Combative street protests by Congress members that have rocked the national capital despite a brutish crackdown by the Delhi Police, perhaps, suggest that the interrogation of Rahul Gandhi by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has finally galvanised his inertia-prone party.
The bellicosity that the Congress has displayed ever since the ED first began grilling Rahul on June 13 is something that eight years of humiliating electoral routs, a deepening crisis of attrition and rebellion coupled with a growing chorus for urgent correctives and a viciously antagonistic BJP had failed to trigger.
LIVE: Congress-Delhi police row rages 3 days into ED’s quizzing of Rahul Gandhi
Scores of Congress leaders and workers have been repeatedly arrested or placed under preventive detention in police stations across Delhi over the past three days. Many others including MPs P. Chidambaram, Pramod Tiwari, Shaktisinh Gohil, Jothimani and Jeby Mather, as well as Indian Youth Congress chief Srinivas BV, have been roughed up by Delhi police personnel.
Despite the evident excesses of Delhi’s centrally-controlled police force, the Congress party’s protests haven’t fizzled out. By all indications, they are set to intensify further when the ED recalls Rahul for questioning on Friday (June 17).
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Congress’ do or die moment
Several political observers who, until very recently, were unsparingly critical of the Congress for having lost its will to fight the BJP are now prophesising a second coming. Rahul’s repeated grilling by the ED that has already clocked over 30 hours has been projected as some sort of a tipping point for his party – a do or die moment of sorts.
This could even be a fair assessment on grounds that if even the hounding of the party’s past and likely future president wasn’t shaking the Congress out of its slumber, nothing else would. Parallels have also been drawn to how the arrest of Indira Gandhi by the Janata government in October 1977 had been a catalyst for the Congress party’s revival after it was decimated in the post-Emergency general elections that were held earlier that year.
Watch: Rahul’s ED grilling: Congress protests intensify
Yet, beneath what appears to be a rare case of a well-calibrated pushback by the Congress, there are obvious chinks that are hard to ignore. Similarly, even though shuffling nostalgia in search of hope may be expected of a party that has a 137-year chequered history of electoral domination, ruination and reinvention, drawing parallels from the past without a dispassionate assessment of the present would be akin to hopeless optimism.
It is, thus, crucial for party apparatchiks and others equally buoyant over the prospects of a resurgent Congress to look beyond the images of the Grand Old Party’s new-found belligerence that are currently dominating news and social media.
There are three aspects of the protests and the churn that the Congress, perhaps, hoped these would evoke. Within the Congress, the protests were meant to showcase a unification of the party rank and file behind Rahul. Externally, they were arguably meant to project a resurgent Congress to existing and potential allies who have been routinely sniping at the party for its inability to lead the Opposition against the BJP.
The Congress also hoped to project Rahul as a mascot of right causes, unfairly targeted by a vengeful regime for speaking up against alleged state-backed atrocities, policy misadventures and crony capitalism.
But have the protests, this far, achieved any of these objectives?
The Congress claims, perhaps even rightly so, that Rahul is the only one relentlessly fighting against the above mentioned assaults on India and, thus, his targeting by the Centre is also a warning to anyone else who dares to stand up against the Modi government.
Why Rahul doesn’t represent the common man
How easily fallible this juxtaposition is can be understood from just a few incidents that coincided with Rahul’s grilling by the ED and the party’s response to them.
A day before Rahul was summoned for questioning; the house of a young Muslim activist in Allahabad was demolished by the Uttar Pradesh administration on legally untenable arguments purely after she dared to protest against the venomous diatribe of a BJP spokesperson against Prophet Muhammad. This happened in a state where, just four months ago, the Congress was hoping for an electoral revival and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was aggressively wooing women voters with her ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hun’ anthem. It is also a state where Muslims and other oppressed communities have repeatedly been targeted by Hindutva forces with the state either being complicit or simply turning a Nelson’s Eye to such assaults.
Yet, did the Congress or Priyanka storm the streets of Allahabad – or other parts of UP where similar demolitions were ordered – seeking justice for common citizens who fought against Hindutva hate? Did Priyanka, who in the run up to the UP polls assiduously reached out to victims of caste violence and state atrocities, show a similar urgency in reaching out to Afreen?
On Tuesday, the Centre rolled out an evidently flawed scheme – Agnipath – for enlisting youth in the Armed Forces for a four-year stint. The scheme has been roundly criticised by several retired Armed Forces personnel, including GD Bakshi who rarely sees wrong in anything the BJP does. A violent backlash to the scheme has been unravelling in Bihar and threatening to spread to other parts of the country. The Congress’ response: Rahul tweeted his disapproval and the party put out a perfunctory statement condemning the Centre for an ill-conceived scheme and that was it.
Deceitful ways, shaky narratives
What’s perhaps most ironic though is that while the Congress has breathlessly attacked the ED over the past few days and dubbed it as the ‘BJP’s Election Department’, just few weeks ago, the party’s Delhi and Punjab unit leaders were applauding the same agency for arresting AAP minister Satyendra Jain in a money laundering case. This duplicity isn’t limited to Jain’s arrest and has been displayed by the Congress over and over again. Central agencies such as the CBI, ED or the IT department are routinely berated by the Congress when its leaders are arrested or summoned by them for questioning, but the party doesn’t shy away from demanding that certain cases be handed over to the same agencies for investigation when it suits their narrative.
