RPN Singh is no mass leader but his exit exposes Congress' mess, again
There is nothing surprising about former Union minister RPN Singh’s decision to begin his “new political journey” with the BJP, on January 25, after severing his three-decade-old ties with the Congress party. The former Lok Sabha MP from Padrauna in eastern Uttar Pradesh who, along with Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora and Sachin Pilot, was once an aide of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, had long been rumoured to be in touch with the saffron party.
However, as Singh – like Scindia and Prasada before him – dumped the Congress, his defection exposed, yet again, the Grand Old Party and its famed high command’s desperate need for addressing its organisational morass.
Singh’s political somersault from a centrist, ideologically ambiguous but ostensibly secular Congress to the rabidly Hindu-right BJP on grounds that he wanted to contribute to Narendra Modi’s vision of “nation-building” is, of course, a regurgitated justification that all Aaya Rams of the BJP have made over the past eight years.
The reappraisal of Singh’s electoral calibre from an elite dynast who grew in political stature purely on account of his proximity to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi to a heavyweight with a captive vote-bank in and around his erstwhile principality of Padrauna in eastern UP’s Kushinagar district, is in line with how any political leader hopping to saffron brigade is projected these days. The sudden realisation in a section of the media of Singh’s caste-identity – he is a backward caste Kurmi, contrary to the assumption of him being a Rajput/Thakur on account of his last name or royal credentials – and its electoral significance for the BJP in the UP polls, too, fit the pattern of narratives tailormade for his new party’s political benefits.
This is not to say that Singh is electorally worthless. Singh has been elected an MLA thrice and a Lok Sabha MP once and his late father, CPN Singh, still commands goodwill in Padrauna. On this count, he may rank better than Prasada, another high-profile Rahul Gandhi aide who the BJP poached last year and anointed a minister in the UP government to assuage anti-Adityanath sentiments among Brahmins. An indication of the BJP’s lack of confidence in Prasada’s electoral worth can be gauged from the party’s decision of not fielding him in the upcoming elections though Roshan Lal Verma, BJP MLA who defeated Prasada from Tilhar in Shahjahanabad in 2017 shifted to the Samajwadi Party last month.
But a mass leader who can wrest his own seat – rumour has it that the BJP may field Singh from Padrauna, the seat represented by Swami Prasad Maurya, who has now defected to the SP – or influence the poll outcome in other neighbouring constituencies on his own mettle; Singh is definitely not.
There are many such counts on which the exaggerations of Singh’s worth and the benefits his induction would accrue to the BJP can be busted, as they should be. Yet, none of these absolve the Congress of its own ironic complicity in adding heft and credibility to such baloney each time one of its high-profile, media savvy leaders breaks ranks to join the party’s main adversary.
Just a day before Singh shot off his resignation to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, he had been named among the 30 star campaigners for the party’s ongoing UP poll campaign. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress’s face for the UP campaign, nor the party’s poll managers, who are expected to be in constant communication with colleagues involved in the campaign, were either clueless about Singh’s plans despite long-running rumours of his imminent defection or they were simply taken for a ride leaving the Congress embarrassed just a fortnight before the first phase of polling in UP.
Interestingly, the Tamkuhi Raj assembly constituency of Ajay Kumar Lallu, UP Congress chief and key aide of Vadra, falls just around 35 kilometers from Singh’s Padrauna. Lallu’s rapport with Singh is practically non-existent – Congress insiders are full of stories about Singh routinely humiliating and undermining Lallu and even trying to unsuccessfully sabotage his 2017 poll campaign. However, as the UP Congress chief and Vadra’s points man for organisational matters in the state, wasn’t Lallu expected to pre-empt Singh’s move and caution the party accordingly?
Just days earlier, the Congress had faced similar humiliation when Supriya Aron, along with her husband and former MP Praveen Singh Aron, hopped to the Samajwadi Party. Supriya Aron’s defection came shortly after she was declared the Congress candidate from Bareilly Cantonment constituency. Days before these departures, Imran Masood, another aide of the Nehru-Gandhi siblings and a key Muslim face of the Congress from UP’s Saharanpur, had quit the party. Earlier still, another key member of Vadra’s Congress revival team in UP, Laliteshpati Tripathi, former MLA from Mirzapur’s Marihan seat and grandson of former Congress stalwart Kamlapati Tripathi, joined Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress despite it not even being a stakeholder in UP politics.
The Congress has aggressively countered questions on Singh’s defection with party spokesperson Supriya Shrinate likening her former colleague to a “coward”. Describing all leaders who quit the Congress as cowards has been a line passed down to party spokespersons from the Gandhi siblings. Rahul Gandhi used the same comments to justify defections of the likes of Scindia in the past and his sister did the same recently when, in different media interactions, she insisted that her fight to revive the Congress in UP required courage, ideological commitment and hard work and those who don’t have the stomach for this battle are the ones deserting the party.
