Home Cover Story Time for Congress to stand up to Rahul
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Time for Congress to stand up to Rahul

Until the party jettisons Rahul Gandhi and picks up another leader, there is no way the Congress can hope to capture power in 2019 when the party would face a larger than life Narendra Modi

Jab se Mohan ghee khaya hai, gaon se nata hi toot gaya!

THESE days Congressmen use this famous advertising line to describe the state of affairs in their party. The reference is particularly to de facto Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic legacy. While Sonia Gandhi is still the Congress party president, she has for all practical purposes taken a back seat and given Rahul the party reins.

Rahul and his brand of politics is seen to be elitist; he finds it difficult to connect with people (let alone with Congressmen). Rahul has the arrogance of an heir apparent, but the most damaging aspect of his politics is his dislike for politics and politicians. He thinks most Congressmen are crooks, out to get what they can. He finds the seniors outdated and has a particular antipathy for those who were close to Sonia. In the process, he has surrounded himself with non-political men and women who have little experience of grassroot politics of rural India. Hence the reference to Mohan ghee!!

As a senior leader put it, “Sonia Gandhi cannot do without Rahul. She is intent on promoting him whatever be the cost to the Congress. And the party in turn cannot do without the Nehru-Gandhi family. That is their fate. That is their DNA.”

After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia withdrew into a shell and refused to take over the reins of the Congress. ND Tiwari, who had never lost an election, lost the election after Rajiv’s death and lady luck smiled on PV Narasimha Rao, who became both the Congress president as well as the Prime Minister of India. During his regime, the downfall of the Congress organisation began. According to senior Congress leaders who knew Rao well, he hated the Gandhi family and wanted to put an end to their rule once and for all. He once held a meeting in Ramlila ground where this aspect became public. He said, “I am like the elephant. The eyes of the elephant are so small that he does not see how big and strong he is and how powerful he is and can be”.

Rahul has turned a deaf ear to complaints of corruption and mismanagement against leaders in his team. He has also ignored clear warning signs of the party’s slide in the States

Rao damaged the Congress for years to come when he sat and “actively” allowed the Babri Masjid to be demolished, breaking the faith of the Muslims of India in the party. When a Congress leader later asked him why he did this, he replied after five minutes of silence with just one line, “When I was in school in Hyderabad during the time of the Nizam, I saw bodies of Hindus lying on the streets of Hyderabad”. The Hindu in Rao was alive and kicking.

His successor, Sitaram Kesri, was a man of little stature with no scholarly pretentions like Rao. But he was a street smart politician. One day he decided to withdraw support to the Deve Gowda government and told his driver to drive him to Rashtrapati Bhawan. When the driver and the gunman told him that he should have a letter in writing to give to the President, he asked them to go to AIIMS where he got himself admitted. It took him three days to find a man in the Congress who could draft such a letter. Pranab Mukherjee wrote the letter that was sent to the President but Kesri could not realise his dream of becoming the Prime Minister of India.

He was removed as Congress president by the powerful Congress Working Committee as Sonia was by then ready to take charge of the party.

In 1997, Sonia unofficially became active in the party and in 1998 she officially joined the Congress. Congress, which had held sway over entire country for most part of independent India, was ruling only in four States at that time, but in less than a year the Congress was heading 14 State governments. During the short but eventful tenure of Kesri, the Congress had begun to disintegrate and got divided into five splinters. Congressmen had begun leaving the party looking for greener pastures. But the entry of Sonia, till then a mere housewife, changed all that.

THE Gandhi surname was the glue that Congressmen needed to bind them together. The party that had begun to shrink in States and was finding it difficult to win a majority at the Centre, was once again looking united and ready to win back its space under Sonia.

But Sonia had her limitations. She knew little or nothing about politics and how political parties were run. But she trusted a few people who virtually took over the reins of the Congress and ran it for her. They discussed issues with her before decisions were taken— in short, firefighting on her behalf and in the process virtually running the party. Heading the list was Ahmed Patel, who became her biggest confidant and who ran the party on behalf of the Congress President.

Always a back room boy, Patel was never in the limelight, did not give interviews, was merely the political secretary, but for all practical purposes the controls of the party rested in his hands.

The party lacks communication skills and has visibly failed in selling its hugely popular programmes and initiatives such as NREGA, loan waiver, GST, RTE, which have been repackaged by the BJP to its advantage

As a senior leader put it, “Ahmed Patel has the brains of a chess player and very few were smart enough to know who will be ousted with what move and who will be promoted.”

