Doon to doom: Rahul Gandhi and coterie undo once-grand Congress

There has been simmering resentment within the Congress over the proximity and control that a select few enjoy over Rahul while restricting the access of other party leaders to him, their seniority in or loyalty to the party notwithstanding

Rahul Gandhi coterie
The Congress’s electoral performance has gone from bad to worse ever since Rahul Gandhi’s ascension began within the party in 2013. File photo

Ghulam Nabi Azad is the latest in a long list of Congress leaders, though arguably among the senior-most, to quit the party ostensibly frustrated by Rahul Gandhi and the “new coterie of inexperienced sycophants” surrounding the former Congress president.

In his five-page resignation letter and countless interviews to the media, Azad, a prime exemplar of the Congress’s coterie culture not long ago, claimed that interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was just a “nominal figurehead” and that all important decisions in the party were taken by Rahul or “his security guards and PAs”.

Azad’s blitz has, expectedly, led reporters on the Congress beat to, once again, familiarise readers and viewers with members of this all powerful coterie that helps Rahul – still seemingly unwilling to formally assume the Congress presidency – control the reins of the party without any accountability to the organisation and its leaders. For the nth time, listicles and profiles of KB Byju, Alankar Sawai, KC Venugopal, Sachin Rao, Praveen Chakravarty, K. Raju, Randeep Surjewala and sundry others who are either part of Rahul’s personal staff or hold official positions in the Congress have resurfaced.

There has been simmering resentment within the Congress over the proximity and control that these select few enjoy over Rahul while restricting the access of other party leaders to him, their seniority in or loyalty to the party notwithstanding. Nearly every party leader who has quit the Congress in recent years blaming Rahul has made it a point to criticise this coterie. Those who remain in the party, including several senior office bearers, MPs and chiefs of Congress’s state units, admit off-the-record that it’s impossible to get through to the Wayanad MP, leave alone earn his trust, if they don’t cultivate one or more members of this coterie first.

Surely, the culture of running the affairs of the party through a coterie, a kitchen cabinet, a caucus or a cabal – call it what you will – is one that has endured in the Congress for over five decades. RK Dhawan, private secretary to Indira Gandhi, could literally lord over the tallest of Congress leaders of the time as could other members of her kitchen cabinet such as Yashpal Kapoor and ML Fotedar. Rajiv Gandhi, before he got sucked into the Bofors maelstrom, was practically a hostage to his caucus of Arun Singh and Arun Nehru.

Through the 19 consecutive years of her presidency, between 1998 and 2017, Sonia’s coterie had something of a ruthlessly pragmatic revolving door policy that would bring back or throw out members whenever expedient. An RK Dhawan or ML Fotedar could slide back in with as much ease as an Arjun Singh, Vincent George or Natwar Singh could be hastily thrown out. Sonia also mastered the art of balancing fragile egos and conflicting ambitions. If Ahmed Patel always had a place by her side, so did his bitter rival, Ambika Soni.

The Congress did not depart from this culture even during the period between 1991 and 1998 when, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and before Sonia’s entry into active politics, there was no member of the Gandhi family running the daily affairs of the Congress. Sitaram Kesari’s clique, for instance, had Tariq Anwar and, for a time, Ghulam Nabi Azad, among others.

Rahul’s leadership failure

Through these decades, as the Congress’s footprint shrunk nationally and the organisation grew weaker, what remained a constant was the criticism by anyone leaving the party that the coterie surrounding the party chief of the time had made it difficult for dedicated, loyal leaders and workers to stay within the Congress’s fold. As such, while the coteries changed with successive leaders, the criticism remained largely the same: ‘the coterie is misleading the leadership’ or ‘the coterie isn’t aware of ground realities and has created a gulf between the high command and the organisation or the people at large’.

What then, one may wonder, have Rahul and his coterie done so differently that the criticism against them seems to be shriller than ever before in the party’s recent history? Among the most obvious answers – and also one most frequently avowed by exiting leaders – is that the Congress’s electoral performance has gone from bad to worse ever since Rahul’s ascension began within the party in 2013, when he was made Congress vice-president.

There is no denying that the country’s oldest political party is today a pitiful caricature of its former self and, for reasons real and exaggerated, much of the blame for this falls on Rahul’s stewardship of the Congress and the kind of people he has picked for key responsibilities within the party.

An Indira Gandhi could afford to handpick a coterie of, to use Azad’s words, “inexperienced sycophants”, because she reigned at a time when the Congress was the country’s dominant and default political choice. Even if her chosen cabal lacked the political stature and heft, she still commanded a following that could carry her party through tough electoral challenges across most parts of the country. Those unhappy with her coterie could, thus, quit the party but only at the risk of facing political wilderness as the Congress, under her leadership, remained a formidable force even after and despite the taint of the Emergency.

