Seldom before has the Congress’ five-generation-long Nehruvian grace, coming down since the times of former party president Motilal Nehru, been trivialised, trashed and mauled so badly as it turned out to be the case with the last week’s resignation of old party satrap Ghulam Nabi Azad. And, sadly, the events that followed it are even more shockingly rough, rude and rash.
So much so that not only the grand old party’s core values are caught in the crosshairs today, but the time has also come for the Congress’ rank and file to weigh, assess and decide upon quite a bit more. It is so at a time when the party is counting days to elect its new president for which the votes are to be cast on October 17.
The chances of finding a consensus candidate with wide acceptance from the party higher-ups are slim. Since Azad has parted ways, his cohorts still left in the Congress will have to be on their own while making a bid — if anyone of them makes an attempt at all — to take over the party’s reins in these trying times that the party has come to face for about past two years or so.
The G-23 revolt
It was in August 2020 that the group led by Azad, better known as G-23, had raised a banner of revolt against the current party leadership and its ways. This triggered a tussle among the higher echelons of the party. It continues even after Azad’s resignation. His comrades left in the party have expressed their doubts about the fairness of the October 17 party polls to replace an ailing Sonia Gandhi. She took over the party’s stewardship after the exit of her son Rahul Gandhi following the defeat of Congress in 2019 general elections.
The blame game set off by the electoral loss never ceased. It started with Rahul pointing towards senior party colleagues’ reluctance, unlike him, to take on the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi head on. Among other things, this could well have been due to the generation gap between Rahul and his senior party colleagues but soon it gave way to a communication breakdown between Rahul and quite a few among the party’s old guards.
Since Sonia Gandhi has often been indisposed in between, most decisions were taken by Rahul through the help of his close group. This made the party seniors’ grievances to pile up and by-and-by they became sullen. Azad and 22 others shot a letter to Sonia in August 2020 and also leaked it to the Press even as she was often in and out of hospital during those days.
Sonia’s efforts come to a naught
Sonia tried to do away with the growing chasm though without acting against Rahul and his close group. This couldn’t work to the satisfaction of G-23 leaders. Some of its members, like Jitin Prasada and Kapil Sibbal, left the party. The first joined the BJP and became a minister in Uttar Pradesh while the other got elected to Rajya Sabha from UP via the support of the Samajwadi Party.
Unlike these two Azad has said that he would form a new party, first in Jammu and Kashmir from where he comes and possibly later at the national level in case he gets support from other regions via his G-23 colleagues belonging to other states.
So far so good, but his five-page resignation letter dated August 26 reads like a stinker ridden with pungent barbs targetting Rahul Gandhi all the way. He accuses him of destroying consultative mechanism of the party while running Congress through the aid and advice of PAs and security guards. A party insider says that Azad was particularly miffed because Rahul in one of their recent meetings asked a security guard “to get a cup of tea for Ghulam Nabi” instead of referring to the senior leader as Azad Saheb that his mother and the late father, Rajiv Gandhi, always did.
The incident sounds akin to what had earlier happened in the case of former Assam Congress leader and current BJP chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma had reportedly felt slighted by Rahul during a meeting held in Delhi before 2016 Assam assembly polls where Rahul was alleged to be paying more attention to his pet dog than the visitor from Assam. But Azad’s claim that security guards were among those who advised Rahul about party matters does not look to hold much water since guards are told to do as mundane a task as to fetch a cup of tea for a guest!
Moreover, Azad has justified his retaining government accommodation in New Delhi after he ceased to be an MP by citing the grave threat perception regarding his security and the need for a safe abode in view of this. But it is a fact that none has faced as much security risk as the Gandhis. Rahul lost both his father and grandmother in terror attacks. Yet, not only the SPG security of the Gandhis was downgraded to that of the CRPF but the bungalow allotted to Priyanka Gandhi was also taken back by the current central government despite the grave security risk that this could pose to her. Congressmen say that Azad never broached the issue with the government or within the party unlike his going to Press for his own security.
Coterie grievance not new
Azad’s main grievance against Rahul about functioning through a close group is hardly new. This has been articulated in the past too, though via other friendly partymen. Akhilesh Das, a former Union minister of state in the Manmohan Singh government and son of former UP chief minister Banarsi Das, has been in and out of Congress. In 2008 he accused Rahul Gandhi of functioning through a “coterie”. Rahul was Congress general secretary at that point of time. Akhilesh joined Bahujan Samaj Party soon after openly decrying Rahul but came back to Congress a few years later. Akhilesh Das, however, died in 2017.
The short point is that the Congress has for long been a hotbed of power-play that has now, indeed, degenerated into an internecine war among the party’s big shots. The reason behind this is “blatant, open and crass opportunism” as per the party’s old timers. They argue that the party ideology and ethos have taken a backseat. The main doctrine that Congress followed for long has allowed space for myriad other thoughts and doctrines that served the interests of the party and the country. But now accord among its own ranks has become difficult to be achieved. Swollen egos of leaders have replaced humility of the past. It was what had held the party’s rank and file firmly together through, maintain party insiders.
All eyes on poll for party president
Amid this bleak scenario, the Gandhis happen to be away from Delhi for past ten days or so. Sonia, along with her both children, left for abroad for her medical-check and to attend to her non-agenarian mother who passed away on August 27 at her home in Italy. Yet, the schedule for electing a new Congress president was decided the very next day in a Congress Working Committee meeting presided over through video conferencing by Sonia, who showed a great sense of purpose by holding to the schedule.
A few days before leaving, Sonia had tried to persuade Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot to take over the party’s top post by filing his nomination on announcement of election for the Congress president. Though Gehlot has been reluctant, Congress appears to have little option. Efforts are on to convince him about the urgency to have him at the top of the party because of his long experience and expertise in dealing with vexed issues.
Amid such suspense over the next Congress chief, the party is going to launch ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ which will cover almost the entire country. It is slated to begin on September 7 from Kanyakumari and will reach Kashmir after crossing through several states in about five months or so. It is going to be mainly a Rahul show and is being undertaken at a time when the Congress is virtually on the brink of a split. The party has actually split thrice before — in 1969, 1977 and 1998.
The three splits in the Congress
The last of these took place when Sonia became active in the party. Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against her because of her foreign origin and formed the Nationalist Congress Party. The first two splits took place in the times of the late Indira Gandhi who eventually marginalised her foes in the party on both the occasions.
Behind all these splits was electoral defeats suffered by the party. Just before the first split happened, Indira Gandhi had barely been able to win a majority in the 1967 Lok Sabha polls. The Congress had also lost in many States. But she bounced back by supporting the candidature of then serving Vice-President VV Giri in 1969 for President against her opponent’s candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. Giri won and that is how she humbled the rival Congress faction led by the ‘Syndicate’, or old guards of the party, and called Congress (Organisation).
Indira Gandhi then emerged as the undisputed leader of the party. She won a handsome majority in 1971 polls. So much so that a cult was soon built around her personality and it led to the imposition of emergency in 1975. But she lost the polls after emergency because party leaders like Jagjivan Ram and HN Bahuguna parted ways and formed Congress for Democracy, which joined hands with the Janata Party to win the polls held in 1977.
With such history, the possibility of another split in the Congress can hardly be ruled out. So, a battle for dominance over the party is, indeed, on and its consequences would be known only after the outcome of the Congress presidential polls and the response that Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra gets.