If experience is the only rulebook in public life, I’m afraid you are in political kindergarten. You joined active politics in 2004 as an MP from Amethi. But even as you get ready to lead your party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, you will still be under 18 years of political age. Yet, you are the most visible, sought after and also the most targeted face in your party. You won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections from Amethi, your family bastion. But for the past few months, any leader who departs the Congress singles you out as the reason for defecting to organisations they claim to have hated since birth. Most blame their anger on your inaccessibility. Then there are many who see you as monochromatic, halo-less and lacking in charisma, unlike your father Rajiv. You stand accused of having failed to provide the Congress a new winning formula. With your mother, party president Sonia Gandhi slowly withdrawing from active politics and decision-making, party men expect you to step into the shoes of your political ancestors. Historically, only those dynasts have survived who have absorbed positive lessons from their inheritance. It has been proved repeatedly that a surname is not a fast-track mantra for a successful succession.
The tirade by Rita Bahuguna, a diehard Congress worker in Uttar Pradesh, against your statements like ‘khoon ki dalali’ targets your inability to conceive an effective agenda to battle the BJP. You have been on a punishing schedule in UP with election yatras. You have been rewarded with unprecedently large crowds. But the party cadre and mid-level leaders are unable to connect with your political style. Numerous MLAs and leaders have defected in the past few months; even former CMs have blamed you for them quitting the party. The party lost power in Arunanchal Pradesh when its entire legislature party, barring one MLA, floated its own party. In Uttarakhand, the government survives thanks to Harish Rawat who counters BJP’s skirmishes to topple his government.
From Kanyakumari to Kashmir, there is hardly a state where Congress workers aren’t deserting the mother ship, which they think could sink anytime. Their conviction seems to have been bolstered further since the party hasn’t won even one Assembly election, subsequent to its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
This is not the first time that the Congress is experiencing a leadership crisis. Your grandmother Indira Gandhi went through the worst phase in the late Seventies during which she suffered defeat, imprisonment and the loss of her younger son, who was at the height of his popularity and youth. But she was skilled in foiling internal political coups, being empowered by her direct connect with workers and masses. She was never dependent totally on a coterie to win battles. Once she did, she fell. Indira redefined the Congress, a pan-India organisation of freedom fighters and political giants, into a one-woman, one-family outfit. She became both the icon and the ideology of the Congress.
Your mother Sonia emerged from exile after seven years of your father’s assassination to take over the reins of a party which was almost in the ICU. She was wounded badly during her first tryst with political destiny—the Congress couldn’t win the General election in 1998. It lost again in 1999. In 2004, she surprised the nation by trouncing a hugely popular NDA regime led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She established herself as the leader who could deliver because realpolitik urged her to welcome even those who had attacked and humiliated her.
You have inherited few of the manoeuvring skills of your grandmother, father or mother. Maybe you are labouring over restructuring your organisation and drafting your mission statement. It’s been 12 years and you haven’t yet been able to assure your party that you are its victory mascot. Undoubtedly, opposition parties haven’t been able to tar you with the usual venal brushes so far. Instead, they project you as an apprentice who is unable to select his tools in the game of thrones.
You continue to waver in the face of polls in states like Punjab and UP where anti-incumbency favours you—you have neither declared the candidates in UP nor revealed the CM’s face in Punjab. In Uttarakhand, the Congress is divided into more factions than the number of its MLAs. Even in states, which are going to the polls in the next two years, your party is either hopelessly disjointed or lacks credible leaders. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, you haven’t been able to build and project alternatives to sitting CMs. There is no dearth of talent in these states. There are leaders in your age group, who think and conduct themselves like you. But you aren’t confident about their ability to defeat the BJP.
Though you aren’t the party president, Congress workers are convinced that you are the person who calls the shots. If you can dictate your views on issues like the Land Acquisition Bill, GST, banning criminals from contesting elections etc, why can’t you decide the debate and discourse of your party? While a majority of Congressmen still swear by the Gandhi Parivar, they are groping in the dark to understand your idea of Congress politics. Nehru fathered a mixed economy at home and non-alignment abroad. Indira created a new Congress and won hearts and minds with Garibi Hatao and by seeking votes for the “government that works”. Rajiv promised to take the country into the 21st century, and introduced technology as a tool for better governance. Sonia united the party and opposition against the BJP and midwifed a coalition rule led by the Congress, which also turned out to be the most tainted government since Independence, especially in its second term.
Currently the party is neither united nor prepared to take over the might of Modi anywhere in the country. You are seen as a mock Robinhood with your shoot and scoot politics—visiting Dalits for a meal, disappearing for months only to resurface with a kisan rally. With Modi in the lead with decisive signs of governance, you are nowhere in the reckoning. Time is running out for you. On you. You have to define your mission, mechanism and machinery to retain family dominance in the party. You have to define your context and ideological silhouette. Don’t forget, the Congress and the nation will not easily welcome a Gandhi who is still struggling to find an idea, an ideology and institution. Electoral outcomes in 2017 will decide whether a Gandhi son will rise or set in 2019.
Follow him on Twitter@PrabhuChawla