These instances show that the Congress’s present aggression, to be blunt, is purely a response against the targeting of a member of the party high command.
Allies show no solidarity with Rahul
Now, how has the protest impacted the way other Opposition parties view the Congress? Has the party’s blitz against Modi and the BJP impressed any of its allies or other outfits that chastised the Congress until now for being unable to fight the BJP?
It has escaped none that barring Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK boss MK Stalin, none of the Congress’s allies – Sharad Pawar’s NCP, Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, Hemant Soren’s JMM – have come out in open support of Rahul. Even RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is a strident Modi critic and has, in the past, defended the Gandhi family against BJP’s onslaughts, has preferred to stay quiet.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, desperate to elbow the Congress out of its centrality in the Opposition bloc, essentially said the Congress was getting its just desserts for not standing up when Abhishek Banerjee was similarly targeted by central agencies.
In fact, on July 15, while Rahul was being grilled by the ED, leaders of 17 Opposition parties had met in Delhi at Banerjee’s call to discuss a united Opposition candidate for the impending Presidential polls. The Congress too had sent its leaders for the meet in a move seen by many as an olive branch to the TMC. But when the discussions ended, none of the Opposition leaders – Banerjee, Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, etc – expressed any solidarity with Rahul despite claiming that BJP was bulldozing democracy.
It is no secret that a majority of the regional party leaders do not share a personal rapport with Rahul nor do they think the Gandhi scion to be an effective leader. Several of them have, in fact, had problems with Rahul’s assertions of regional parties being ideologically agnostic and this incapable of fighting the BJP.
Evidently, the silence of the Opposition parties over Rahul’s interrogation shows their leaders haven’t changed their views about him.
So do Congressmen…
Now, what do the protests say about the internal machinations of the Congress?
The images of Congress leaders and workers valiantly standing up to Delhi police personnel and rallying behind Rahul may give the impression that the party has finally put to rest the challenges that the Gandhis were facing to their authority from a section of their own colleagues. Is this really so?
The Congress had summoned all its party MPs, CWC members and several other senior leaders to Delhi on June 13. The plan was to launch a massive show of strength. These leaders were to march with Rahul to the ED office. The prohibitive orders of the Delhi Police allowed the Congress to go on a warpath; chanting slogans such as ‘Modi jab jab darta hai, police ko aage karta hai’ – Modi had unleashed the police on Congress members as he was scared.
No doubt, a large number of MPs and CWC members were present, as were Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, the two Congress chief ministers. On Day 1, several of them attempted to march with Rahul in defiance of the Delhi Police’s prohibitive orders. Over 400 Congress members, including veteran and young leaders, were arrested or detained – several of them suffered injuries too when the cops pushed them around like common criminals. In varying intensity, similar scenes were repeated on July 14 and July 15 too.
Yet, was this a united Congress? Far from it. Leading lights of the so-called G-23 that had, since August 2020, been vocal with their demand for an aggressive Congress were conspicuous by their absence. As were several other so-called family loyalists who have served multiple terms as Union ministers or been chief ministers in the past – none of whom felt it necessary to be in Delhi as an expression of solidarity with their former party chief, whose mother and interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, happens to be recuperating from COVID at a Delhi hospital.
Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, both CWC members, were nowhere to be seen. Shashi Tharoor chose to be abroad though he has been tweeting his support for the protest. Manish Tewari, another vocal G-23 member, has been recuperating from COVID. While Tewari has been regular with his newspaper columns, tweets and Facebook posts; there wasn’t a word of solidarity from him for Rahul.
Azad, Sharma and other G-23 members such as former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan too are yet to express any solidarity with Rahul. Tewari condemned the way Delhi police stormed into the Congress office on July 15 and also roughed up several party MPs, but left out any mention of Rahul in his tweet.
Azad, Sharma, Chavan and Tewari may be dubbed as party rebels. Their refusal to join cause with Rahul may even be projected as a reflection of their own shortcomings as dedicated Congressmen. Yet, what explains the absence of Gandhi family retainers such as Kamal Nath, Ashok Chavan, Veerappa Moily and even Charanjit Singh Channi.
The actual street fighting was, this, left to leaders closely identified with the Gandhi family, more particularly Rahul. Srinivas BV, Jothimani, Netta D’Souza, Ragini Nayak, Randeep Surjewala, Anil Chaudhary, KC Venugopal, Manickam Tagore, Dinesh Gundu Rao and sundry others who were repeatedly roughed up or detained by the Delhi police are all firmly in Team Rahul; leaders promoted by him despite reservations from other sections of the party.
Rahul and the Congress may have hoped for a coalition of solidarity to emerge out of the entire episode. What they’ve got, at least for now, is a familiar coalition of sycophants. Those hoping for a revitalised Congress may, this, want to hold their horses for now.