On January 24, 1966, Indira Gandhi swore to govern India by the principles laid down in the Constitution of the country, whose Prime Minister she had come to be. By 1966, an opposition against the Congress had some footing, if not a firm foothold, in India, having started to take shape right after Independence in 1947 against Indira’s father Jawaharlal Nehru. The opposition was as much against Nehru as it was against his idea of Congress post Independence, with differences over the plans and policies the party should adopt.
Before taking on those outside, Indira decided to consolidate power within. She reportedly drafted a list of 70 people who had dedicated families in the Congress. She was aided in the task by the likes of K Kamaraj. Loyalty to the Congress was measured by the depths to which familial roots had percolated. The initial Indira Cabinets followed this model of all-in-the-family.
Indira Gandhi showed a preference for people with family roots in the party. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Congress of today thus has a first family and many second families that consider power literally a matter of birthright.
When Sonia Gandhi took over in 1998, many in Congress sensed party revival was at hand and declared, “Sonia Gandhi kaisi hai? Indira Gandhi jaisi hai.” Under Indira jaisi Sonia Gandhi, the Congress received its worst drubbing in 2014 reducing the party to 44 MPs. This led to a clamour for Rajiv jaisa Rahul to take centrestage. The Congress today is so clueless that it doesn’t know what to raise a clamour for anymore. Except that it mustn’t push family-based politics into oblivion.
On May 25, 2019, the Congress Working Committee met to dissect the loss. With just 51 MPs to give him company in Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi was miffed. On the one receiving end was Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. In a tongue-lashing, Gandhi said Gehlot spent days campaigning extensively for his son Vaibhav Gehlot in Jodhpur and neglected the rest of the state. Many found that rich coming from the man whose own mother is known to have put the love for son over party interest. However, despite all the campaigning, Vaibhav lost the election to BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
Sachin Pilot’s clout
The rift between Pilot and Gehlot is older though. It dates back to Pilot’s appointment as Rajasthan chief in 2014 following the party’s defeat in the 2013 assembly elections. Congress then disengaged the two by bringing Gehlot to Delhi as Congress general secretary.
In 2018, Rajasthan had managed to take over the reins of power from Vasundhara Raje-led BJP. But Sachin Pilot, who was still Rajasthan Congress chief, tried that Gehlot should not contest the assembly elections. The reason was Pilot, being the state president himself, couldn’t as per party tradition. When Pilot couldn’t stop Gehlot from contesting, he had little choice but to contest himself. He dithered till the last minute because he was fearful of a loss. Eventually, he won, but it is said that Rahul Gandhi himself had to direct Gehlot to ensure Pilot shouldn’t lose.
Sachin Pilot has more clout in Delhi media circles than he has in Rajasthan? (Photo: PTI)
In 2014, under Pilot’s presidentship, the Congress lost on all 25 Lok Sabha seats. Pilot lost in Ajmer by a margin of 1,71,983 votes to BJP’s sitting MLA Sanwarlal Jattoo. In 2019, the party repeated its 2014 performance drawing a blank once again despite being in-charge of the state government. All this under Pilot’s watch.
Today, as the party grounded Pilot, sacking him from the post of state unit chief and Deputy Chief Minister, it knew well he had no firm footing on the ground. Remember, despite him being the state party chief, it was Gehlot who brought the coalition together paving the way for government formation.
But why did the party try to reach out to Pilot with "we love you" notes despite his open rebellion?
The answer lies in his surname which he gets from his father Rajesh Pilot, a friend of Rajiv Gandhi. An English-speaking Pilot with impeccable manners has more clout in the Delhi press circles than perhaps back in Rajasthan. His political premium is thus a manufactured one.
The spectre that his political walkout (you can call it his sacking) from the Congress still is, is an ugly one for the party, coming so close on the heels of Jyotiraditya Scindia walking out of the Congress. Scindia’s walkout affected the fall of the Madhya Pradesh government, even though Scindia had himself lost the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He was also seen as a close confidant of Rahul Gandhi, literally rising from behind the Gandhi scion in Parliament to silence others so that Gandhi could speak.
Rajasthan government now faces an imminent threat of debacle. Sachin claims support of over 20 MLAs, which still falls short of the two-thirds number needed to affect a party split. In case Pilot and the 20-plus MLAs are disqualified, Gehlot can sail through a floor test. Even if the government survives in the short term, in the long term, the Congress looks headed for doom.
Despair and dissent
A political analyst who claims to have spoken to Pilot’s close aide says the 42-year-old is not only at odds with Gehlot, who could be wanting Pilot out to get Vaibhav in, but also because he feels the Congress has no future. That sentiment is shared in the party by many.
As institutions age, dissent dies. The BJP, where Uma Bharti once walked out after an open spat with party president LK Advani, now is a ji huzoor party too. Those who dare to say ji nahi huzoor, and there aren’t many, are quickly marginalised.
But dissent resurfaces when institutions weaken. A leader is only as powerful as the mandate he carries or the number of votes he can get. The rest is hoax. A case in point is Kabil Sibal.
Sibal is considered a party loyalist and has spoken out of his worry for the party’s future: "Worried for our party. Will we wake up only after the horses have bolted from our stables?"
Worried for our party Will we wake up only after the horses have bolted from our stables ?— Kapil Sibal (@KapilSibal) July 12, 2020
This is not the first time Sibal has worried for or about the party. In 1999-2000, he was part of the worried lot that also comprised Pilot Senior, Rajesh Pilot, and Jitendra Prasada. But Sonia’s ascendance to power saw dissent silenced.
A weakened Congress is seeing the resurgence of dissent and call for the Congress high command to exhibit some leadership. Some of it has been scathing. Case in point, Sanjay Jha’s article in an English daily saying that Congress’ extraordinary lassitude, and its lackadaisical attitude towards its own political obsolescence despite a series of electoral reverses was baffling.
Jha was removed from the position of party spokesperson. Jha would have foreseen it and yet went ahead with writing the column because clearly the Congress high command has failed to wake up and smell the coffee.
For over two months before Scindia actually went incommunicado for the party, he was in touch with the BJP leadership. This was in full knowledge of the Congress leadership but it did nothing.
Some say when the party is out of power, people walk out. Say the Congress had been in power both at the Centre and in the state. It could have ended internecine battles by accommodating leaders and their ambitions either in the state or the Centre, quite like sending two fighting kids into separate rooms to break the fight. What separates a war from a fight is the scale of what is at stake. The Congress has no legroom to wage wars or quell internal fights. The price Pilot set for his stay in the party was Gehlot's chair. The party had to choose one of the two. For a Congress shying from taking the big decisions, the lack of choices in Rajasthan came as a relief.
The Congress leadership has shown reluctance in nipping party problems in the bud. (Photo: Reuters)
Was the Congress helpless then?
State after state, the Congress has shown reluctance in fighting head on. The Bihar elections are nearing, the BJP is holding virtual rallies and reaching out to people, but the Congress it seems has already given up on the election.
Many leaders are frustrated because they see no future for the party. They also see no future for themselves outside the party. BJP can accommodate some to win states, but BJP rules in many states with comfortable majorities.
Scindia is a good catch for the party because he could help topple a government. Pilot claims he has enough MLAs - 20 to 22 - to affect the fall of the government. This could mean BJP winning a fight it never fought, simply because the high command didn't look interested in saving the Congress family.