About the only thing the unspooling theatre over who will replace Sonia Gandhi as Congress president has achieved is to have soaked up fair chunks of media space and time. Which is nothing less than significant because even Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra hasn’t been grabbing as much airtime and newsprint acreage as the shenanigan over the job Rahul Gandhi will obdurately not take even though it has been his for the taking ever since he gave it up. (The other thing of significance en route to the possible election of a new Congress head on October 17 has been the defiant disobedience of Ashok Gehlot, who never wanted to give up chief ministership of Rajasthan for the cardboard crown that his high command wanted to place on his head. That’s a sub-plot entirely more engrossing than the drama over the Congress presidency perhaps, but that isn’t what this piece is about.)
This piece is about such elaborate ado about so much that is nothing. If it is not one of the Gandhis, does it even matter who becomes Congress president later this month? Or, to posit the question in another way, does it even matter that Rahul Gandhi will not become Congress president later this month? Do we not already know who will continue to call the shots? The formulation is simple and doesn’t require much to understand.
Rahul Gandhi is the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala but he is not only a Congress MP from Wayanad.
Rahul Gandhi is nobody in the hierarchy of the Congress party but there is no Congress hierarchy without Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi does not want to return as president of the Congress party but he will be weightier than any president of the Congress party.
Shashi Tharoor believes to the contrary. He believes he will be in a position to call the shots should he defeat Mallikarjun Kharge. Or, should we invest in his rightful fancies and in the poignant charms of his optimism, when he defeats Mallikarjun Kharge later this month.
One can legitimately ask where it stems from, but Tharoor (like Rahul Gandhi, as it happens) appears to profess faith in the Congress being a creature of its Constitution and an institution of internal democracy. Tharoor also believes (again like Rahul Gandhi, as it happens) that there are flaws in the way that the Congress works internally, and that when he becomes party boss he will be able to “change the way Congress works internally”. He also believes that there is a “widespread perception of crisis” and he wants to “do something about the crisis”. Part of that crisis is that the Congress has remained stuck on 19 per cent of voter support for a while. Tharoor believes his presidency should be able to lift the party out of the 19 per cent trap. In other words, he will be able to attract to the party voters who nobody in the Congress has been able to attract in recent years.
He will do so, he has said, simply by the dint of the position he will come to occupy — “… a self-respecting president would expect to be exercising his own authority” because there is “no provision in the Constitution of the party (for the party president) to report to anybody else”. Simple as that.
A question was recently asked of him if he really believed in what he was saying of how an elected Congress president could function, and Tharoor said something to the effect that he indeed did. He was also asked if he really expected to be elected Congress president by the 9,000-odd AICC electoral college having outlined how he intended to function in office and he said he was not entering the contest out of any “naivete”. Shashi Tharoor must be a gallant man, if nothing else. Or, like the woe begotten cop in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, the most believing man on earth
The Congress is a family-held court and has best functioned as that for decades — command flows from the top, command is followed, and that is how what gets done in the Congress gets done. Rahul Gandhi — and this is least of all for him to deny — is a central pillar of that court. That central pillar has decided to position itself in a way the court will cave without him. It’s all down to the Gandhi name and the de facto supremacies and supplications it enjoys. Take the Gandhis away and you may not be able to count the number of ways the organisation splits in a single breath. Rahul Gandhi has decreed that nobody from his family should be Congress president and has made it known that he remains unhappy Sonia Gandhi stepped in to take working charge when he left. But that is the way the Congress is. Rahul Gandhi’s decree is a death decree. Or, in the event that a non-family member does become party boss, it will be the fulfilment of a dead decree. Real power will still remain in the hands of the Gandhis, they are the essential glue to whatever remains.
Recall the Ides of March 1998, the day that Sitaram Kesri was removed as Congress president and Sonia Gandhi assumed charge — it was a bloodless coup effected with the swiftness of a loyalist vanguard; almost its first act was for a group to barge into the 24 Akbar Road AICC headquarters, wrench off Kesri’s nameplate from the party president’s chamber, and nail in Sonia Gandhi’s. A report in The Telegraph from that day may bear recalling, if only to underline how zealous and fierce Congress court loyalists can get: “For Sitaram Kesri, today was the chronicle of a death well and widely foretold. Only, he wouldn’t heed the story until it expelled him from the character cast, leaving him an actor without a stage, a president without a party. The nails had been pulled out of his nameplate at the AICC headquarters early and driven firmly into his bereft coffin. A plaque bearing Sonia Gandhi’s name had floated in and stuck itself outside the boss’ room… The air at the coronation — consummated behind closed doors with flowers and, doubtless, dollops of flattery — was Peronesque… She (Sonia) came — Caesar-like, though our pitiful Caesar of the day was dead as a ghost and groaning in pangs of agony and indignation at his residence — she saw, she conquered and left, wearing the crown she had oft refused but which, today, she verily snatched from Kesri’s head… a Queen who will command from the depths of her palace…”
Is there merit or worth at all in debating who will make a better Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge or Shashi Tharoor? Or holding breath on which of the two will eventually be president? How utterly bereft of utility is this debate on After Sonia Who?