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The power struggle in Rajasthan is a symptom of the malaise at the top

Smita Gupta | Updated on July 23, 2020 Published on July 23, 2020

On autopilot: The dysfunctional mode that characterises the Congress’s national leadership today has allowed the differences in Rajasthan to fester into a crisis   -  PTI

Rahul Gandhi, who resigned as president of the Congress after its 2019 electoral debacle, is playing back-seat driver, and struggling to put together a group that will be loyal only to him

* The party’s senior leaders wished to delay the transition from the old to the new

* The party seniors lamenting the ingratitude of the young, too, had once been similarly “rewarded”

An advertisement for the Congress party caught the public eye ahead of the 2014 general election. It showed Rahul Gandhi flanked by sundry young men and women with the tagline: “Kattar Soch Nahi, Yuva Josh” — no fanatical beliefs, only youthful passion. Those standing with Gandhi were all Youth Congress workers.

When the advertisement had originally been conceived, Gandhi was to be surrounded not by unfamiliar faces but by the party’s young leaders, already known to the public. Jyotiraditya Scindia was to have been there, along with Milind Deora, RPN Singh, Jitin Prasada, Priya Dutt, Meenakshi Natarajan, Sandeep Dikshit and, of course, Sachin Pilot.

The young leaders whose faces were to have adorned the poster were all members of the Lok Sabha (LS) then; some were ministers, some held positions in the party organisation or parliamentary wing. Together, they represented the Congress’s youth talent.

The objective was to present to the world the party’s new face. But a senior leader demurred. Nothing, he said, should be done that might — even remotely — undermine Gandhi’s importance in the party. Tagging other upcoming leaders might just lead to unfavourable comparisons.

It was not the real reason, of course, as anyone familiar with the Congress knows: Indeed, even today, after abysmal defeats in two successive general elections and six years since that hoarding was displayed on street corners, enthusiasm for Gandhi has waned, but no one has yet challenged his supremacy. The real explanation was that the party’s senior leaders wished to delay the transition from the old to the new.

The ongoing battle in Rajasthan between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Pilot is a symptom of the malaise at the top. Sonia Gandhi is the interim president of the Congress, and the team she has worked with since 1998 — a clutch of senior leaders — would like to continue to call the shots.

Rahul Gandhi, who resigned as president of the party after its 2019 electoral debacle, is playing back-seat driver, and struggling to put together a group that will be loyal only to him. It is this dysfunctional mode that is at the heart of the Congress’s national leadership. It is this schism that allowed the current power struggle in Rajasthan to become a crisis, one that earlier led to Scindia herding a band of Congressmen to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and toppling the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh.

Though the former president’s choices are largely from among the younger members of the party, the Sonia Gandhi team has always found ways to squash such projections. They have also scorned calls for giving space to the young, arguing that the new generation has been given ample opportunities. They point out that Scindia (49) and Pilot (42) were rewarded time and again with party tickets, official positions and ministerial berths.

But the party seniors who have been lamenting the ingratitude of the duo forget that many of them, too, had once been similarly “rewarded”.

Gehlot (69) became an MP at 29 and a deputy minister at the Centre at 31. When PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister in 1991, Gehlot, then 40, became a minister of state. Many of those described as senior leaders today had a similar trajectory. Ghulam Nabi Azad (71) became an LS member at 31, a deputy minister at 33, Jammu and Kashmir CM at 56 and leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha (RS) at 65. Digvijaya Singh (73) was a state minister in Madhya Pradesh at 33, an LS member at 37, the Pradesh Congress chief at 38 and CM at 46.

Ahmed Patel (70), who turned down a ministerial position when Rajiv Gandhi became PM in 1984, won an LS seat at 28 and continued to be an MP till the age of 40. From the age of 44, he has been an RS member. At 36, he was Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary secretary; from 52 to 68, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary — arguably the second most powerful person in the party in those years.

What is the difference between then and now? Perhaps it is the fact that there is no clear leadership at present. Rajiv Gandhi was able to bring in a new team with some senior leaders from the past as well. But, most important, his writ ran in the party, springing largely from the fact that he had led the party to a four-fifths mandate after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Today, no one’s writ runs in the Congress, not merely because the party is not in power, but also because there are two conflicting power centres. It is not even entirely a case of the Old Guard versus the Young Turks: Rather, it is about those who the MP from Wayanad feels will be loyal to him. In Assam, for instance, he had cast his lot in 2015 with the then 80-year-old chief minister Tarun Gogoi rather than the 46-year-old Himanta Biswa Sarma, currently health and education minister in a BJP dispensation in the state.

If Rahul Gandhi cares to lead the party, he must step up to the job, and if he cannot make the party his team, he must create a team he can work with, formulate an action plan (the impact of the pandemic makes it all the more essential) and clarify the party’s vision, especially its ideological underpinnings.

Above all, he must provide leadership, and exercise authority without having to look over his shoulder to see what the other team is doing. And if he wishes to make a clean sweep, he must be allowed to do so.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on July 23, 2020
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