The ten-week-old Narendra Modi government is so far progressing without any major hiccups – with some administrative and economic reforms thrown in – and opposition. All eyes are on the Independence Day address of the Prime Minister. Many believe that he will indicate his vision of governance, and of India, in that speech that is traditionally delivered – ever since it was done by the nation’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – from the ramparts of the Red Fort in the old city.
One of the reasons for the government having reasonably smooth sailing, even in Parliament, is because of the decimated main opposition, the Congress, unable to put its act together, except the show of strength it put up in the Rajya Sabha to block the insurance bill to raise the level of foreign equity.
However, the Congress appeared to be injected by a sudden spark of vigour when Rahul Gandhi, under veiled attack from his own party for poor leadership, attacked the government as being “dictatorial”, accused the Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, formerly of the BJP, of “partiality”, and even led a clutch of Congress MPs into the centre of House that surprised even his own party.
Gandhi’s alleged a dictatorial streak in Prime Minister Modi prompted Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to rip into the Congress first family by referring to a possible “palace coup”, even as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress’ Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, riposted that in the BJP “coup has already happened”.
While Azad was referring to the total control of the BJP by Modi and Amit Shah, the new party president and a Modi lieutenant, the BJP spoke of the coup in the context of a growing demand to induct Priyanka into the party to make up for the widely perceived deficient leadership by Rahul.
The longstanding debate about who is preferred between Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra as a naturally endowed popular leader had acquired greater intensity in view of the Congress’s dismal performance in the last election.
Now, there is little doubt that by declining to join “active” politics, Priyanka will not only cause huge disappointment to her growing body of supporters in the Congress, but may also undermine the party’s chances of immediate revival.
To her followers, she represents the last and perhaps only hope of the party’s recovery following its demoralizing defeat. Accustomed to looking only at the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead them, Priyanka’s supporters evidently turned to her when it seemed abundantly clear that neither Sonia nor Rahul was the answer to the party’s travails.
While Sonia has been largely spared any direct criticism, except from writers of books on current affairs, Rahul has been the target of considerable carping, ranging from being called a “joker” to being surrounded by rootless wonders with little understanding of Indian politics.
However, there was a suggestion that both mother and son should take a two-year sabbatical, an unusual observation in a party which has acquired the reputation of being run like a feudal household with its retinue of servile courtiers. This was also the closest any party member had ever come to saying that Sonia was not the answer to the party’s problems and that the organization could perhaps be better off if she kept out of the way for some time along with her darling son.
In this depressing context, Priyanka aroused the most expectations. The reasons have long been obvious. Between the three – mother, son and daughter – Priyanka has been seen as the most naturally endowed with leadership qualities in being articulate and, most importantly, without any hang-ups in the matter of reaching out to the people.
Because of her open, extrovert nature, party cadres and ordinary people felt at ease in her company. In a strange way, she combined the personal charisma of her grandmother, Indira, without the former prime minister’s intimidating regal presence.
Rahul, unfortunately, did not have any of these qualities. He not only appeared to be a reluctant politician as his poor record of attendance in parliament and prolonged periods of absence from the country showed, his aloofness inhibited even Congressmen from approaching him, let alone the ordinary people.
Some of his ideas have also seemed woolly. His charge, for instance, that most of the parties are run by a few has never been taken seriously because he himself belongs to perhaps the most exclusive of such coteries.
Notwithstanding his inability to provide inspirational leadership, it can seem odd that Sonia insisted on pushing him to the forefront, even egging him on to be aggressive when he barged into the well of the Lok Sabha to protest against the Speaker’s conduct.
If anyone was looking for signs of confirmation of Sonia’s wish to pass the baton to Rahul, that uncharacteristic intervention in parliament was the moment. It is probably not a coincidence that within two days of the incident, Priyanka announced her intention to stay away from active politics, which virtually amounted to her “retirement”.
The haste may have been occasioned by the announcement by a relatively unknown Congress spokesperson that all three members of the dynasty will be in the leadership. There have also been reports that Priyanka may be made general secretary in charge of the party in U.P.
These statements probably reflected the wishful thinking of Priyanka’s supporters rather than any decision taken by the party. But, arguably, the Congress president did not want the speculations to spread any further.
There are several reasons for putting a lid on the rumours. One is that Rahul’s image will suffer if there is a clamour for Priyanka to play a major role. As it is, the dauphin is not seen by a majority of the party men as someone who can reverse the present trend of the Congress’s decline. Even outside the party, he is seen as the poor little rich boy who has been forced to do the family’s, and his mother’s, bidding when his heart is not in the job since he is palpably not a political animal. As the former Congressman, Natwar Singh, has said in his autobiography, Rahul does not have “fire in the belly”.
Another reason why all the gossip had to be scotched is the close personal relations between brother and sister. Priyanka evidently realized that if she is pushed to the forefront by a section of the party men, a rift cannot but appear between the siblings which will be highly distressing for everyone in the family.
There is also a third reason. For all her popularity among Congressmen, Priyanka is hobbled by the allegations against her husband’s business ventures. This is a major disadvantage. After all, her father’s government was brought down by the Bofors howitzer scandal in 1989 and the Manmohan Singh government’s downfall can also be attributed to the charges of corruption which it faced.
Even then, Priyanka’s decision means that the Congress is back to square one, depending wholly on Sonia and Rahul to extricate it from the political quagmire. The prospect doesn’t seem bright.
According to Natwar Singh, former foreign minister and a family retainer turned baiter, t
he main reason the Congress has shrunk is that it is a “one-woman show” and no one dares to say “I don’t agree with you” to party president Sonia Gandhi.
He said no one in the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision making body, expresses any disagreement with Sonia Gandhi. “That is the Congress culture (now). I do not see it changing.”
“You can’t say, ‘Madam, I don’t agree with you’. No one says, ‘Madam, the decision you have taken is wrong. I don’t agree with you.’ (This is) out of question,” Natwar Singh stated.
“I am the only chap who defied her… I was so close to her. We used to sit for hours,” he claimed, adding he advised her on appointments of chief ministers and parliamentary nominees.
Natwar Singh said while the Congress had been on the decline for some time, the slide was “very dramatic” in the 2014 parliamentary elections. He said there had been expectations from Rahul Gandhi but these were belied.
“Who’s responsibility is it?” he asked of the Congress electoral rout. “At the same time, if Rahul and Sonia withdraw, it (party’s tally) will come down from 44 to four,” he said. Natwar Singh reiterated that Rahul Gandhi does not have fire in the belly. “He doesn’t. His biggest test was the 2014 election. Politics is not a part-time job.”
Natwar Singh, who was in the Congress for 24 years after nearly three decades in the Indian Foreign Service, resigned as external affairs minister following the oil-for-food scam in Iraq in 2005 which named him among many others globally who allegedly benefited from oil contracts.
Natwar Singh praised Modi, saying he “did not put a foot wrong” in Brazil during the BRICS Summit and had recently won over Nepal.
Asked if Modi will make a successful prime minister, Natwar Singh answered: “Absolutely!”
“He is a leader. Manmohan Singh is not… He (Modi) outshone everybody in the BJP. He left the Congress 10 miles behind. His campaign was brilliantly conducted.”