Sonia was the face of the Congress party. She conducted herself with humility, had empathy for the common man and was able to connect with people on her various road shows and travels. Her behaviour was exemplary. There was not a whiff of scandal in her personal life. A Congressman who left the Congress because of Rahul, recalls how she had tears in her eyes when he went to meet her, which he interpreted as tears of helplessness. But, he recalls, she has been unable to stand up to Rahul and has given in to whatever he has wished for or desired.

congress family

The year 2004 saw the Congress returning to power at the Centre. This is credited to Sonia Gandhi and her efforts to join hands with various political parties, forge alliances and it was the allies who propelled the Congress to come to power, beating the BJP by a whisker. Atal Behari Vajpyee’s shining India alienated the bulk of the poor people while Sonia was seen as the face that could connect with the poor and the common man.

SONIA chose Dr Manmohan Singh as the face of the government and this gave her an even higher billing as a woman who had no lust for power. Her giving up the prime ministership was seen as an act of supreme sacrifice, appreciated by the masses who were used to power hungry politicians going to any extent to remain in power. Even Sharad Pawar, who had left the Congress on the issue of her foreign origins and had floated a separate political party, was ready to accept her as the leader and the Prime Minister of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which was cobbled together by Sonia.

The Congress-led UPA remained in power for 10 years. It won more seats in 2009, riding high on Sonia’s social sector programmes such as NREGA, loan waiver to farmers, and other pro-poor schemes. These programmes got the poor rallying behind the Congress. Manmohan Singh’s pro-reform agenda helped Congress expand its base with the middle classes deserting the BJP and voting the Congress back to power in 2009.

Ever since the huge defeat of the Congress in UP and Uttarakhand, only junior spokespersons are being fielded with all the seniors staying away. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been keeping away with no word from them on where the party is headed and what road they intend to take now

So what went wrong with the Congress after the 2009 elections? How did the party’s tally crash to an unbelievable 44 seats in the 2014 general elections? And, why did the party lose a large number of State assemblies like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and later Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Assam, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur, Odisha and so on?

Much of the blame for the party’s numerous defeats can be placed at the door of Sonia and, of course, later at Rahul Gandhi’s.

Sonia has always been seen as a status quoist who has been afraid of rocking the boat, or taking bold decisions in terms holding people responsible for their acts of omission and commission. During her regime there was no accountability or responsibility fixed on office bearers for wrong decisions taken by them and this led to the Congress organisation sliding and becoming hollow from within.


CONGRESS leaders were so busy making money in ticket distribution, in appointment of office bearers, in getting transfers and postings done that little or no time was spent on building the organisation in States. Today, the Uttar Pradesh Congress is a weak, moribund unit. A mere paratrooping of leaders into the State to address press conferences and rallies is not going to bring the Congress back to power in India’s most populous state.

Ministers had no time for party workers. The loot and spoils of office were not shared with the workers. They were not allowed to participate in the running of the government. As a result, Congress leaders and workers did not step out of their houses in the crucial UP election. Some went to the extent of actively working for the defeat the Congress candidates. A section of Congress leaders celebrated party’s defeat and expressed happiness that the leaders had been taught a lesson.

Sonia finished the election culture in the party. Ever since she took over the reins of the Congress, elections to half the Congress Working Committee (CWC) were done away with and the entire CWC was nominated with the posts going to men and women who had Congress president’s confidence. Most of them had no links with the grassroots and brought nothing of relevance to the Congress table except that they were ‘yes’ men and women. Most of them were people who could not win an election but were thought qualified to run the party in States and give lectures on how elections are to be held.

Over time, Sonia also made the CWC irrelevant. The CWC was once the apex decision making body of the Congress party. It used to be a forum where senior and important regional leaders were made members and before important decisions were taken, the CWC used to discuss and debate the pros and cons to get all sides of the picture. To minimise the importance of the CWC, small leaders of little or no consequence were made members of the CWC, diminishing its stature and importance.

Soon it was reduced to an obituary making body which was called only when an important leader died and due respect had to be paid to the departed soul. During the 10 years of UPA rule, the CWC was replaced by the core committee, internally referred to as the super working committee, where a handful of leaders would deliberate on every issue and arrive at a decision. Many of these decisions turned out to be flawed. As a result, Congress leaders had begun to lose touch with the reality of Indian politics. Permanent amongst this select lot were Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, AK Antony, Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee. Some ministers, such as the then home minister Shivraj Patil and finance minister P Chidambaram or others, were called for CWC meetings whenever there was a matter pertaining to their ministry.

GENERAL Secretaries of the AICC were seen to be puppets of the Chief Ministers and did their bidding. A classic example was Rajasthan where Mukul Wasnik was General Secretary of the State for nine years. All dissenting voices against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot were shown the door. They had no one who would listen to their grievances because Wasnik did whatever Gehlot wanted.

The result was the rout of the Congress in the assembly polls with the party winning just 21 seats in a house of 200. But Wasnik continued to get promoted. He went on to mess up Bihar. There were public demonstrations against him. But, instead of acting against him, the party gave him the charge of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. General Secretaries were kept and promoted, no matter what their activities or what their report card may have said.

A new practice was started for rewarding Chief Ministers who had lost their States, by making them General Secretaries in the AICC. So there was a full corridor of defeated Chief Ministers occupying big rooms in the AICC office. These included, Digvijaya Singh who had lost Madhya Pradesh to the BJP, and Vilasrao Deshmukh who had lost Maharashtra to the BJP.There was Ashok Gehlot who had lost Rajasthan to the BJP. Gehlot was inducted as a General Secretary in charge of large and important state like UP. But when the Congress won in Rajasthan in the next election, he was picked up again and made the Chief Minister. At the end of his tenure, he landed the Congress one of its worst defeats. The concepts of accountability and responsibility had become alien to the Congress.

IN 2012, a General Secretary, who met Rahul Gandhi, was told by him that your numbers are all wrong and there is no way the Congress can win Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The General Secretary told him that he could place a bet on the party winning both States since he was in charge. After winning both the States, the General Secretary went to meet Rahul again. But the party vice president did not have the grace to tell him that he was right!

With the entry of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi into the Congress tapestry through his business interests, Congress Chief Ministers found a new way of staying in power: Keep Vadra happy, promote his business interests and 10, Janpath will turn a blind eye to what is going on in their State. So there was Bhupinder Singh Hooda of Haryana who survived because of his close business relationship with Vadra. Despite continued killings of dalits in Haryana, no one could touch Hooda.

Gehlot took the same path. Large amounts of land in the State were made available to Vadra and despite a large number of dissidents warning the Congress leadership that Rajasthan was slipping out of hands and most castes had turned against Gehlot, 10, Janpath turned a deaf ear to their warnings.

So, while Vadra, who had begun with a small business of handicrafts, turned into a tycoon, reportedly worth one lakh crore, with ministers and chief ministers ready to oblige him. It was not surprising therefore when 10, Janpath found it difficult to tick off Congress leaders and workers when largescale corruption became the order of the day.

Sonia Gandhi has always been seen as a status quoist. During her regime there was no accountability or responsibility fixed on office bearers for wrong decisions taken by them and this led to the Congress organisation sliding and becoming hollow from within

The Congress allies were not far behind. The telecom scam had huge repercussions and while the DMK Minister, D Raja, made merry, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned a blind eye. The same was the case with the Civil Aviation ministry and the NCP. The reason was simple. The so called non-political Manmohan Singh was so keen to retain his chair that he was willing to overlook what was going on around him.

The wily Singh was quick to uncover and leak a scandal against Sonia and the Congress whenever he saw a threat to his chair or whenever he got a hint that there was a move by 10, Janpath to dislodge him from the Prime Minister’s post.

It was either due to the US agenda which forced her hand or some other deep and dark secrets that Singh might have known, Sonia was always the champion defender of Singh even when senior partymen urged her to reconsider her decision about continuing him in the top post.

The decision to split Andhra Pradesh landed the Congress in one of its biggest soups. But there also Congressmen decided to grab whatever they could get their hands on. There are reports of all big Congress leaders buying vast amounts of land in Vijaywada and Guntur just before the split of Andhra Pradesh in the hope of making a killing.

The misreading and mishandling of the Anna Hazare agitation by Congress leaders and 10, Janpath cost the Congress dear in the run-up to the elections. Hazare is reported to be the B team of the RSS and he helped create a perception that the Congress was a party of deal makers and looters. This perception has stayed in the public mind in spite of common belief that public memory is short.

The fruits of UPA’s policies, programmes and initiatives are being harvested by the BJP and Narendra Modi. The Congress could not sell and claim ownership of its programmes such as Aadhaar, Farm Loan Waiver, RTI, Insurance bill, GST or NREGA. It lacked communication skills. Singh chose to remain silent on most days of the year. Ministers were too drunk with money and power to bother about the party.

As one wag put it, “the land had been procured, the runway was completed with the best and latest equipment, but the poor quality of the aircraft gave BJP the advantage”. Today, the BJP is recycling most of the Congress schemes and initiatives and selling them with a new coating of saffron.

Within the Congress, one of the biggest liabilities is Rahul Gandhi. His interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now was one of the single biggest factors which cost the Congress the 2014 elections and the huge drubbing it got. Since then, Sonia has retreated more and more into her shell giving Rahul a free hand to turn himself into a leader.

BUT senior leaders say Rahul is not cast in a political mould and he lacks political instincts. The problem gets aggravated with his ‘I know all, and I need to learn no more’ belief.

Rahul is said to be rude and rough in dealing with senior ministers and is not ready to hear what they have to say about the state of the party. As a result, many senior leaders have withdrawn and left him to run the party on his own terms.

One of Rahul’s closest advisors is K Raju, a former IAS officer who has no knowledge of politics. Being a dalit, Raju is reported to have advised him against an understanding with Mayawati in the UP polls. Sources say, a year ago, a proposal for talks came from a person close to Mayawati. Sonia approved it but when it reached Rahul, he put his foot down and insisted that Congress would ally with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.

His decision to go with Akhilesh was opposed by most UP Congress leaders. But because Prashant Kishore, the man who was reportedly paid crores of rupees to run the Congress campaigns in UP and Punjab, wanted the tie up with the Samajwadi Party, Rahul ensured it was done. The UP campaign was a huge mess with Prashant Kishore wanting things his way, and Ghulam Nabi Azad pulling the party the other way. Kishore wanted to select candidates also and had spread the word around, but Azad put a stop to it.

Rahul’s team to take on Modi in the next general elections consists of Deepender Hooda, Gaurav Gogoi, Sushmita Dev, Ajay Maken, Harish Chaudhary, Manic Tagore, CP Joshi, Randeep Surjewala, Rajeev Gowda and the likes of them.

Modi has succeeded in wresting the vote bank of the poor from the Congress, which was hitherto perceived as a party of the poor, weaker sections, minorities and the have-nots

There are allegations of huge corruption against many leaders such as Harish Choudhary and Manik Tagore from the State they are handling.

There have been innumerable complaints about Harish Chaudhary from Punjab, but so far Rahul has not acted on them. Manik Tagore has been included in the team to look after elections in Delhi along with Surjewala. There are complaints galore against Tagore from various States where he has been put in charge as secretary, but it is clear that either Rahul does not know, or he simply does not care.

Surjewala has continued as the media chairman despite having deliberately had a hand in the defeat of the Congress supported candidate in Haryana RK Anand, which led to the victory of the Subahsh Goel of Zee TV partly supported by BJP. Surjewala’s claim to fame is that he advises Vadra on his legal matters. According to media and communication experts Surjewala has no expertise in building media relations or advising the leadership on media matters. He is busy mostly giving bytes to television channels in a bid to stay in the limelight.

Ever since the huge defeat of the Congress in UP and Uttarakhand, only junior spokespersons are being fielded with all the seniors staying away. Both Sonia and Rahul have been keeping away with no word from them on where the party is headed and what road they intend to take now.

Rahul also damaged the party by dealing directly with Chief Ministers and not through the General Secretaries as has always been the practice in the Congress. In Uttarakhand, for example, AICC General Secretary in charge of the State, Ambika Soni, was mostly not in the loop as Chief Minister Harish Rawat reported only to Rahul Gandhi. This proximity to the top leadership made him so arrogant that he threw out most of his adversaries from the party and ensured defeat of his remaining detractors by putting up rebel candidates against them. As a result, the Congress faced one of its worst every defeats with Rawat himself losing both the seats from where he contested.

Rashpal Malhotra, Analjit Singh: Manmohan’s confidantes

CONGRESSMEN of all shapes and sizes were aghast for most of the 10 years that Dr Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister of India. They couldn’t fathom why he was continuing since he had little or nothing to do with the political aspect of governance, had no responsibility in terms of bringing the party back to power, and no stakes in the system except to ensure his own survival.

Contrary to the popular perception that Manmohan Singh was regularly humiliated by 10 Janpath, the reality was that the good doctor had his own agenda, his own coterie which called the shots in the PMO, and a system which delivered possibly in consonance with what the Americans desired. Dr Singh was a shrewd man who knew when to tighten the screws on 10 Janpath.

Rashpal Malhotra

One of the biggest influence on Singh’s PMO was Rashpal Malhotra of CRRID, Chandigarh. Along with him were Kutty Nair, Analjit Singh and other powerful members of the Punjab lobby. Manmohan Singh controlled the SBI through Malhotra, who was a director there, and Analjit Singh, a director in the RBI with Singh controlling the RBI through him. The political disconnect in Singh’s PMO was a major factor in the collapse of the Congress after 10 years of rule.

Congressmen say there is still no explanation on why Sonia Gandhi continued with the apolitical Singh for 10 long years, except maybe that she wanted a puppet Prime Minister who would continue at her bidding while 10 Janpath controlled most of the big deals made in the government and monitored the transfers and postings. Another theory doing the rounds is that Sonia was influenced by the Americans to retain Singh. But the contours of that aspect are still not clearly defined.

Singh’s economic agenda of reforms was often at variance with the social sector programme of the Congress President. But, despite him unwilling to dish out funds for social sector programmes, Sonia insisted and invariably got her way with what she wanted.

Analjit Singh

The lack of articulation, the non communication with the general public and the considerable disconnect with the rank and file of the Congress were the issues which damaged the party when it came to elections. Singh had his way in certain key appointments, but many a time it was 10 Janpath which overrode his decisions, like bringing in Pulok Chatterji into the PMO or shunting out NN Vohra from the PMO.

The two parallel administrations of 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road often functioned independently of each other though publicly Sonia always made a show of backing Singh on key issues. Sources say, whenever the going got tough for the doctor with 10 Janpath not always tolerant of his ways and means, the Prime Minister used the unlimited machinery at his command to leak out facts and scams, making it clear he was not a complete pushover.

Hailing from Punjab, educated at Cambridge, elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam, from where he is still a member, Singh’s karam bhoomi was Delhi. Congressmen blame him majorly for the damage done to the Congress during the 10 years of UPA rule and feel that he did nothing to stem the rot of corruption which pervaded the ministries and the system. The only time he asserted himself was during the nuclear deal, showing that if he wanted, he could put his foot down.

The Congress central leadership has always tried to dump strong regional leaders in a bid to retain control over the party. When Sonia Gandhi was humming and hawing over making Virbhadra Singh the leader of the party in Himachal Pradesh to lead them into the polls, Virbhadra quietly had a meeting with Sharad Pawar and word was spread that he was joining the NCP. It was only a day before a press conference was slated that Ahmed Patel contacted Virbhadra, arranged a meeting with Sonia and an assurance was given to him that the party would go into the election under his leadership. It was only after this meeting that Virbhadra called off the press conference scheduled for the next day. Virbhadra went on to win the State for the Congress.

Rahul was not in favour of making Captain Amrinder Singh the PCC President of Punjab. He was convinced that Pratap Singh Bajwa was the man who could win Punjab for the Congress. Captain contacted the BJP and made them a proposition that he would quit the Congress and they should leave the Akali Dal, and that they would split the seats 50:50. But that he would be the leader and the Chief Minister candidate. He also made it clear to Rahul that he was planning to quit the Congress and float his own party if he was not made the PCC President. The Congress succumbed and Captain went on to win the Punjab for the Congress.

IN his authorised autobiography, there are details of a meeting between Sonia, Captain and Rahul. When Rahul was rude to him, Sonia pulled him up and said, “do you know who you are talking to. Captain was a friend of your father”.

In most States, the Congress no longer has strong regional satraps who can represent the interest of the state and its people. And with the diminishing clout of the central leadership and the Gandhis, particularly Rahul, no longer seen as a vote getter or even as a political strategist, Congress leaders are naturally worried about what the future holds for them.


The general perception in Congress rank and file is that Rahul is not cast in a political mould and he lacks political instincts

A senior leader summed it up by cautioning the leadership on what lay ahead, “if the Congress does not regroup itself in the next one year or formulates a strategy to take on Narendra Modi, the party may go into oblivion for longer than the leaders think. Having worked on the OBCs, Modi is now in the process of winning over the dalits and other castes.”

In a meeting recently, Modi said, “the BJP was seen as a party of traders and corporate. But I will ensure that it becomes a party of the poor and that large sections of the poor of this country come to the BJP”. It was not merely an idle threat since Modi has succeeded in wresting the votebank of the poor from the Congress, which was hitherto perceived as a party of the poor, weaker sections, minorities and the have-nots.

Much of the political lexicon in the country has changed but within the premises of 24, Akbar Road, the Congress party headquarters, there are only empty rooms and complete silence as the party waits for the leadership to finally wake up and decide what needs to be done.

With Sonia out of the day-to-day political management of the party, not even meeting party leaders these days, the disconnect with the grassroots seems to be growing. The doors of Rahul’s residence and office are shut most days. He does not hold janta durbars to meet workers, common folk and party leaders.

Rahul’s poor articulation and communication skills, a basic distrust of the Congressman, poor judgement in terms of his advisors and a penchant for relying on non-political people to formulate strategy or analyse events, situations and people has landed the Congress in deep trouble. Until the party jettisons Rahul and picks up another leader, there is simply no way the Congress can hope to capture power in 2019 when the party would face a larger than life Modi.

Can the party stand up and say no to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership? That is the million dollar question facing Congressmen all over the country.

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