Sushil Kumar Shinde for Congress president: Best man for the job?
They have taken their time about it but if, as some reports suggest, the Congress has homed in on Sushil Kumar Shinde to replace Rahul Gandhi as party president, they have done a fine balancing act. As much as the Nehru-Gandhis are being slammed for their dynastic politics, the fact remains that without one of them at the helm, the party will break up and stands in danger of disappearing altogether. None of the Gandhis today have the mettle of Mrs Indira Gandhi who split the Congress not once, but twice and yet managed to turn her rump of the faction into the main party.
Be that as it may, however, the Nehru-Gandhis continue to be of supreme importance to the party and are the glue that holds it together. As one top editor recently said: as much as we might dislike it, in today’s times, there can be no Republicans (in the US) without their much hated evangelists, no Labour Party (in the UK) without their trade unions and, of course, no Indian National Congress without the Nehru-Gandhis. Just as domestically, perhaps, there can be no Samajwadi Party without the Yadavs, no Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) without the Pawars and – the closest example to the Congress set up with a stated purpose many years ago – no Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam without the family of the late M Karunanidhi (look what has happened to the AIADMK after the passing of J Jayalalitha when it lost its anchor and a clear line of succession to the party).
However, it is also true that there is too much pressure on the Gandhis to keep the Congress afloat in these troubled times and it cannot be the bounden duty of just one man or family to do so. To take the example of NCP, while the party clearly belongs to Sharad Pawar and he holds it together against all odds, he is not the sole leader responsible for its continuing existence. There is a second rung of leaders who contribute to the party’s policies and programmes in equal measure and are pretty visible on the campaign trail during various elections.
By contrast, except for the Gandhis – Sonia and Rahul since 2004 and Rahul and his sister Priyanka this election season – how many senior Congress leaders have we really seen on the campaign trail over the years? As one top All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary had told me some years ago when Sonia Gandhi was party president and the United Progressive Alliance in residence, the top party leaders hover around her for powerful posts in both party and government. But they do nothing in return for the party. “All that she expects from them is electoral victories but even that she has to deliver to the party herself.”
That was endorsed by Pawar, who told me in 2004 that Congress leaders just had no clue how to campaign even for themselves. “During election times, there is a mad scramble and pressure on the Gandhis by every candidate for a public meeting in their constituency. They hope that will be enough to see them through to a victory but that does not always happen.”
So with Congress in such a state, the Gandhis are a lifeline to the party and their exit likely to decimate the Congress altogether. Thus, while Rahul Gandhi is right not to want to shoulder all the responsibility – and blame – for party defeats singly, the Congress needs to evolve a system whereby such responsibility and blame will be equally distributed. But the Gandhis will continue to back whoever was picked for president.
Shinde might not have the same charisma as the Gandhis, but he is probably the best-placed for the job with some clear advantages. He is a Dalit who has also won from non-reserved constituencies in the past and thus, breaks the handicap of non-acceptability to Savarnas that Bahujan Samajwadi Party supremo suffered this election season. Second, he has been a union home minister and, in his own mild-mannered way, put the RSS in the dock by giving a name to saffron terrorism. But most importantly, from the Congress’s point of view, he is a complete loyalist with a cautious approach to people and issues. He is unlikely to rub other partymen the wrong way, play games or overreach himself. And yes, earn the complete confidence and backing of the Gandhis. That alone can rescue the Congress from oblivion and, under the circumstances, Shinde quite clearly seems the best man for the job.