The many rebellions of Congress leaders
Albeit on a much smaller scale, the clamor -- it seemed to lose steam after the initial burst on Twitter by Congress leaders of Pilot’s generation -- to not let him leave was reminiscent of 1999.Updated: Aug 11, 2020 04:38 IST
Over the years, the Congress has seen scores of rebellions and defections by party men more senior and prized than Sachin Pilot. But never in recent memory has a disaffected leader been as assiduously wooed as the former Rajasthan deputy chief minister after his revolt against Ashok Gehlot.
The Congress leadership’s peace overtures to Pilot -- including his latest meeting with Rahul Gandhi -- were unprecedented also in the light of the chief minister’s majority support in the legislature party: 100-plus loyalists against a mutinous 20-odd. Party spokespersons described Pilot as a “valued” colleague, as “family” while advocating dialogue to sort out the misunderstandings or grievances he has with Gehlot.
To be sure, this may also have been made possible by the lack of options before Pilot once it became clear he couldn’t get more legislators to switch to his camp.
Albeit on a much smaller scale, the clamor -- it seemed to lose steam after the initial burst on Twitter by Congress leaders of Pilot’s generation -- to not let him leave was reminiscent of 1999. That was when Sonia Gandhi quit as Congress president after the Sharad Pawar-led rebellion on the issue of her foreign origin. The only difference: she resigned, and Pilot was sacked from the positions he held for ignoring the party’s urgings to bury the hatchet.
To be fair, much of Pilot’s insubordination, if that’s the word, was unattributed. Personally remaining incommunicado, his was a proxy media offensive against Gehlot’s “excesses” to marginalise his faction. A thread that ran common to these off-the-record conversations was the assertion that Pilot had no plans to cross over to the Bharatiya Janata Party; and that his battle was against the CM, not the party’s central command. It’s another matter that bipartisan observers saw circumstantial evidence flying in the face of his claim of no truck with the BJP.
Be that as it may, these averments, which could’ve been tactics to skirt disciplinary action or make the party complacent, distinguished l’affaire Pilot from past intraparty ferments. The Congress For Democracy (CFD), formed by Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna before the 1977 elections, was a frontal denouncement of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Before that, Chandra Shekhar, the original Young Turk of Indian politics, chose jail over a ministerial berth by refusing to back suspension of democratic freedoms under the draconian 1975 proclamation.
In the early phase of her long innings, Indira, then a relative neophyte, fought the powerful syndicate of Congress old guard in 1966-67 to become Prime Minister. The group that wanted her tamed included such stalwarts as Morarji Desai, K Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa. She had to wait till the 1969 presidential poll to put her “stamp of supremacy” on the party. The turning point came when her candidate, VV Giri defeated the syndicate’s nominee, Sanjeeva Reddy.
That’s now a bygone era.
Today’s Congress is without even the truncated strength bequeathed to it by PV Narasimha Rao, who ran a good minority regime but paid scant attention to the health of the organisation he led by default after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The period, made difficult by the 1992 Ayodhya episode, witnessed senior functionaries leaving the party in a veritable procession.
The breakaway group led by ND Tiwari had people like Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh in it. They rejoined the Congress in 1998 after Rao ceased to be its president, and his successor Sitaram Kesri was dispensed with to make room for Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress she inherited was a pale copy of the one headed by her husband. With over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi appeared unstoppable when elected PM in 1984. The sheen wore off fast as charges of graft (read Bofors) and other missteps (read Shah Bano; opening of temple doors in Ayodhya) which clouded the initiatives for which he’s remembered: advent of information technology; empowerment of Panchayati Raj institutions; warding off global pressure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
In the second half of Rajiv’s rule, his former defence and finance minister, VP Singh declared an all-out war, using the Bofors scam to marshal the entire Opposition against the Congress. The Janata Dal that formed the government in 1989 under Singh was founded a year earlier.
Besides him, the trinity that unraveled the legislatively formidable Rajiv dispensation included the latter’s ambitious cousin, Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammad Khan, who fell out with him when the government gave in to the hardline lobby in the Shah Bano case.
From the memoirs of Giani Zail Singh and PC Alexander, it is evident that Arun Nehru engineered Pranab Mukherjee’s ouster from Rajiv’s inner circle after the 1984 elections in the wake of Indira’s assassination. That saw Mukherjee forming his own party-- before merging it with the Congress in 1989. In Rajiv’s own words, the reconciliation happened when he realised that many things told to him about his mother’s trusted men, such as Mukherjee and RK Dhawan, were untrue.
The episode could be a lesson for the incumbent high command on the risks of being misled by those they trust.
Like Mukherjee, who rose to be India’s President, other Congress biggies who formed their own parties but later returned to the Congress were former Kerala CMs K Karunakaran and AK Antony. An ace party hand, GK Moopanar floated his Tamil Mannila Congress in the 1990s. But for the DMK’s opposition, he could’ve been the PM of the United Front government in 1996.
Another Indira loyalist, VC Shukla’s homecoming happened in 2004 after stints in Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and the BJP. He also served as a minister under VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar.
The restlessness of talented people in the Congress today is largely the work of its fixation with the Nehru-Gandhi name, which has undoubtedly kept it from falling apart, besides fetching it power on Sonia Gandhi’s watch from 2004 to 2014. But in the absence of the glue of power, even that utilitarian value of the “first family” came unstuck with a string of debilitating defections: Hemata Biswa Sarma, Jaganmohan Reddy and Jyotiradtiya Scindia, to name a few (and whose decisions to part ways has seriously dented the party).
That brings Pilot back into the narrative. In his early forties, he hasn’t left the Congress and seems to have returned to the fold after keeping the party on the tenterhooks for weeks.
Perhaps Pilot’s terms of entente were unrealistic. After all, a CM with majority support in the legislature could not be removed at his asking. He needed to agree to a middle ground. And seems to have.