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Priyanka-Rahul-Sonia Gandhi, next family feud could be in Congress

Saroj Nagi
Saroj NagiOct 28, 2016 | 14:41

Priyanka-Rahul-Sonia Gandhi, next family feud could be in Congress

Like dynasties, family feuds are also an inextricable part of Indian politics. The face-off between Mulayam Singh Yadav's brother Shivpal Yadav and his son and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav that threatens to rend the Samajwadi Party ahead of the crucial Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh is but one example of the ominous family battle in which key players are prepared to risk political disaster for the party.

The SP is not the only outfit that is a victim of family politics though it may, perhaps, be among the few involving nearly half a dozen important family members and aides, including Mulayam, Akhilesh, Shivpal, Ram Gopal Yadav, Mulayam's second wife Sadhna Gupta and their son Prateek and daughter-in-law Aparna as well as Amar Singh, who Akhilesh dislikes but Mulayam considers his brother.

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The grand old party has only to look around to see how the great undivided Samajwadi Party dissolves sooner or later into a house divided.

Is there a lesson in this for the Congress and for party workers who have often been calling for Priyanka Vadra's entry into active politics to supplement or complement her brother Rahul Gandhi's leadership?

The grand old party has only to look around to see how the great undivided political family dissolves sooner or later into a house divided, particularly when there are one too many around or when the mentor anoints his/her successor and creates rival power centres in the party government that leads to blood-letting.

Politically-divided family

It happened in Maharashtra after Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray chose his son Uddhav as his successor. His nephew and close associate Raj, feeling cheated of what he thought was his political inheritance, revolted and floated the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in March 2006. The tension between NCP chief Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule and his nephew Ajit Pawar over his legacy is an open secret. In Punjab, the Badal family fissures showed up when Akali Dal chieftain Prakash Singh Badal expelled his nephew Manpreet in 2010.

The Scindia family dispute - between Vijaye Raje Scindia and her son Madhav Rao when the two were alive or between Madhav Rao's son Jyotiraditya Scindia and his aunt and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia - went beyond politics. The cracks in the Abdullah family in J&K became visible after National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah chose his son Farooq over his son-in-law GM Shah as his successor. In retaliation, Shah defected with a dozen MLAs, toppled Farooq's government in 1984 and became chief minister with the Congress' help until his dismissal two years later. The tension between Farooq and his younger brother Dr Mustafa Kamal was no secret either.

Down south, in Andhra Pradesh, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader NT Rama Rao's attempt to foist his second wife Laxmi Parvati on the party saw his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu rebel and walk away with the party. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, DMK chief M Karunanidhi's children have been at loggerheads over his legacy. MG Ramachandran's AIADMK also saw a bitter power struggle between his wife Janaki and his close associate J Jayalalithaa, who succeeded in establishing her hold.

Will the story be repeated in the Congress where the "Priyanka lao" demand has often been raised?

Barring one denial in 2014 about entering active politics, Priyanka has generally chosen to maintain a scrupulous silence as she is doing now after reports that professional strategist Prashant Kishor - who the Congress has hired to improve its prospects in the 2017 UP Assembly elections - wants her to campaign in the state. Though she has attended the party's backroom strategy sessions for UP at its Gurudwara Rakabganj Road office earlier in 2014 as well as one recently, this time reports suggest two things: firstly, that she would not limit her campaign to Amethi and Rae Bareli but criss-cross the state where the Congress' improved performance would boost the worker's morale, energise the organisation and perhaps even help revive the party in some other parts of the country; and secondly, she might enter active politics and perhaps even take on a major organisational responsibility.

Three Gandhis can take a toll on the Congress

But the big question is whether the wobbly organisation can bear the weight of three Gandhis at the top at the same time, specially as it has found it difficult to deal with the problems created by the presence of two.

With age and health no longer on her side, 69-year-old Sonia Gandhi has long wanted to pass on the presidentship of the party to her son Rahul Gandhi, who she nurtured after he became an MP in 2004, general secretary in 2007, vice president in 2013 and chief campaigner for the party in 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which the Congress got a paltry 44 seats, barely ahead of the AIADMK's 37 and Trinamool Congress's 34.

As Sonia increasingly allowed him to run the show, the party was divided between the old guard - which had stood behind her since she announced her political arrival with a rally at Sriperumbudur in 1998 - and the GenNext leaders who Rahul promoted, even installing as state unit chiefs youngsters like Sachin Pilot, Arun Yadav and Ashok Tanwar in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana respectively, much to the consternation of senior leaders.

Will Priyanka's entry make the organisation top-heavy and add to the strain of the party that is still grappling with the generational divide and struggling to rise from the ashes of its electoral defeats in the Lok Sabha and a dozen Assembly elections, including in Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Telengana?

On the face of it, Priyanka's entry and the establishment of a trinity of Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka would seem to strengthen the weakened organisation. But, as the Sonia-Rahul Jodi shows, the converse could also be true.

Priyanka's easy charm and appeal with supporters and her aggression in taking her rivals head-on - as she did Narendra Modi in 2014 - enthused party workers and, if she enters active politics, her increased visibility and Indira Gandhi-like appearance are expected to strike a chord with old time Congress loyalists and supporters. A better communicator than her brother, she is likely to overshadow him and inevitably emerge as a power centre, much like Rahul has done under Sonia. Even if the family remains united, there would, for the first time, be three power centres within the party. With the balance of power shifting in accordance with the time, place and occasion.

Two Gandhis have also been a problem

Until now, the Congress has generally had to deal with only two Nehru-Gandhi members at the top - Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi, Vijayalakshmi Pandit-Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi-Sanjay Gandhi or Sonia-Rahul - and this has often created problems for it.

Recall how in 1960, despite his reported reluctance, Nehru dismissed the democratically-elected communist government in Kerala at the behest of his daughter Indira, who also pushed for the Congress' tie-up with the Muslim League and the Church to set the stage for coalitions in the state. Sanjay's emergence as an extra-constitutional authority during the Indira regime in the 1970s is well-documented.

After Sanjay died in a plane crash in June 1980, Indira brought a reluctant Rajiv into politics instead of Sanjay's widow Maneka fuelling a bitter family feud that led to the latter's departure from the Gandhi household. In 1984, when Indira was assassinated, the four years of the Indira-Rajiv era were too short for the son to grow into a strong and parallel power centre. But when he became prime minister, he built his own team and coterie.

The next phase of dual power centres began when Sonia escorted Rahul into politics in 2004 and the Congress-led UPA came to power at the Centre. In the initial years, Sonia dominated and Rahul kept a low profile. But after the UPA won a second term in 2009, Sonia began to entrust Rahul with greater responsibilities, more so after she fell ill in 2011, and let him lead the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha.

If Priyanka enters politics, there would be three Gandhis running the show at the same time, unlike earlier occasions when the attempt of a third Nehru-Gandhi member to become a key player was resisted as had happened with Nehru's sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit or Sanjay's widow Maneka. Pandit had to play second fiddle and Maneka had to leave the house and the Congress.

Will Priyanka's entry help the party or create fissures? Only time will tell, as the adage goes.

Last updated: October 29, 2016 | 13:54
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