinion

After the letter from 23 Congress leaders, what does the future hold for Rahul Gandhi?

Dissenting Congress and Opposition leaders will not want Gandhi to be Modi's opponent yet again in 2024.

By Vrinda Gopinath

Published on :

In the ongoing fracas in the Congress party, one would believe that the sacked and suspended former party spokesperson, Sanjay Jha, is the mastermind of all that is unraveling in the party today.

As early as March, Jha began writing opinion pieces on the leadership vacuum in the Congress that was taking the party down the slide to obscurity and extinction. He wrote of its organisational stagnation and lethargy, and a dawdling leadership and its coterie without a map for recovery and revival.

Then came another article of more woebegone tales of despair and gloom for the party, which finally led to his removal as spokesperson, then his suspension from the party itself for “anti-party activities and breach of discipline”.

Undeterred, Jha let forth an avalanche of tweets. Many were misplaced though, like his tweets supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Galwan massacre and China, despite Modi’s complete falsehoods on the incident, and his support to his former colleague Sachin Pilot, who tried to bring down the democratically elected Congress government in Rajasthan.

But some of his tweets were revealing of things to come.

A week before the news exploded of a letter bomb written by 23 senior Congress leaders, Jha was already tweeting about how 100 Congress leaders, including MPs, had written to interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi “asking for change in political leadership and transparent elections in CWC”. The CWC, or Congress Working Committee, is the highest decision-making body in the party.

On August 23, Jha tweeted again about “300 Congress leaders” from across the country being signatories to the letter, “over and above the 23 seniors already in the public domain”. While the party’s spokespersons rushed to deny there was any such letter, Jha was proved right a day later when the letter written by 23 leaders was leaked.

It must be said here that Jha was the Maharashtra state chief of the All India Professionals’ Congress founded by Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, and worked closely with him. Significantly, Tharoor himself was one of the signatories of the letter.

It goes without saying then that the plot and plan to expose the lethargy and inaction in the Congress leadership, and the disquiet among many party members, began early this year.

The letter

It was undeniably a stunning coincidence that just a day ahead of the crucial CWC meeting to decide on the vexed party leadership issue, the letter questioning the party’s future was leaked to the media. It was signed by four sitting MPs, including Tharoor, Manish Tiwari and Vivek Tankha, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and someone who is seen to be the main architect of the letter.

Other signatories included former chief ministers Bhupinder Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and Veerappa Moily; former union ministers Renuka Chowdhury, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Milind Deora, PJ Kurian and Ajay Singh; and state party chiefs Raj Babbar and Kuldeep Sharma. This is not something to scoff at, despite media reports parroting the Gandhi loyalists’ side.

The fire was already lit a fortnight before during a virtual meeting on July 30, convened by Sonia Gandhi with the party’s Rajya Sabha members. The meeting saw a heated exchange between members close to Rahul Gandhi and former senior ministers in the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance II government. The latter group had members who signed the controversial letter.

During the meeting, Rajeev Satav, a Rahul nominee, lashed out at Sibal when the latter questioned the party’s style of functioning. According to the Hindu, Satav said the UPA-II government had “spoilt” the party’s prospects in the 2014 general election. When former finance minister P Chidambaram raised the issue of a “weak organisation”, the Hindu added, this was countered by KC Venugopal, also an aide of Rahul Gandhi.

All hell broke news when the Hindu broke this story, and Satav was forced to back off with a few tweets hailing the UPA-II government’s success and achievements.

However, the August 24 letter bomb was careful to focus on the many aspects of revitalising the party organisation and to retrieve it from steady decline. These included, Indian Express reported, “a sweeping range of reforms, decentralisation of power, empowerment of state units, elections to the Congress organisation at all levels, from the block to the CWC and the urgent constitution of a Central parliamentary board”.

But the most significant part, as Express pointed out, was the insistence on the appointment of a “full-time and effective leadership active in the field and visible and available at AICC and state headquarters” and, crucially, elections to choose CWC members.

Rahul’s leadership

The letter could not have been a more direct attack on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, which many believe has been the core reason for the party’s dismal showing in the general elections that he led in 2014 and 2019. Rahul’s style of leadership and functioning has left a lot to be desired; complaints to this correspondent from Congress leaders and workers bristled with indignation and betrayal. His reported arrogance and high-handedness, his refusal to meet people desperately seeking him out for organisational matters — the list is legion.

Rahul is famously inaccessible even as he surrounds himself with his chosen coterie of loyalists, bizarrely known as “young” as opposed to the band surrounding his mother Sonia, who are derisively termed “the old guard”. Is Rahul a modern leader or an archaic chief who believes in the feudal style of depending only on loyalists and confidantes? And despite his so-called reluctance to lead the party after throwing away his post as Congress president after the 2019 election, he continues to pull the strings as a proxy leader, which is viewed with even more resentment and heartburn by some party leaders.

Remember when Rahul reportedly refused to meet senior party leader from Goa Vishwajit Pratapsingh Rane, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was trying to smash the Congress despite being the single largest party in the state election? Rahul turned his face away, the BJP successfully installed its government in the coastal state, and Rane quit the Congress for the BJP.

