Just two days ahead of a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to decide the schedule for the election of the party’s next president, its most senior member (in terms of years put in as a member), Ghulam Nabi Azad, resigned on Friday from the organisation in which he spent over half a century. As someone who had held a range of posts – ranging from Youth Congress President, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Union Parliamentary Affairs and Health Minister, as well as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha – and been one of Sonia Gandhi’s principal and trusted political advisers, his departure is a huge loss for the party.
His letter of resignation squarely places the blame at Rahul Gandhi’s door – and the accusation that the latter had destroyed the consultative mechanism in the party reflects what has been said, offline, in party circles for a while.
Can a Cong President Really Be Independent?
Indeed, conversations that have been going on within the party on the election of the new president fit in with Azad’s accusations, that even if a non-Gandhi is made president, he or she will be a proxy for the Gandhis, who will continue to wield power from behind the scenes. The widely felt sentiment in the party is that offering oneself for the top job is the equivalent of being a whipping boy for the Gandhis.
Against this backdrop, party scion Rahul Gandhi’s apparent continued unwillingness to take on the job – indeed, even insistence that no member of the Gandhi family should lead the Congress – has meant that the uncertainty and confusion that surrounds the organisation’s functioning has just got worse.
Little wonder that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has vigorously denied publicly being offered the job at his meeting on 23 August with current Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Far better to head a state than lead a party where the reins of power are held by someone else.
Clearly, given the internal power dynamics of the Congress, things are not simple.
The failing fortunes of the party – and the reduction to double-digit ignominy in the Lok Sabha in 2014, a result that was repeated in 2019 – should have by now thrown up a visible challenger to the Gandhis. For a brief moment in August 2020, when 23 senior Congress leaders had, in an unprecedented move, written to Sonia Gandhi, seeking structural changes in the party, including the election of the next president “immediately”, it had seemed as though a challenge might just emerge.
Several Leaders are Unhappy
With the letter writers including five former Chief Ministers, several former ministers and other senior leaders, the move was widely considered a rebellion.
But two years have rolled by and no one has emerged to seek the mantle of the party’s leadership. Instead, four G-23 members – Jitin Prasada, Yoganand Shastri, Kapil Sibal, and now Ghulam Nabi Azad – tired of the lack of any forward movement, have quit the Congress.
And only recently, another party senior, Anand Sharma, too, appeared to be on the brink when he turned down a party position in his home state of Himachal Pradesh, citing repeated humiliations. Two other G-23 members – Manish Tiwari and Shashi Tharoor (“I have other options” he said in a recent interview) – are clearly unhappy.
But there is still no one who has challenged the Gandhis frontally.
Rahul's Relationship With Power
The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Rahul Gandhi has a complicated relationship with power and responsibility: this has become clearer through the years since 2004, when he entered active politics and became a Member of Parliament for the first time. On several occasions, in the succeeding years, the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, had offered Gandhi a virtual carte blanche – to take on any ministry of his choice. His answer had always been the same: he wished to rebuild the party organisation, “brick by brick”. But even that has not happened.
In February 2012, in the midst of an assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi had said of her brother, “You see, the political career of Rahul Gandhi – that whether he should be the party president or Prime Minister … but neither he nor we see it that way... he is more concerned about what he is doing…I do not think that is the central focus of his politics…”
A year later in Jaipur, in January 2013, when he was made vice-president of the party at a chintan shivir, in a speech that had moved his audience to tears, he spoke of power being like a “poisoned chalice”.
Why Rahul Was 'Disappointed' After His Resignation
In 2017, Rahul finally became the party president. But two years on, in the wake of the Congress’s second consecutive electoral rout in the general elections of 2019, he stepped down, taking responsibility and saying that a non-Gandhi should be made president. Three years have gone by and nothing has happened on that front. Instead, Sonia Gandhi first reluctantly took on the assignment as Interim President and then as President.
When Rahul Gandhi resigned in 2017, there was not a squeak out of the party. There were no demonstrations by party workers asking him to return to the job; there were no hysterical outbursts from party loyalists saying they would kill themselves if he did not take back his resignation. At that time, party sources had told this writer that when he quit, there was neither a spontaneous response from the rank and file nor a suggestion from senior leaders that at least the frontal organisations should launch a protest.
Gandhi, on his part, sources told this writer, was disappointed at the lack of response – he told those close to him that he had thought his quitting the party presidency would be followed by resignations from all party office bearers – something that just did not happen.
Compare this with Ms Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from her Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat in 2006 after the Opposition made an issue of her holding an office of profit as head of the National Advisory Council. At that time, Akbar Road, on which the Congress headquarters stands, was choked with party workers demanding that she take back her resignation. That was clearly spontaneous.
Can a Bharat Jodo Yatra Help?
And now, Rahul Gandhi is focusing his attention on the Bharat Jodo Yatra and has even roped in some prominent NGOs and their leaders to participate in it. He clearly thinks that it is time to go directly to the people and see whether playing Messiah helps. There are historical examples – there is Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March; closer in time is former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar’s padayatra in 1983, when he walked the length of the country. Gandhi’s Dandi March worked, but Chandrashekhar’s padayatra, while it certainly made an enormous impact during the 4,000-km-long journey, did not pay him the political dividends that he had thought it would.
Will Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra help him connect with the masses, make him the people’s leader that he wants so badly to be, and give him the legitimacy to be Congress President? And the real leader of the Opposition? Or does he first need to embark on a “Congress ko Jodo” campaign, as Azad has said in his letter?
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and has also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, Times Of India and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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