In a few days from now, Rahul Gandhi will formally become the Congress party’s president. There will be no contest, no challenge to ascension. Congress leaders are smart people. They know which side of their bread is buttered. None wants to be a Shehzad Poonawala, not in public at least. Privately they can nurse apprehensions, and impotently so.
Shehzad Poonawala, a Maharashtra-based functionary and designated Congress spokesperson, has begun to pay the price for the most cardinal sin a Congress worker can commit: Question the credentials of a Nehru-Gandhi family member to lead the party. The Congress will do what it has done to such vagrants in the past. Meanwhile, Shehzad’s immediate family has already cast him out. His brother and Congress loyalist, Tehseen Poonawala, has publicly disowned him. He has added for good measure that his wife and mother too will have nothing to do with the rebel.
Here is not a question of loyalty or party discipline. It can be argued that any BJP functionary behaving similarly would suffer the same fate. But the BJP has had its share of vocal dissidents, and senior ones at that. Yashwant Sinha is only one of them. But the party hasn’t sacked him or disowned him. It has not even sought an explanation from him through a show-cause notice. At the most, senior BJP Ministers have strongly refuted Yashwant Sinha’s contentions. Among them has been his son and Union Minister Jayant Sinha. Thus, the comparison does not hold good.
The issue Shehzad has raised is different. It’s one of democracy within the Congress. He has claimed that delegates who finally vote for the Congress chief’s election, are ‘selected’ and not elected through a secret ballot. This, he has pointed out, is a violation of the party’s election process. In sum, everything is ‘fixed’ in order to ensure the smooth elevation of a Nehru-Gandhi dynast.
Much to the Congress’ discomfiture, Shehzad recorded phone conversations he has had with a clutch of senior Congress leaders, who advised him to accept the ‘reality’ or be prepared to be discredited and booted out. Of course, what takes the cake is the remark of senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who provided an analogy of how Mughal rulers were put on the throne through dynastic succession, with nobody questioning the decision.
The issue also is one of competence and accountability. While every party has the right to have a leader of its choice, the chosen one must enjoy at least a modicum of credibility. Rahul Gandhi led the Congress to its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha, in 2014. He then went on to helm the party in a series of State Assembly poll defeat, the Uttar Pradesh debacle being the most stunning instance of his ineptitude.
There is nothing to suggest that the dry run has ended. If the Congress fails in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the setback could have a cascading effect on Assembly polls slated for the next year and the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Can Rahul Gandhi, as party president, avoid taking the blame?
But he needn’t bother. No Nehru-Gandhi scion has ever been held accountable by the Congress for failures. There are other people and various reasons that can be used to deflect the blame from the Family. In the past there was Sitaram Kesri and PV Narasimha Rao, to mention just two. Nobody in the Congress has held Rahul Gandhi accountable for the 2014 disaster or for the routs in State after State since then. Instead, the tiniest victory is attributed to him. When the three-party coalition in Bihar, of which the Congress was the junior-most partner, won the State poll, beaming Congress faces credited Rahul Gandhi for the victory.
So Shehzad Poonawala finds himself isolated. People who appointed him to various positions are now finding it difficult to recall the man. Miraculously, no senior Congress leader’s memory is anymore sharp to recognise the person who had defended the party’s position in debate after television debate over the past many months. Nobody knows what the stunned Shehzad’s next move will be, besides raving and ranting in vain. If he is sounding like a BJP-wallah, that’s sufficient reason for the Congress to crucify him.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope for Rahul Gandhi. Soon-to-be past president, Sonia Gandhi, then a novice to politics, had taken over the Congress leadership 19 years ago, when the party was in doldrums. It was out of power and remained so for the next six years. But she succeeded in re-energising the Congress, building alliances and charting the path to recovery. Her leadership ensured that the Congress regained power not once but twice in succession at the Centre. Things, however, began to fall apart once she increasingly reduced her political commitments owing to ill health.
Unlike Narasimha Rao, who remained party president along with being Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi will not be constrained by internal politics. He will command unquestioned loyalty and have a free hand to chose his team. But this will also reduce the scope of finding scapegoats. He must remember that the burden of failure is heavy and there will always be that last straw which will break the camel’s back. Even a dynast can fall by the wayside.
(The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)