ENARADA, New Delhi
By AJAY N JHA
Post May 16, one person who could be at the centre of many attacks (both from within and outside) in the Congress party would be its Vice- President Rahul Gandhi. Not only his role as the leader of opposition in parliament would be seen with a big scanner, his every word and move would be crucial for his own survival in the days to come.
In any case, increasing desertions before the onset of Lok Sabha polls has already threatened to make the summer of 2014 not a very memorable one for the Congress party. The party’s situation can be well understood as it has been forced to field legislators from the Rajya Sabha to fight the polls while many of its current Lok Sabha MPs had been either seeking a safe seat or opting out. But where others see a dismal future, the Congress still maintains the phenomenon of leaders switching sides is in keeping with election season.
Here also, Rahul became more like neither chicken nor fowl. While he succeeded in sending seniors like, Former Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh and Ambika Soni have been cajoled to contest. Soni has never fought electoral polls but remained a Rajya Sabha member throughout. Even Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mani Shankar Aiyar who are Rajya Sabha members were asked to contest.
But senior leader Jayanthi Natarajan refused to fight from Tamil Nadu. GK Vasan and P.Chidambaram also did not want to contest. Rahul Gandhi could also not force that to Ahmed Patel, Digvijaya Singh, janardan Dwivedi and a few others because they took shelter in the name of “proximity and poll management” under the leadership of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
None other than MP Chief Minister Shivraja Singh Chouhan had the grumption to say in public meeting that first, the Mother (Sonia Gandhi) tires and retires. Then the Son (Rahul) huffs and puffs handing over the baton to Sister (Priyanka). This is a relay race competing against one person (Modi) working tirelessly.
Yet the Congress spokespersons are not convinced and say that “The Congress is a sinking ship is a hype created by the BJP”. They are not prepared to accept that the Congress was now reduced to shadow of what it was a decade ago. Jagan Reddy and Kiran Reddy indicate why Congress is a sinking ship. Their disastrous performance in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in 2012 where they lost 26 seats says it all. Major alliance partners Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress and DMK have all deserted the party.
The Congress party had to face desertion by Jagadambika Pal and Satpal Maharaj. While Sonia Gandhi kept the party together it is widely believed that a generational divide has crept into Rahul Gandhi’s Congress. There is also a view that a coterie is forming around him leaving others high and dry.
That made many senior political commentators to wonder if there was a war brewing within the Congress. They were also left wondering as to why was the Gandhi scion able to convince the old guard as the party witnesses an exodus of senior leaders on election eve? When Congress MP from Jamnagar Vitthal Radadiya left the party to join the BJP in 2012, people didn’t think much about it. Though they questioned why Narendra Modi was inducting a person who became famous across the country for brandishing a gun at a toll booth near Vadodara, Gujarat. When Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party walked out of the Congress, RJD alliance in Bihar in February this year, one was wondering if the Congress was actually serious about its alliance partners. Paswan had blamed Rahul Gandhi for not taking his calls when he wanted to finalize seat sharing between the three parties. He chose to go with the BJP who stitched up a clever alliance with the Dalit based regional outfit much to the chagrin of RJD and Congress.
Where would that hit and hurt the Congress party? The fact remains that Rahul Gandhi’s biggest challenge have remained a handful of Congress senior leaders owing allegiance to Congress President But there seems to be a bigger problem facing the grand old party. Many seniors are sulking behind closed doors with the way Rahul Gandhi has gone about handling the election campaign. He has sidelined many seniors within the party and they feel he takes their contribution to the party for granted.
Though most have preferred to lie low, some have decided to do the unthinkable. Former Home Minister and Rajiv loyalist Buta Singh, is contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket from Jalore, Rajasthan. While senior leader from UP, Jagdambika Pal is contesting from his Domariyaganj seat on a BJP ticket this time.
After being a Union minister for 10 years, former CM of AP, NTR’s daughter Purandeshwari ditched the Congress for the BJP. Karnataka veteran and former Railways Minister CK Jaffer Sharief was found sulking after being denied a ticket from Bangalore and at one point of time, threatened to join ranks with HD Devegowda’s JDS.
The worst hit state was Orissa where over 10 senior leaders have quit the party. They include the Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh, former finance minister Ramkrishna Patnaik and former MLA Sanatan Mahakud. Many other sitting MLA’s also threatened to resign over ticket distribution. Four time MLA Bhupinder Singh had put the blame squarely on the high command “Some people with vested interests have taken control of the party.” Orissa assembly is going to polls along with Lok Sabha where the BJD seems to have a clear edge over a divided Congress.
Rahul Gandhi’s consistent ignorance of senior leaders and his choice of candidates in these elections has not gone down well with them. Some of them believe that the scion is partly responsible for the party’s current failing situation. If he had come out of his shell and given a patient hearing to them, many of the issues could have been handled better. But with no indication or direction coming their way from the high command, they watched the situation go from bad to worse.