How Rahul strayed

Though to a much lesser degree but this still held true for the time when Rajiv led the party. Rajiv, like his son, wanted to be disruptive when he chose his apolitical friends from Doon and elsewhere to give him political advice and brought them into government. It’s a different matter that these aides were amongst the first to jump ship once, in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal, the Rajiv story went into a tailspin.

Rajiv’s assassination, in the middle of a promising election campaign, meant the country and the Congress never got to see whether he had indeed matured as a politician but the general consensus among political observers has been that he had.

Rahul, on the contrary, began taking control of the Congress in 2013 when the party’s pan-India electoral footprint had already shrunk substantially and the party was on a downward spiral due to the massive unpopularity of the scan-tainted UPA-II government, the anti-Congress blitzkrieg of the Anna movement and the steady rise of the BJP with Modi just on the horizon. This was a phase when Rahul should have, like Sonia did in her early years in politics, banked heavily on seasoned colleagues for political advice instead of slighting them for their advancing years and seniority.

One may argue, with enough merit, that the defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls wasn’t a mandate against Rahul, but against the decade-long UPA-era anti-incumbency and a resounding endorsement of all that Narendra Modi symbolised for the electorate at the time.

What Rahul can’t be forgiven though is how he ran the party subsequently, particularly in the period between 2017 and now, when he led the Congress as its chief and then abandoned the post within 18 months but not the power it had wielded him. This is where the problem with his coterie becomes most evident.

Successive electoral defeats and growing organisational drift should have given Rahul reason to work assiduously towards ensuring that the party stays united and revitalises. What Rahul did, instead, was to alienate senior leaders who, like Azad, were unelectable to the Lok Sabha or assemblies but had decades of organisational experience. In their place, Rahul began anointing equally unelectable leaders but who had the added burden of being lightweights, political greenhorns or simply apolitical, English-speaking, foreign educated elites with no ear to the ground.

Rahul’s 2019 defeat in his home turf of Amethi against BJP’s Smriti Irani proved the fallibility of the Gandhi surname in post-2014 India. Unlike Indira of the post-Emergency era or Rajiv in his post-Bofors avatar, Rahul is yet to prove that he can script an electoral turnaround for himself in Amethi, let alone for the Congress elsewhere.

Can a leader who can’t carry his own election have the chops to carry a party stacked with a coterie of the unelectable, inefficient and immature in an electoral battle against a rival as formidable as Modi or the BJP?

Poor choices

One can, perhaps, ignore Rahul’s choice of his personal staff – Byju, Sawai, et al – though their meddling in the party’s affairs and their arrogant behaviour with senior Congress leaders should have attracted stern correctives. But what of the people Rahul handpicked for organisational roles and to act as his eyes and ears in the party when he was on his frequent foreign jaunts or simply working from home – much before COVID made WFH part of our daily lexicon.

So-called ‘young leaders’ Rahul backed for key roles – Sushmita Dev, Jyotiraditya Scindia, RPN Singh, Jitin Prasada, Pradyot Deb Manikya, Ashok Tanwar, Jaiveer Shergill, Sunil Jakhar, Priyanka Chaturvedi, an so on – have all quit the party. A cursory glance through the list of AICC general secretaries and in-charges of states handpicked by Rahul also exposes the former Congress chief’s penchant for inept and inefficient leaders.

Only in Rahul’s political worldview can people like Jitendra Singh, Avinash Pande and Mohan Prakash, who in their capacity of general secretaries and state in-charges, presided over and perpetuated crippling electoral defeats and factional feuds, deserve greater responsibilities after each failure. Similarly, countless complaints of arrogant behaviour and inaccessibility from party leaders across the spectrum against AICC general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal have failed to elicit any response from Rahul.

Future president

On August 28, the Congress finally approved the schedule for electing its new president. Retainers of the Nehru-Gandhi family claim that none in the troika of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi want to take the reins of the party. Sonia, the current lot of family loyalists claim, has asked Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to lead the party.

If the Gandhis indeed remain adamant about a non-Gandhi party chief and throw their weight behind Gehlot, his victory in the October 17 election is a foregone conclusion as the primary criteria for selecting the 9000-odd electoral college members who will vote to pick Sonia’s successor is their loyalty to ‘the family’. Yet, Gehlot is likely to face a challenge, perhaps from more than one colleague in the election.

Gehlot is a die-hard family loyalist. If he does contest for the Congress presidency and win, he’ll likely give Rahul a wide berth to meddle with the party’s functioning and appointments. As a man with keen organisational skills, Gehlot’s challenge would be to convince Rahul against stacking the party, yet again, with the same coterie that has wrecked the Congress in the last few years. But will Rahul agree – or will Gehlot, like Sitaram Kesri and Narasimha Rao before him, dare to disagree with the diktats of the Gandhis and bring in his own coterie?