Or, for that matter, when Rahul refused to pay any attention to Hemanto Kumar Biswas, the Congress’s point person in Assam and the Northeast. Biswas was so angry and frustrated, claiming that Rahul was more interested in his pet dog than him at the meeting, that he moved to the BJP too.

Then there was the constant sniping with Amarinder Singh as Rahul was not keen to have him as Punjab party chief but Singh dug his heels in and threatened to quit in 2015 and float his own party. Rahul had to finally relent before the state election in 2017.

In Maharashtra, even as the party high command in Delhi toyed with the idea of an alliance with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party after the state election last year, elected Congress legislators unilaterally declared that they wanted to be part of the new government because it was their victory alone. Rahul had barely campaigned in Maharashtra, addressing just two public meetings, while Sonia did not even visit the state.

In the 2017 state election in Gujarat, where the Congress should have won because of the apocalyptic disaster after demonetisation, the party’s fortunes were reversed because its leadership sank into complacency. Instead, a marauding BJP swung into action mid-election, offering blockbuster sops to traders and merchants who were affected by demonetisation.

From Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh, Goa to Manipur, Nagaland to Rajasthan — a predatory BJP has smashed, grabbed or tried to break legitimately elected Congress governments. Yet Rahul has called for no organisational meetings with senior and prominent leaders to chalk out a strategy. There have been no open consultations with any state leaders. There’s been no transparency or clarity about organisational matters and policies, or a blueprint for revival and rejuvenation.

The Rahul riddle

So, is Rahul cloning Modi in the cult personality and self-image sweepstakes department?

Despite his self-proclaimed reluctance and hesitation, Rahul has been singularly building his own profile and image without any qualms or hesitation as he takes on the Modi government — and rightfully so — with his daily attacks on Twitter and pronouncements to the media.

Whether it’s China’s incursions, the Galwan massacre, or Modi’s lies and falsehoods on the issue, Rahul has been battering the Modi government on a daily basis, with his mother taking on Modi on China too. Petrol price hikes and job losses, dire warnings about the disastrous consequences of the Covid pandemic, the Modi government’s incompetence in dealing with the health disaster, the unprepared and insufficient response to the pandemic and the economic slowdown — the list is endless.

There have been journalistic projects too. Rahul interviewed eminent personalities, including economists, bankers and social scientists, in his endeavour, as he put it, to counter the negative hate media discourse. All in all, it’s been a Rahul tech media show.

Is the Gandhi heir diligently building a brand that can take on the Modi brand? Rahul might have relinquished his position as Congress president but his is the only unilateral voice heard today, unrivalled and unquestioned by the party. Are the letter bomb writers and others resentful of being completely silenced and pushed aside, something akin to what Modi has done in the BJP too?

There have been gushing comments on how Rahul is the only Opposition leader who’s been steadfast and unique in attacking Modi unhesitatingly, consistently, and unwaveringly. Are other Opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, and a host of other non-BJP regional leaders feeling threatened or challenged by Rahul’s move to emerge as the most prominent leader in the Opposition ranks? Is there a chance for a non-BJP coalition in the eventuality of a victory in 2024?

Rahul’s relentless attack on the Modi government might be fair and fitting. But should leaders who claim to be democratic and open-minded be so overbearing within their own party so as to not take loyal and hardworking party leaders and workers along? Where is the chartered and representative organisational structure of the diversity of an elected and appointed party workforce, which is the engine for repair, reconstruction and innovation?

The end game

It’s only fitting to see the outcome of the letter bomb at the CWC meeting that was held on August 25. Not unexpectedly, there was a firewall of accusations and counter blame during the seven-hour-long faceoff.

A victory is hailed depending on which side you’re on. So, it’s no surprise that both sides have called success and victory. Gandhi loyalists may have pipped the letter writers by maybe leaking the letter and therefore prepping their side for a vociferous putdown of their adversaries, with beseeching cries for Rahul to take over as president. But this did not happen.

At the end of the meeting, despite her stated heartbreak and forgiveness to the letter writers, Sonia accepted the party mandate to retain her position as interim president for a maximum of up to six months, until a new president is elected.

On the other side, the signatories to the letter are jubilant; they succeeded in keeping a commitment-phobic Rahul from becoming president again, at least for the time being.

So determined were they of their stand outlined in the letter that they even had a legal side ready to take on any eventuality. This included keeping a letter ready addressed to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde asking to stay any decision at the meeting to suspend or expel signatories, and expressing the legal view that only a newly elected All India Congress Committee can elect the new president under Article 18(H) of the party’s constitution as the CWC has already discharged its duties by appointing an interim president last year.

The threat was clear and unambiguous at the August 24 meet: appointing a new president would be unconstitutional and illegal, and it will be challenged in court.

The die has been cast. An election to the post of Congress president is the mandate today. The letter writers would like it sooner rather than later. Candidates will have to be picked and chosen for each side. Sonia would like her son to be president. It’s not something that she’d like to throw away, given that it’s been the Nehru-Gandhi family’s legacy for decades.

Also, are Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka ready to give up the institutional privileges, entitlement and resources that the office affords them? Rahul will certainly be pulled on all sides before he decides to contest or not.

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