Sunday, May 22, 2016

If the Gandhi brand has to regain sheen....Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ May 22, 2016

If the Gandhi brand has to regain sheen, two power centres must make way for one

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi

Dear Soniaji and Rahulji,

I can appreciate the pain and disappointment you are experiencing after the Congress party’s recent debacle in the state polls. In market-driven politics, the shelf-life of a leader as a brand is tenuously linked with the ability to attract eyeballs. Under your leadership, the Congress has lost two more states—Kerala and Assam. Its performance in Tamil Nadu is lamentable. Apart from Karnataka, it rules just six picayune states as against the BJP’s nine important ones. The Congress has barely managed to retain its old numbers in the West Bengal Assembly, doomed by an alliance with its ideological opponent, the CPI(M). The Left’s loss in West Bengal, however, was handsomely compensated by its gigantic gains in Kerala. Both were at the cost of the Congress. 

Most of your loyal leaders and workers, for whom the Congress is a meal ticket, doubt its ability to provide a secure political future. Some among them are alarmed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission to achieve a Congress-mukt Bharat may become a reality sooner than later. The party has maintained its mirage of unity, without a whisper of disloyalty from important leaders or ordinary workers, who are yet to air their doubts about your ability to win elections. I’m sure millions of unsolicited advisories have landed on your desks. I’m equally sure that neither of you have given them a dekko, because only you can comprehend the reason your party was decimated. While you, Rahul, made a valiant attempt to turn voters around by touring poll-bound states extensively, your mother Sonia was conspicuous by her absence in many crucial areas. Soniaji, you must realise that the invisibility of the Gandhis during a campaign renders the rank and file sightless. Millions of Congress workers were missing you both, since there was no one else to energise voters who are disenchanted with the current cult and culture of the party. 

I’ve been covering elections for over three decades. For the first time, I discovered that Congress candidates were not invoking Brand Gandhi to tilt the electoral battle in their favour. In the past, they chanted slogans eulogising Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Today it is you they would hail. In the last polls,  however, the usually unflinching blind faith in the Gandhis was missing. Candidates looked for leaders and slogans according to their discretion. I could spot the dilemma churning their minds. The cadre and leaders were split through the middle. They were unsure about who among either of you should be chosen as the party’s current and future face to lead it and rule the country. 

Soniaji, you have been at the helm of the Congress for 18 years. It’s a record. Rahul, you have been in active politics for over a decade and have held important party positions for over five years. But total confusion prevails in the workers’ mind about the role you play in the party. There is no division of power or responsibilities. The Congress is visibly divided between the Sonia Congress and Rahul Congress.  For the past few years, party leaders all over India have not been able to discern which one of you calls the shots. Even chief ministerial candidates, senior leaders, chief ministers and important office-bearers of the party are frustrated over the absence of a clear policy-making structure in the party. Most committed workers believe that more than the party’s infirm image, it is the existence of two power centres that is causing the Congress, which had ruled India for five decades, to lose its way. 

Whenever a new satrap took over the Congress, they gave it a novel look and vision. Indiraji created a new Congress by purging the Syndicate. Sanjay introduced aggression with a Right-of-Centre ideological shift. Rajiv brought in young blood and modern minds. P V Narasimha Rao tried to dismantle what he thought was the Rajiv Congress, but lost the plot. Sitaram Kesri was the only aberration in Congress history. In you, Soniaji, the Congress found a leader rooted in the Gandhi Parivar culture. You, however, refrained from any significant surgery though the body was ailing. You carried the old guard along and ensured that the party came to power in 2004 and 2009 by forging alliances even with those who had made personal attacks on you. You re-invented the Congress as India’s ruling party. But during the party’s decade in power, its credibility decayed as numerous scams erupted at regular intervals. The Opposition held you responsible. Some leaders charged you both of encouraging corruption or being personally involved in some of the scandals. The jury is still out since no evidence has surfaced against any either of you yet.

Predictably, perception is precious in political power play. It is not for the first time that your party has suffered electoral reverses. From 1977 onwards, its fortunes have passed through hills and valleys. The Congress had always bounced back because a leader with national appeal held the rudder. The party is still a national brand. Even during the 2016 elections, its vote share rose compared to its performance in the 2014 general elections. But its USP, the Gandhis, got a battering. The password to victory used to be ‘Gandhi’. Now it is seen as a firewall. 

When Modi talks about a Congress-free India, he actually means India sans Gandhis in politics. He and his party have projected you as the symbols of all that was wrong in the UPA government. Today, both of you have to decide not just your own political futures, but also that of your party. India needs a strong and constructive Opposition led by credible leaders. One of you has to opt for VRS, so that there is only one Gandhi in charge. In new age politics, individuals personify ideology. The idea of the Congress is immortal. But if the Sangh Parivar acquires the domains of the pre-Independence Congress, the fault lies with the Gandhi Parivar. It is between you two to decide which Gandhi has the chutzpah to revive the sinking and shrinking Congress.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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