POLITICS

As Rahul Gandhi Continues To Flounder, The Writing On The Wall Doesn't Bode Well For The Congress

Grim prospects for the Grand Old Party.

20/09/2016 9:43 AM IST | Updated 20/09/2016 10:27 AM IST
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Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
Rahul Gandhi, Vice President of the Congress, waves to supporters during a rally in 2014. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/File Photo

The great mystery in the Arunachal Pradesh saga is not why the Congress legislators switched en masse, but the silence of their leader.

Arunachal Pradesh might exist on the fringes of Indian consciousness but when Chief Minister Pema Khandu took 42 legislators with him from the Congress to the People's Party of Arunachal (PPA), it should have struck a chill down Rahul Gandhi's spine.

Delhi is far away from Itanagar but this was an audacious act of thumbing your nose at the party leadership, especially within months of the Supreme Court ordering the restoration of the Congress government in the state.

But while the Congress is pointing fingers at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for orchestrating the drama from behind the scenes, what should worry it more is what Pema Khandu said to explain his volte-face.

He explained it as an act of pragmatism.

"It is an undeniable fact that for a resource-stressed state like Arunachal, it has to depend on the Centre for all its needs. It is difficult to make things done at the Centre with political difference."

One could read his statement in many ways. He might have been saying the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government uses its power of carrot-and-stick to force a small state to fall in line. But he might also have been saying that he had decided to get off a losing horse. He did not see any bright prospects for the Congress and as a young and ambitious CM he had decided to cut his losses.

In Bengal, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) juggernaut had progressively poached almost everyone worth poaching from the Congress.

This must sting the Grand Old Party. It has been accused of many things, but to be accused of irrelevance, when at one time it made and unmade chief ministers according to Delhi's whim, is humiliating. What makes it worse is that comes from within its own ranks in a state where it technically held power.

It's been happening in other states for a while. In Bengal, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) juggernaut had progressively poached almost everyone worth poaching from the Congress. Former Bengal state chief Manas Bhunia just joined the TMC calling it the "real Congress" in the state. But few had ever dared say the unthinkable — that the Congress' main problem might lie at the top.

Khandu has not named Rahul or Sonia Gandhi but his actions make it clear. Hemanta Biswa Sarma, Congress MLA in Assam from 2001-2015 who then quit to join the BJP in 2015, did not mince his words, however. He said, "Independent thinking persons will never accept the leadership of Rahul."

Sarma is the convener of the NEDA, the North Eastern Democratic Alliance, a grouping of anti-Congress parties in the northeast, a region which in many ways was the last outpost of Congress strength. Sarma also said, "Khandu told me Modi gave him appointment (in Delhi) on Sunday while Rahul Gandhi gave him an appointment on Tuesday despite Khandu being a chief minister from his own party! You can see for yourself the difference and why there is resentment against Rahul's leadership."

Khandu was apparently not impressed by the meeting. "Madam (Sonia) was aloof and detached and advised me to work well for the welfare of the people of the state. Rahulji was absent-minded and seemed to have no interest in what I was saying about Arunachal's development," he said.

Many in the Congress are less optimistic about Kishor's ability to turn Rahul Gandhi into a winning ticket

In UP where Rahul is wooing farmers, the party languishes at Number 4. Even if the Congress offers to waive farm loans, will the farmer be persuaded that the Congress has the oomph to go from Number 4 to Number 1? Now it seems even the Northeast has given up on a Rahul-led Congress or at least run out of patience with it. Next year Manipur goes to the polls and a veteran Congress chief minister there faces the anti-incumbency factor.

Rahul Gandhi, we hear, is being re-upholstered by Prashant Kishor, the man who has become a political superstar after his role in building Narendra Modi and then Nitish Kumar's election-winning persona. But it seems, many in the Congress are less optimistic about Kishor's ability to turn Rahul Gandhi into a winning ticket.

And others are noting the writing on the wall as well.

Over the weekend, Lalu Prasad, once one of the more loyal allies of the Congress, was asked about his ideas for names of those who might lead a non-BJP formation in 2019. He told The Telegraph that there were many prospects.

Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mamata Banerjee. Jayalalithaa. Nitish Kumar. All, he said, "have the calibre to become Prime Minister".

NurPhoto via Getty Images
People sit on cots as they take part in Rahul Gandhi's public meeting, popularly known as Khaat Panchayats in Kaushambi on September 15, 2016. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Rahul Gandhi did not feature in that list even for courtesy's sake. Asked about Rahul, he said, "I do not think so. Even the Congress has not formally announced Rahul's name as the PM candidate."

Lalu and Rahul Gandhi did not share the stage in any public meeting during the Mahagatbandhan campaign in Bihar. Lalu might have cool relations with Rahul over a UPA-II ordinance trying to give relief to convicted MPs, which would have helped Lalu. But if Rahul's star had been on the ascendant, a wily Lalu would have swallowed his pride. The subtext of his message is clear. He was letting the Congress know that it would probably need the regional powerhorses more than those parties would need it. It would not be the natural leader in a non-BJP formation of the near future.

But then, the politicians are just giving voice to what the aam aadmi has been saying for a while. That became manifestly clear when Rahul Gandhi tried to organise the khat pe charcha in Mirzapur. His Kisan Yatra left him red-faced, as the crowd that had been gathered for the event decided to take the cots that had been brought for the show home with them.

As the Congress continues to flounder and Rahul Gandhi still tries to find his feet, the image of rally-goers making off with whatever they can makes for a telling epitaph. It's as if the gravy train of the Congress is lumbering to a halt and it's being felt all the way from the farmlands of UP to the hills of Arunachal.

POSTSCRIPT: Former Congress minister and one of its feisty hopes in Bengal, Deepa Das Munshi, who was trounced by Mamata Banerjee this year, has just launched her own line of silver jewellery in Kolkata. She insists she's not giving up on politics but are the Congress stalwarts looking out for alternative careers these days? Or do they just have a lot more time on their hands?

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