Rahul Gandhi should either take charge or get out of the way, writes Barkha Dutt
After a status quo reprieve from the high court, Sachin Pilot and the rebel Congress legislators in his camp will not be disqualified from a trust vote, at least for now. And that is where the Rajasthan political drama is moving towards in its final act — a trust vote in the assembly.
But, despite the optics, the Rajasthan story is not about Rajasthan at all.
Its geography is mere coincidence. This is a story about the crisis of leadership in the Congress party, in particular, that of the Gandhi family.
Both the protagonists — Ashok Gehlot, the three-time chief minister and his challenger, a second-generation Congressman whose father, Rajesh Pilot had also challenged Sonia Gandhi in his time — have shown strengths and weaknesses. Pilot showed strength in raising his voice in a party, where many of his compatriots think exactly as he does, but won’t open their mouths to say so. He showed a chink in his armour, however, by not walking out neatly and keeping a channel of communication open with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Gehlot displayed old-world survival instincts by keeping a grip on his legislators, including several independent Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who were formerly with the Congress, and whom Gehlot had craftily used earlier too to solidify his pitch as chief minister. His weakness was on display when he used coarse language for Pilot, calling him a “nikamma and nikara”, thereby vindicating Pilot’s grievances on being undermined.
But irrespective of which side you are on in the Gehlot versus Pilot battle, the questions need to be directed to the Congress. It is more than a year since Rahul Gandhi abdicated his post as president and vowed that no member of his family would take the job. Since then, his mother has taken over the post and her presence, over all decision-making, is apparent in spirit. Sister Priyanka became the via-media for discussions with Pilot, but no one exactly knows in what capacity. And Rahul Gandhi chose the very day the Congress released audio tapes on a purported deal-making between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sachin Pilot’s aides to also release his new video series. The result: Media and public attention shifted swiftly to what Gandhi had said on China and banalities such as the length of his hair and the lighting on his face.
Rahul Gandhi may well have a point when he says that much of the broadcast media is captured today by establishmentarianism. Or when he calls out fake news narratives. But, other than seeking to prove himself to be the antithesis of the BJP’s caricature of him — and frankly for a party that is facing an existential crisis, dwelling on that is an egotistical self-indulgence — what purpose do these videos serve? Why is Rahul Gandhi interviewing economists instead of hitting the streets? Why is his sister arguing with urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri on the minutiae of when she will vacate her government-allotted bungalow, instead of having had the instinct to seize the moment and leave it as soon as her Special Protection Group (SPG) cover was withdrawn?
The Congress is in free-fall for a variety of reasons. There is an inter-generational clash within the party, with old-timers refusing to make way. There is a blurring of ideological positioning. The party has grown defensive on both nationalism and secularism.And the pragmatic alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has blunted its claims on ideological purity. Above all, the party has no political narrative. Gandhi’s video series may tell us that he is quite a thoughtful, well-read and reasonably bright and engaged individual, unlike what his detractors in the BJP claim. But after years in politics, your messaging cannot be about what you are not; there has to be something you represent that captures the imagination of the people.
Above all, the dissonance is not dynasty alone. After all, Pilot too is a dynast. It’s the growing perception that the Gandhis want power without earning it or without taking on the responsibility of wielding it. Rahul Gandhi cannot remain de facto head of the Congress, using his mother as a placeholder till he makes up his mind on his next steps. His sister cannot invoke Indira Gandhi yet again, while a raging debate on nepotism occupies the debate in middle-class households. The exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot cannot be framed in terms of legalities, technicalities or even public morality. Politics is Darwinian. Individuals will prioritise their future first. A growing number of Congressmen and women believe the party offers no future to them. And its leadership continues to treat the country’s oldest political party like a mom and pop store instead of a professional, modern organisation.
Rahul Gandhi should either take charge or get out of the way.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal