Kapil Sibal. (PTI)
The regularity of the departure announcements from the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi and her proxy, Rahul Gandhi-Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, confirms and signals several things. These departures are no-confidence verdicts in the Gandhi gang as leaders of the party. When old timers like Kapil Sibal and Sunil Jakhar most recently and others since 2019 leave, it signals that change in strategy and respect for dissent is no longer possible in the party.
Neither Kapil Sibal nor Sunil Jakhar and in fact many others who quit in the last three years are truly mass-based vote catchers who have home constituencies where they are permanent fixtures as representatives of the majority of voters. They are, however, influential opinion makers, or as Kapil Sibal described his value — independent voices — who, can and do contribute to the political discourse that is fundamental to any democracy, where dissent, differences and disputes are intrinsic to the role of the Opposition as much as within ruling parties. Their role and heft cannot be discounted because they contribute to the idea of heterogeneity in a robust democracy.
Where defectors go after they quit is a heavily loaded signal. When Congress defectors go to the BJP, it implies that they are choosing a combined package of joining the anticipated winning side in the next elections and giving themselves an assured seat in either the state Assembly or the Lok Sabha or even the Rajya Sabha. The other bit is committing themselves as ambassadors of the BJP and Narendra Modi’s ideological agenda of a Congress Mukt Bharat.
The Congress Mukt Bharat is not just the simple goal of ending "parivarvaad" in Indian politics and creating a more democratic politics that gives opportunities to merit even for aspirants from underprivileged legions. It is not an anti-elite fight against the Gandhis.
It is, by definition, destruction of the values that the Congress name invokes; its ideology as politically and socially liberal, secular, tolerant, inclusive, heterogeneous and therefore respectful of diversity. India, free of the Congress, would have a fixed destination, that would also be a dead-end of a hard Right communally divisive, majoritarian identity politics couched in the hyper-nationalist narrative of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda run for an oligarchy that underwrites the gigantic expense of maintaining the world’s largest party in the style to which it is now accustomed. A Congress Mukt Bharat would mean the power to gag criticism of policies that promote zooming inequality and growing poverty.
There is no argument that Kapil Sibal, with the support of the Samajwadi Party, will become a Rajya Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh. His choice, however, means something different. It is not the enlightened self-interest that drove hordes of Congress leaders to take up accommodation within the BJP. For die-hard liberals who represent the middle ground in Indian politics, accommodation in the Samajwadi Party implies a vote of confidence in the capacity of anti-BJP regional parties to battle Hindutva politics and its capacity to divert voters from prioritising the personal in terms of economic distress experienced at the individual level.
When a senior leader who was an active member of the G-23 that challenged the Gandhis on leadership, strategy and direction of the Congress quits to take up with a regional party, it is a conscious and principled choice. After the infamous "Chintan Shivir" at Udaipur that simply reiterated faith in the Gandhis as leaders of the Congress that effectively rejected the remedies demanded by the G -23, Kapil Sibal’s exit is a blunt denunciation of the cosmetic changes unrolled by Sonia Gandhi to protect her incompetent progeny and a tocsin. How the Congress responds is to be seen.
By joining forces with the Samajwadi Party, Kapil Sibal has, perhaps consciously or may be inadvertently, sent out a message to the Congress faithful who are disenchanted with Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. Break free of the Sonia Gandhi Congress and save the party and their personal investment in the principles that the Congress tradition represents.
The idea of the Congress does not come in one shape or size; Sonia Gandhi and her court are but one of the entities within the Congress. In the states, the Congress has hard-working leaders and cadres, who choose to cluster under the Congress banner, because it signifies values they wish to uphold or represent. By going independent, Kapil Sibal has opened up the possibility of these die-hard Congress believers to consider doing the same.
That part of the Congress which is in bondage to Sonia Gandhi and her brood has demonstrated its inability, and unwillingness, to fight the BJP. There is another part of the Congress, in the states, where leaders and cadres are fighting for the party against the BJP on the one hand and rival regional parties on the other. Congress leaders in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat are often at loggerheads with the central Congress leadership and engaged in local faction fights. There is life and ambition in the states where the Congress is in power or has been in power or has been forced out of power because of the central leadership’s mismanagement. Effectively, the Congress units in many of these states are franchisees. They share the name.
Breaking free of central or high command control may be a survival strategy for the more vigorous parts of the Congress. Setting up shop as autonomous units is always a possibility in the Congress.
There was a time when the state leaders of the Congress were equals of the high command and its coteries. In 1963, the redoubtable K. Kamaraj launched his "Kamaraj Plan" and six chief ministers resigned to strengthen the Congress. He did this without taking Jawaharlal Nehru’s approval. In fact, Nehru was rattled enough to hoist Kamaraj away from Tamil Nadu and install him in New Delhi.
Later, Indira Gandhi systematically destroyed the state satraps and established the high command that treated state leaders like puppets.
There are competent state leaders in the Congress. They deliver the 52 Lok Sabha seats to the party even when Rahul Gandhi fails to win from his home constituency Amethi. These leaders win states for the Congress. The gangrenous politics of the Congress high command needs to be amputated from state party units that are still healthy. By cutting loose, Kapil Sibal has cut his losses. The rest of the party may want to think if it should do so and save the Congress as an ideology with a heritage and a lineage that is entirely independent of the petty Gandhi gang now in control.