With dissidents brewing up in Congress and the regional satraps are openly questioning leadership, the Gandhis are losing grip over the Grand old party.
A faction-ridden Congress is staring at an uphill task of dislodging BJP governments in Haryana and Maharashtra with dissidents in the Grand Old Party coming in the open against party high command's choice of candidates and CM faces in the two states due for Assembly election on October 21.
The virtual challenge to interim chief Sonia Gandhi's decision on ticket distribution in the two states has come from a cross-section of leaders, including those perceived to be close to Rahul Gandhi, and shows the pervading disillusionment among a section of Congressmen who seem worried about a their own future in the decaying party.
In addition to the worrisome squabbling and self-criticism by Congressmen, the growing stature and clout of the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah has been steadily pushing the Congress towards a soft disintegration, despite the presence of the Gandhi family that has served as the binding gel for the over 100-year-old party.
A strong indication of the Gandhi family's fading influence over the Congress came when only a handful of party activists took part in a march organised to observe Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary on October 2. While Rahul led the march and Sonia administered an oath to partymen to follow the Mahatma's principles at an event at Rajghat in Delhi, the poor turnout of workers despite the presence of the two Gandhi heavyweights spoke volumes about the country's first political family gradually losing its star power and command over the party.
Another signal of the diminishing clout of the Gandhi family came from a party chief minister's virtual snub to both Sonia and Rahul when he refrained from seeking an appointment with either of the two during his visit to the Capital around Mahatma Gandhi jayanti. Such a behaviour – of a CM not marking his attendance in the party high command's durbar during a visit to the Capital - was unthinkable in the mid-1980s and 1990 which were the hey days of Gandhi era in the Congress.
As for the vocal protests against ticket distribution - under Sonia Gandhi's stewardship - for Assembly polls on October 21, political analysts see them as a reflection of the growing aspiration of Congressmen. They also describe the angry outbursts of Congress leaders against party bosses, including Sonia Gandhi confidants, as an off-shoot of the Modi-Shah dominance in national politics. The rise of the BJP under Modi in 2014 has left ambitious Congress leaders disillusioned and forced them to look for means to get out of their own outfit that has been on a continuous downward slide.
Soon after the list of Congress candidates for Haryana was declared, the strife within the state unit of the party reached the doorstep of Sonia with former state unit chief Ashok Tanwar and his supporters protesting outside her 10 Janpath residence, alleging corruption in distribution of tickets. As the camp led by former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda cornered most of the 90 tickets, the heartburn in the Tanwar camp was vented through slogan shouting outside Sonia's residence.
Sympathisers of Tanwar, who has resigned from the party since, shouted slogans against election management committee chief Hooda and alleged that tickets were distributed on whims and fancies, overlooking genuine claims of leaders who had worked for years. A day after the October 2 protest, Tanwar quit the election committees of the party but said he would continue to work as an ordinary party worker - a decision he reversed by quitting the party later. The ugly episode came close to a leaked video featuring Hooda, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel that exposed the strife in the party's Haryana unit, causing a huge embarrassment to Sonia Gandhi while she was seized of the matter of dousing fire in the state unit. The video shows Patel venting his anger over the poor state of affairs in the Haryana unit and Hooda questioning the commitment of his other colleagues in the state.
In another setback to Sonia Gandhi, former chief of party's Mumbai unit Sanjay Nirupam also declared he would not take part in the party's campaign after the names he had recommended were "rejected" in ticket distribution for Assembly polls. He resigned from election committees as well.
The virtual revolts in Haryana and Maharashtra units of the Congress are also an indication of the changing times with party leaders not really bothering about consequences of “indiscipline” or “challenge” to the authority of the Gandhi family which has always exercised control over ticket distribution.
The BJP has started appearing to be attractive to some of these “dissenting” Congressmen as the underlying fear in their minds is the inability of the Gandhi family's charisma to reverse the falling fortunes of the party. This also explains the the loosening grip of the Gandhi family over the party which is largely linked to its repeated failure as a game-changer in crunch electoral battles. This repeated failure of the Gandhis has left the party struggling to find a messiah to pull it out of political quicksand.
Rahul's unexpected exit as party president and Sonia's forced return at the helm has exposed the party's two factions – one each affiliated to Rahul and Sonia – adding to the exasperation of partymen who have given up on the Congress' revival any time soon. After Rahul's resignation, there was an expectation of greater unity in the party under Sonia's stewardship but it did not happen upto the desirable level. There is no doubt that very few Congress leaders have quit the party after Sonia again arrived on the scene but the yesteryear aggression and unity still evades the party.
As a loving mother and responsible party leader Sonia is holding on to the space of party chief left vacant by her son. Rahul himself is not sure when or if at all he would replace Sonia, and Priyanka is still not comfortable with the idea of heading the party. In this backdrop there is a continuing buzz in the Congress that Rahul Gandhi, in all likelihood, would return to the post of party president after his on-going “sabbatical” and this may happen just in time for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections when he expects Modi to lose due to some form of anti-incumbency factor.
However, the worrying aspect for the Gandhi family is that some of the recent non-consonant voices challenging its authority have come from both veterans and young turks. While leaders like Shashi Tharoor, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Jairam Ramesh from the old guard called for self-introspection and an alternative strategy to personal attacks on Modi after the Lok Sabha debacle, the younger lot have their own set of complaints related to their alleged sidelining in their respective state. Some of the young leaders including Jitin Prasada in Uttar Pradesh, Milind Deora in Maharashtra, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh have also disagreed with the anti-government stand of the party on an emotive issue like Article 370. Rahul's remarks on “people dying in the Valley” and Pakistan's decision to cite him in its petition at the UN also embarrassed many Congress leaders who avoided defending his remarks.
While Jitin Prasada in Uttar Pradesh has openly supported Modi's suggestion for population control, Scindia and Pilot are frustrated at being kept away from the chief minister's seat in their respective states or calling the shots in state party units. In UP, apart from Prasada a party MLA from Raebareli, Aditi Singh, is among the prominent faces who have virtually snubbed the Gandhi family. Singh refused to attend a protest march organised by Priyanka in Lucknow but turned up for a special UP Assembly session to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi despite a joint Opposition boycott. She also showered lavish praise on Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during the session.
As an increasing number of regional parties overshadow the Congress in states, dissenters in the Grand Old Party fear losing nothing when they go against the party's line or stands taken by the Gandhi family. In such a scenario, dissatisfied Congressmen who themselves want to switch sides see “rebellion” against the party high command as a shortcut to invite disciplinary action. This, they presume, would make them instant “martyrs” and potential material for induction into the Saffron family or other regional political parties that offer a bigger bet for the future as compared to the Congress.
Despite the current convulsions in the Congress, it would be imprudent and erroneous to write the obituary of the Gandhi family, vis-a-vis Congress affairs, just yet. With three prominent faces of the Gandhi family – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – expected to remain in public life for a long time to come, their diminishing influence over party affairs would take some time to manifest in a full-blown rebellion or a split in the party. Ignoring the Gandhi family's legacy and its inextricable relationship with the Congress that has been nurtured by the leading lights of the Nehru-Gandhi clan would be a big mistake, yet the sweeping winds of change blowing in the Congress are a strong warning for the party's first family about the approaching Tsunami.