Rumors that the octogenarian Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) boss Sharad Pawar was in the running to take over as chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) from the Congress’ ailing 71-year-old interim president Antonia Maino turned out to be a figment of someone’s bright imagination. Those behind it, however, may have had a hidden motive. The canard was probably circulated with the express purpose of sending a message to those harboring dreams of a revival in the party’s’ fortunes under a non-Gandhi. Time you guys gave up the ghost once and for all, the kite-flyers seemed to insinuate.
Common sense suggests that the rumor mongers belonged to the inner coterie around Antonia which is averse to any sweeping changes in the party’s functioning. Given Pawar’s old association and his god-gifted instinct for wheeling-dealing, their immediate future would have been securer should he have accepted playing the UPA’s father figure. Especially after the politically unfit Rahul Gandhi is reanointed party president and puts in place his favorites. That most CWC members are rootless wonders incapable of winning even a local body poll has never been a secret. Coalescing around the inmates of 10 Janpath, humoring and flattering them to keep their little power centers intact has been their mainstay. They are essentially parasites who have over the years been pushing the Congress to the precipice.
The recent demise of Antonia’s long-time troubleshooter and crisis manager, Ahmad Patel, set off a flurry of activity within the coterie. Ensuring that the position goes to someone they can trust with their petty interests is their sole objective. The top name making the rounds is that of the resource rich Kamal Nath, the veteran MP from Chhindwara whose acceptability, networking, and penchant for striking underhand deals, political and otherwise, can match Patel’s. Nath ran a corrupt regime in Madhya Pradesh which ran aground in 15 months following the defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia and 19 of this loyalist MLAs. The other option is the rustic Ashok Gehlot who has managed to cling on as Rajasthan chief minister despite internecine quarrels.
Snapping at the heels of the coterie is the Group of 23 (fancifully known as G23). The group sprang to prominence after its members jointly authored a letter to Antonia this August on the need for reforms, decentralisation of power, empowerment of state units, organizational polls from the block levels right up to the CWC, and urgent constitution of a Central parliamentary board. Among the signatories was the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, five former chief ministers, leading lawyers Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha, AICC office bearers, a few CWC members, and former PCC presidents.
The brave 23 expressed their deep concern at the continuing “uncertainty” and “drift” in the leadership which had demoralized workers and weakened the party. No less worrying was the CWC’s utter failure to play the role it was meant to: guiding the party to mobilize public opinion against the ruling BJP. Meetings of the working committee were confined to reacting to political developments rather than discussing key issues to set the national agenda. Confabulations of the Congress Parliamentary Party too had long ceased to be relevant, confined as they were to the customary address of chairperson Antonia, and other minor matters.
Repeated electoral losses since 2014, both national and regional, failed to push the CWC into taking serious stock of ground realities lest it embarrass the dynasty. Such is their sway and the awe they are held in. The excellently drafted letter of the G23 said much except the one thing which need have been said and underlined in bold: the party’s dire need to elect a non-Gandhi of merit and credibility as party president without any interference. Which the signatories know is an impossibility unless the Gandhis voluntarily opt to give up their privileged status and move out bag and baggage. The ultimate paradox is that none in the G23 would welcome such a scenario even if half-a-chance came their way. They want a power shift without ridding the party of the fake dynastic glamor which surrounds it.
In fact, there is already a “Get Priyanka” operation in the works after the Congress’ rout in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation polls. Many want the Vadra missus appointed party chief should her brother refuse to slip out of his jacket of reluctance. Son of P Chidambaram, Karti, even lobbed the suggestion that she contest the Kanyakumari LS seat in Tamil Nadu which is up for grabs after the demise of the Congress MP. Another glimmering proposal is that she be designated as the chief ministerial nominee for the Uttar Pradesh assembly poll in 2022 to boost the Congress’ chances, a hope not supported by statistics from previous polls conducted under the auspices of Mrs Vadra. Even her oft touted resemblance to her celebrated maternal grandmother, particularly the aquiline snout, has not helped.
Priyanka’s political prospects remain uncertain. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that her future is any better or brighter than her brother’s. All that can be said in her favor is that she is less prone to making gaffes in public though that is because her public appearances are few and far between. Mrs Vadra’s overall comportment, however, remains flippant and non-serious. Since she has consciously decided to subordinate her role to her brother’s, it is unlikely that queen mum will allow her to take over the party’s reins. Not till Rahul formally decides to opt out. Which too is unlikely given his predilection for power sans accountability. Going by his utterances he continues to be working president for all practical purposes.
The sense of entitlement bred by long years in power amid the party sycophantic environs is too deeply ingrained in the clan. There is none to tell them that they have outlived their utility. Committed loyalists who risk calling a spade a spade are routinely slighted as BJP agents, the case of TV spokesperson Sanjay Jha being the most recent. Even the opinion of secular academics is glossed over regardless of their global credentials. Admiration for Nehru has not prevented the cricket writer and Gandhi biographer Ramchandra Guha from repeatedly stressing that the Congress has no future till the descendants of the first prime minister are ready to give up power.
Many within the Congress realize that Modi hater Guha’s utterances are in their best interests. There is nothing better marginalized public intellectuals like him would welcome than a rebooted Congress which can drive out the BJP from power. Unfortunately, they also know that the Gandhis cannot be wished away as along as the members of the CWC, the party’s highest decision, can muster the guts to tell Antonia and her two progenies to make way for a makeover. Which they will not till the party’s presence in the Lok Sabha is reduced to a rump.
Meagre thus are the chances of any noteworthy reforms in the Congress. Sadder still is that the party hopes to survive by propping up any agitation against the government regardless of its relevance and credibility. It is not above siding with the country’s internal and external enemies to embarrass the ruling regime, little realizing this will only push it further to the brink. The Congress is well on its way to being the Bahadur Shah Zafar of Bharat’s politics. It will never look to a future beyond the Gandhis so long as there is a single dynast around. What after Rahul and Priyanka? No prizes for guessing who they may be!
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