Who in the Congress will own the decision to appoint Kamal Nath as the general secretary in charge of Punjab? Sonia Gandhi? Rahul Gandhi? Strategist Prashant Kishor? Or will it be left to Kamal Nath himself to take the hit for the avoidable embarrassment of holding a party post for less than 72 hours? Was Captain Amarinder Singh consulted on the choice or merely expected to accept the ‘high command’ remote-controlling his campaign? Surely either Kamal Nath should never have been assigned the mandate for Punjab or having been given, it should have stayed the course.
Kamal Nath confirms that the call to offer him the role came from Sonia Gandhi herself. Would she or Rahul or their advisers not have had the commonsensical anticipation that to hand over the Punjab campaign to someone whose name can be linked to the 1984 riots is nothing short of a political death wish? Yes, you could argue, as Kamal Nath has, that there has never been so much as a legal accusation against him. “Why regret, I should be applauded, I did a yeoman service during the riots,” he told me, dismissing the allegation that he directed the rampaging mob at Delhi’s Gurudwara Rakab Ganj and arguing that he in fact held them back. But no matter whether you believe him or not, politics is driven by perception; with Kamal Nath at the helm in Punjab, both the Akalis and AAP would have got the perfect opportunity to push the Congress on the defensive.
The Kamal Nath fiasco reinforces the deep crisis in the Congress and begs the question: Who is in charge? The widening gap between the Delhi leadership and the regional satraps is proof that for the first time in 15 years (the last significant rebellion was that of Sharad Pawar in May 1999), the Gandhi family is no longer commanding obsequious, silent assent. The mutinous revolt in Haryana where state strongman Bhupinder Hooda sabotaged the polls; the exit of Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh, the defections to the Trinamool Congress in Tripura, the breakaway factions in Uttarakhand and Arunchal Pradesh, the loss of Himanta Biswa in Assam and the ouster of Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh — the sycophantic glue that once sealed lips and locked them in perennial devotion to the party’s first family is clearly coming unstuck. There was a time when even off-the-record Congressmen and women were petrified of discussing the Gandhis for fear of their words travelling back. These days, at least, in informal conversations, there is open scepticism; nervous laughs barely camouflage the realisation that this is now an existential crisis.
Yet every time the party stumbles — electoral debacles, factional ruptures or new controversies involving Robert Vadra’s many property deals — party spin doctors attempt to change the headlines with leaky rumours about Rahul Gandhi’s ‘elevation’ or Priyanka Gandhi’s ‘bigger role’ in Uttar Pradesh. But hang on, let’s assume for a moment that this time it isn’t ‘cry wolf’ as it has been for the last several years and this is all going to happen. So Rahul Gandhi will be party president by September and his sister will head the campaign committee for Uttar Pradesh carrying her infinitely more charismatic presence outside of the family pockets — what will that really change for the Congress fortunes? Yes sure, there will be what’s tritely called a media buzz. There may even be a greater energising of a flagging workers base. But in real terms isn’t the opacity and near-feudalism of the way the Gandhis (euphemistically called ‘high command’) take decisions at the heart of the party crisis? Which decision has Rahul Gandhi taken recently that can be called a smart political move? Where are the statistics to prove that the easy-going, spontaneous, striking-looking Gandhi sister has been able to swing election results?
Institutional memory in the Congress is short — whether it’s the 1984 riots or the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections. The last assembly elections was when Rahul Gandhi missed a real chance to prove that he was not an entitled dynast but someone willing to work his way up the political ladder. He could have run as the Uttar Pradesh chief ministerial candidate — he even wanted to – but claims he was overruled. Had he run, even had he lost, he would have signalled to a changing, aspirational India that he was willing to earn his power and not simply inherit it. His sister was the chief campaigner in the Lok Sabha constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli and yet it was the Samajwadi Party that won eight of the 10 assembly segments. This time the party is on the hunt for a chief ministerial candidate who will wear the blemish of a possible defeat, shielding both Priyanka and Rahul from the consequences of a loss, while hoping against hope that the razzmatazz of the still untested sister will bring in new voters. But therein lies the problem — you can’t keep cosseting the top leadership and making someone else take the fall for an election you worry you can’t win.
Some in the Congress seek refuge in Newtonian physics. But to sit back and do nothing but wait for the Modi government to falter because ‘what goes up must come down’ is hardly a strategy for revival.
The original idea of the Congress is one worth fighting to keep alive: Centrist, pluralist, messy but largely inclusive — even if of a million different ideologies, much like India itself. It’s the idea of the Gandhis as political royalty that just doesn’t work anymore.