There is no denying that the Congress faces an uphill task of electoral revival in UP – or, for that matter, even elsewhere in the country. However, the party must also realise that simply calling anyone who exits the Congress a coward while the leadership’s supposed efforts of taking on the BJP fail to show any tangible results won’t solve the problem of attrition. It is also not the case that the Congress isn’t aware of this. Numerous Congress members – many of whom have been on the sidelines for long but continue in the party nonetheless – have repeatedly red-flagged issues that are, if not wholly then substantially, responsible for this morass.
Soon after Singh’s exit, Congress leader Salman Soz impressed upon the need for his party to promote “those who truly believe in the Congress ideology”. “RPN Singh left just before the elections, after he was listed as a star campaigner in UP. This was not a coincidence. It was planned. He and his new collaborators wanted this to hurt,” Soz alleged while wondering why the Congress “let it happen this way… How did we not know?”
That there is no clarity yet on the Congress’s present ideology is itself a matter of debate within the party. The Nehru-Gandhi siblings hard sell themselves as ‘true Hindus’ as opposed to the BJP’s ‘Hindutva-vadis’ but, simultaneously, soft-pedal on issues directly concerning minority communities, particularly the Muslims who once formed a formidable Congress vote bank. On more occasions than can be recounted, the Congress has spoken in divergent tones on issues that required ideological cohesion – a fact that infamous G-23 members such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Manish Tewari routinely talk about.
Anil Shastri, son of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and a long-sidelined Congress member chose to drive home an even more uncomfortable home truth for the party.
“RPN Singh has left the Congress to join BJP. It doesn’t matter because whenever such people wish to return to the Congress, they will be welcomed as part of ‘ghar waapsi’… this has been the practice in the Congress over the past few years at the cost of genuine and loyal Congresspersons,” Shastri said. It is a different matter though that Anil Shastri too had hopped from the Congress to the Janata Dal in 1989 but then returned to the Congress later. His brother, Sunil Shastri, has frequently switched loyalties between the Congress and BJP and had, last month, met Vadra triggering speculation on his return, yet again, to the Grand Old Party.
But the substance of what Soz and Shastri – Congress members from two vastly different generations – said isn’t devoid of merit. It is no secret that promotions in the Congress party have, for a long time, been decided not on the basis of an individual’s political or organisational merit but per their performance on the high command’s sycophancy scale. Singh, Scindia, Prasada and other prominent members of the different coteries that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra patronised are all prime examples of this malaise in the Congress as are numerous others who continue to occupy important designations in the party despite no discernible reason for their clout except proximity to the Gandhis.
Singh was a member of the Congress Working Committee, party general secretary and in-charge of Jharkhand. Many Jharkhand Congress members, including several senior party MLAs, had, for months, been complaining to the Congress high command of his lack of interest in party activities in Jharkhand. Amba Prasad, Congress MLA from Jharkhand’s Barkagaon, alleged that for over a year Singh had been “colluding with the BJP” to destabilise the ruling JMM-Congress government in the state and that the party high command was “regularly warned” about this. Obviously, the warnings weren’t heeded. Soon after Singh’s induction into the BJP, amid rumours that he could help his new party break away some Congress MLAs in Jharkhand, Congress workers burst firecrackers in Ranchi to “celebrate” Singh’s departure.
Congress leaders from Singh’s home state of UP were more circumspect in their criticism of the Padrauna royal. “For a long time, Singh had practically ceased his involvement in the party’s activities despite Priyanka Gandhi leading from the front. Because of his personal problems with Lallu, he showed no interest in participating in any rally, dharna or campaign that Lallu, as PCC chief, was spearheading… all of us knew that he was in talks with the BJP and would quit any day, Priyanka was told about this several times but despite all this, no action was taken against him and the leadership just turned a blind eye… electorally, his exit has no impact beyond Padrauna for us but it’s definitely bad optics; unfortunately the blame lies as much on Singh as it does on the high command but who cares,” a senior party leader from eastern UP told The Federal.
The Gandhi siblings, Vadra in particular, may be hoping for a miraculous revival of the party in UP in the upcoming assembly polls. Vadra has, in all fairness, been making sincere efforts to this end. The consensus over why her efforts may fail to yield a rich electoral harvest is that the Congress, out of power in UP for over three decades, has no organisation left at the grassroots. By refusing to address these internal challenges, turning a blind eye to obvious disaffection within the ranks and taking pride in this nonchalant ‘only cowards are quitting’ after repeatedly promoting the same “cowards”, the Congress leadership is only making for itself harder the ominous task of reviving the Grand Old Party.