There’s an unsolved mystery in the Congress party, and it’s called Arjun Singh.
Party old timers may gossip in private (and now, increasingly in public) about why he hasn’t been parcelled out to a Governor’s residence yet. But like the perfect advertisement for Fevicol, he’s glued to his chair — immovable, unshakeable and always unembarrassed.
What’s even more mystifying is why Sonia Gandhi — whose frosty disapproval for the man is now apparent — allows him to stay on and treat India’s education system as if it were a tract of land in Madhya Pradesh, and he, its undisputed Thakur.
You may ask why I single out Arjun Singh in a party where several other hangers-on from the past cling like cobwebs to the top leadership. It’s because, in many ways, he represents all that the Congress in the 21st century just cannot afford to be — a medieval party of courtiers and kings, where palace intrigue determines fortunes and fate. And because when his sickeningly sycophantic flattery of the Gandhi family is offered as wily compensation for his undermining of the Prime Minister’s authority, the Congress needs to ask itself whether this is the way, it wants to be perceived.
To be fair, the party was uncharacteristically quick in its public putdown of Arjun Singh. Within days of his suggesting that Rahul Gandhi should be Prime Minister came the official spokesperson’s reprimand that there “was no vacancy for the post of Prime Minister”. In a refreshingly sharp health warning to all the old yes-men of yesteryear, the statement went on to say that Sonia Gandhi and her son were not interested “in an environment of sycophancy”.
For anyone else, this should have been more than enough. But not so for the man who famously led a campaign against P.V. Narasimha Rao when he was Prime Minister in the 90s and Manmohan Singh was his Finance Minister. As a warhorse of old-style battles for one-upmanship, Arjun Singh knows that even sheer nuisance value can have its own Machiavellian impact in Indian politics. So, emerging from a meeting with the Congress President, where he is widely believed to have been told to shut up and sit quiet, he repeated his chant for Rahul-as-PM for the waiting media, and defiantly muttered that he felt “no need to take back” his words.
Since then, we have seen a bizarre public spectacle play out, with the HRD Minister swinging wildly between servility and sulks. One day, he proclaims hurtfully that loyalty today is “judged by very narrow terms”, and rants against the end of “inner party democracy”. The next day he issues furious denials and dramatic, over-the-top pledges of loyalty to “the remaining members of the family for as long as I live”. And suddenly, his contradictions set off a strange chain reaction within the party (perhaps exactly what he planned for). In a crazed competitive bid for ‘loyalty’, every Congress leader of consequence joins the cacophony.
Except for the top two leaders, that is. True to style, the Prime Minister remains benign and refuses to get drawn into a controversy that has been designed to downsize him. And Sonia Gandhi, also true to form, makes her displeasure known, not by words, but by a cold stare that freezes him out. Headlines capture both the snub and her pointed praise of the Prime Minister for leaving his “personal imprint” on India’s education policies.
But if only that were entirely true: no matter whether you are for or against the OBC quotas it is ludicrous that the policy was born from the womb of political blackmail. Arjun Singh made a unilateral public pronouncement on the quotas in a year when the Congress had to face five state elections. The die was cast, and an entire political establishment was forced into false consensus on one of the most contentious decisions in recent years.
The irony is that Arjun Singh stands for everything that Rahul Gandhi is trying to change within the Congress. You may accuse Rahul of trying to run the Congress more like a corporate firm than a political party; and you may even brand him as politically naïve, a sincere technocrat, rather than a neta. But the fact is that while Singh may fall over himself to push the 37-year-old as PM, he is, in fact, the very antithesis of the party the younger Gandhi wants to build.
Take the recent and rare reality contest created by the party’s young MPs to lure people like us into politics. One of the requisites for applying is that you can’t have a political sugar daddy. In other words, the attempt is to subvert the culture of political patronage and create a competitive, performance-based point of entry into politics. Its first winner, 31-year-old Anil Choudhary, was just declared the head of the Delhi Congress after many strenuous rounds of interviews and a final test in which he had to score 92 per cent! Do you think he looks at Arjun Singh now and wonders what he’s got himself into?
For a party stepping into an election year with a younger, fresher, leadership at its helm, it is no longer enough to merely snub Arjun Singh. Erstwhile shadow boxers like him may have had their uses in the murky politics of a different era. But in a self-confident, post-liberalisation India, their style of petty politicking has outlived its expiry date. Arjun Singh can take solace in the fact that he is the only Cabinet minister to have a road named after him. But, like many others, who have roads, buildings and cities, named after them, he belongs to the past. Aaj ka Arjun is now an old film. It’s time that the Congress woke up to the anachronism.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7