There are occasions when a seemingly irrelevant piece of tittle-tattle assumes greater relevance than a thousand words of weighty commentary. An innocuous piece of news on the first page of last Wednesday’s Times of India on the selection of the Congress candidate to contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi was such an occasion.
The importance lay not so much in the fact that a local member of the legislative assembly who had unsuccessfully tried his hand in a Lok Sabha election on a previous occasion had been given the Congress ticket — thereby ending a fortnight of purposeless speculation over who would be Modi’s principal rival in Varanasi. For the beat reporter, the significance of Ajay Rai’s nomination was that he had been personally blessed by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and her daughter, Priyanka Vadra. Not only that, Priyanka had given Rai her personal mobile phone number and asked him to get in touch directly with her if he needed help and facilitation. The reporter’s breathless conclusion was that Priyanka was increasingly calling the shots in the Congress.
Although purists may balk at the prominence given to this additional evidence that the brother-sister duo was now in control of the final leg of the Congress campaign, this piece of trivia was not inconsequential. Ever since opinion polls and anecdotal reports from the battleground pointed to the Congress performing far worse than even the party pessimists imagined was possible, Congress loyalists have been praying and hoping for a “secret weapon” which would improve the final tally that in turn would ensure that a future Bharatiya Janata Party-led government would be inherently fragile. In the past week, ever since the Congress general secretary, Janardhan Dwivedi, let the media in one of the party’s greatest secrets — that in 1990 Rajiv Gandhi had detected Priyanka’s instinctive feel for politics — the demoralized party had been hoping that Rahul’s leadership would be bolstered by the involvement of his sister. Indeed, there were Congress supporters who felt that Priyanka would be declared as the challenger to Modi in Varanasi. Such a symbolic move, they felt, would electrify Uttar Pradesh and reopen what was increasingly looking like a one-sided encounter.
The value addition that Priyanka might possibly bring to the Congress table need not concern us excessively. In a star-obsessed campaign, the injection of a lady who, it is said in some quarters, has the mass touch of her illustrious grandmother, would inevitably shift some focus from an over-exposed Modi and his insolent rival, Arvind Kejriwal. In terms of dividing the media space a little more equitably, Priyanka’s entry into the 2014 campaign would certainly be of short-term benefit to the Congress. In 1998, when Sonia Gandhi made her political debut, she certainly did shift the spotlight a little away from Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Indeed, Congress supporters were so buoyant that when I mentioned a particular rally where Vajpayee had drawn big crowds, a Congress groupie asked me incredulously: “Is anyone even listening to him any longer?”
However, what strikes me about the excitement over Priyanka is that even as the Congress stares at the possibility of winning less than 100 Lok Sabha seats, the only magic wand the party can think of is firmly located within the dynastic mould. Yes, Congress supporters grudgingly concede, Rahul Gandhi has proved a political disappointment. He may exude sincerity and even boast of an unwillingness to be derailed by narrow, tactical considerations but there is no getting away from his inability to connect. In the past, a presidential style campaign had always suited the Congress against a fractured opposition. Indeed, even for 2014, the Congress publicity campaign had been planned to project Rahul as the great white hope. Unfortunately for the Congress, the Modi juggernaut proved too formidable for those who felt that Rahul would encapsulate the necessary measure of change to offset anti-incumbency. In the direct Modi versus Rahul battle, the man from Gujarat was miles ahead. Rahul’s famed sincerity and earnestness came to be equated with naiveté. Rahul was not disliked; he became an object of mockery, particularly after his disastrous Times Now interview. With just a month left of the campaign, the only people who think that a Rahul-led dispensation can govern India with a measure of enlightenment are the editors of The Economist.
The widespread acknowledgment of Rahul’s inadequacies by the Congress hasn’t, however, triggered preparations for an upheaval in the party in the event of grim news on May 16. Past experience, especially of the years the party wasn’t in power at the Centre, has convinced the average Congress supporter that the leadership of the Gandhi family is a precondition for both survival and growth. There was a time, particularly after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term as prime minister, when it seemed that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had run out of steam. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to plunge into politics in 1998 was, for example, greeted with some scepticism and led to Sharad Pawar’s revolt. But the unexpectedly good performance in 2004 and the victory in 2009 established Sonia as a leader in her own right and set her up as the glue that binds the disparate Congress family.
A Congress failure in 2014 isn’t likely to shake that fundamental assumption and faith in the leadership of the dynasty is likely to persist. The belief that Rahul isn’t a natural politician isn’t going to disappear abruptly and neither will the culture of sycophancy. The indifferent 2014 results are certain to be blamed on the “non-communicative” prime minister, Manmohan Singh — Jairam Ramesh has already given an early indication of the post-mortem findings. On his part, Rahul will be applauded for selflessly leading a losing battle and persisting with management systems that should, hopefully, re-energize the party once the country’s honeymoon with Modi ends. Most important, the addition of Priyanka to the dynastic pantheon will definitely placate those Congress leaders who have doubts over Rahul’s ability to engage in combative politics. Far from breeding a sense of disgust with the party’s inability to look and think beyond the dynasty, the helping hand Priyanka is likely to give Rahul seems calculated to retain the family’s stranglehold over the Congress after the likely defeat in 2014.
There are definite indications that the Gandhi family isn’t working towards a new political culture that will guarantee there are no glass ceilings in the path of ability and mass appeal. Reports emanating from the wider durbar of the first family seem to suggest that there is a fear in 10 Janpath that a Modi-led government will engage in recriminations in pursuit of its dream of a Congress-free India. Certainly, the businesses of Robert Vadra are certainly going to be the subject of some investigations. Whether these fears are real or contrived is not known. What is important is that the Gandhi court is readying itself for difficult times in the event of a Modi victory next month. Between 2000 and 2004, the top BJP leadership had negotiated a non-aggression pact with Sonia. More than an act of magnanimity, it was based on the belief that Sonia’s leadership would ensure that the Congress would remain in the Opposition. It was a horrible misreading of her potential and it is unlikely this error will be repeated by a new BJP dispensation.
The Congress top rung, it would seem, has psyched itself into believing that Modi will repay the viciousness that was directed at him from 2002. This fear may well explain why the Gandhi family will ensure that its proprietorship of the Congress will not be modified after the election.