What has not been seriously debated is the perceptible clash of perception between team Rahul Gandhi and the senior Congress leaders on a number of issues. Rahul Gandhi may feel that the seniors should lead the way in a fight when the odds are clearly stacked against the party. But a section of the seniors are of the opinion that they should not have been pushed into the electoral fray when their suggestions never found their way into the ears of the Gandhi scion. If they had been given a chance to put forth their views, half of the problems wouldn’t be there in the first place. “The ball is clearly in Rahul’s court, if he decides to push ahead with his agenda aggressively then the possibility of more people jumping ship will be the obvious recourse” said a senior Congress leader.
The question which still remains unanswered is if Rahul Gandhi had taken control over the party machinery, then why he did not exercise his mind on fielding Younger candidates and instead, plunged many older congress contestants? What stopped him from having his thought translated into action when he had been given that opportunity? Or was it that, he became a victim of internal sabotage and the continuing whisper campaign within the party echelons?
The biggest question that is being asked in many quarters is, if the Congress falls short of even 100 seats, Rahul Gandhi will have lost his battle to keep the Gandhi family as the sole power centre of the party or to stay relevant in politics to lead a comeback in the near future. Rahul Gandhi’s late attempt to redeem himself by braving a second interview where he sounded almost coherent in Hindi is matched by the last-ditch offensive by his ailing mother and combative sister. But all that may not count for much.
In fact, much of what Rahul said in that interview and recent speeches made a lot of sense. Infrastructure and human resource development should go hand in hand. The poor do need a push (or “escape velocity” or plain subsidy) to overcome the inertia of poverty. Only more transparency can combat corruption. Primaries are indeed necessary to pick good candidates so that the voter is not short changed.
And Rahul would have many takers for these ideas were he an opposition leader fighting the Congress, in which he enjoys decisive backroom control, has undermined all these ideas while in power. He cannot suddenly stand for all that the Congress has belied to demand a mandate for the same party.
Rahul’s fundamental tragedy is to find himself in two wars simultaneously. His one battle has been within the party to seek organisational reform which alienated the old guard. If his radical ideas and promotion of the young brigade created a fissure, Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council and a certain Jairam Ramesh stood in the way of the growth hawks in the government.
On most occasions though, the UPA government eventually bent every rule to push for unbridled growth and alienated large sections of farmers and tribals. But the corporate India was not amused by the party’s internal resistance to its interests and switched sides, believing a Modi sarkar would have no compunction delivering what it wants.
Ironically, the faux ideological battle within the Congress sent out wrong signals to both poor and rich. Rahul, however, has only himself and his coterie to blame for not assessing that he would not decisively win the battle within the party well in time before general elections. The result is the poor performance card of a confused government and a divided leadership. A number of party heavyweights missing in poll action are waiting for a spectacular debacle to cut a much-defeated Rahul to size. In such a scenario, the Congress may even split if 10, Janpath does not cede control.
Narendra Modi, on the other hand, is riding high on his presidential-style campaign. His biggest achievement so far is to project an air of inevitability about his becoming prime minister. This election is not for a BJP or an NDA but a Modi sarkar where every vote cast for the alliance reaches him directly and even parties opposed to the BJP can justify backing him. Yet, Modi and his party know that the numbers are not quite adding up. Therefore, in the last few weeks, the thrust of their campaign has been on a decisive mandate. Some are playing the stability card. Others are warning against policy paralyses.
Clearly, Modi cannot be the CEO-like all-deciding super-PM if his government hinges on AIADMK or TMC support and the whims of their mercurial leaders. That limits the voter’s choices. Barring the corruption front where the BJP is less guilty if only for the lack of comparable opportunity, and the facile secular-communal debate, there is little to choose from between Rahul’s Congress and Modi’s BJP.
For all the rhetoric, no NDA government will dare scrap the UPA’s rather unimaginative subsidy schemes. And it is only expected to follow India Inc’s growth brief more single-mindedly and unabashedly than the UPA did. Unless, of course, a Modi sarkar gets encumbered by unreasonable allies who can be as big a roadblock to reforms as the NAC was, albeit for very different reasons.
It is fashionable to slam these parties and their so-called short-sighted political compulsions for resisting reforms. We can continue to hard-sell the benefits of mega growth but cannot discount in a democracy those who still refuse to buy in.
However regressive we find their politics, these parties have been winning enough seats to deny both the Congress and the BJP anything close to a majority for a long time. While it may upset the growth story if Modi needs more than like-minded or servile allies, a highly fractured mandate will also show that most Indians perhaps wish to see certain policies paralysed. In such a scenario, will Modi stick around for the next poll within a couple of years hoping the voter gets more decisive? Or will he risk his cult by backing himself to tame the feistiest of allies?
(Posted on May 12, 2014 @ 11pm)
(Ajay N Jha is a veteran journalist from both Print and Electronic media. He is Advisor to Prasar Bharti. The views expressed are his personal. He can be reached at email@example.com )
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