Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Will Congress heed what Ghulam Nabi had to say?

Mr Azad’s criticism of Rahul is what the Congress badly needs

The interesting question is not whether Ghulam Nabi Azad will form a new party, or whether he will join hands with the BJP or not. Mr Azad’s political future is not of much interest beyond the small circle of his friends and followers. It is his parting shot, the resignation letter he had addressed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, that holds real interest. It was a no-holds-barred attack on Rahul Gandhi and his political style. The most cutting remark, in some ways the unkindest cut, was that Sonia Gandhi was now a mere figurehead, and those running the party were Rahul’s people, and they include his security guards. Either Mr Azad means that members of the Rahul clique are as dumb and as subservient as the security guards, or he is hitting Rahul below the belt saying that he takes advice from his security guards. Those are indeed nasty things to say for a man leaving the party where he spent his entire political life.

Mr Azad’s criticism of Rahul, though born out of a sense of injured pride, made some legitimate points. He rightly noted Rahul’s rash act in tearing up a copy of the ordinance approved by the Cabinet on disqualification of corrupt MPs, humiliating Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then in the middle of a major state visit to the United States. Mr Azad is also right in saying it was wrong of Rahul to have resigned as Congress president after the 2019 defeat, and his outburst against senior party leaders.

The thrust of Mr Azad’s anti-Rahul tirade was about tactics, implying that Rahul should have consulted senior leaders like him and others in the G-23 to evolve a nuanced response to the Narendra Modi juggernaut. But the realpolitik that Mr Azad and his ilk have practised in the party for over 40 years are the tactics that have defamed the Congress. Those tactics -- backroom deals -- were seen as cynical politics and people were disgusted with the Congress for this very reason. Mr Azad is not saying that the Congress moved away from its ideological commitment to secularism, and that’s the reason for the Congress’ decline. He seems to believe that the Congress’ defeat in multiple elections is due to wrong tactics and nothing more. And he may well be right! The Congress has never been an ideologically-oriented party. Its successes before and after Independence was because of its pragmatic approach.

But pragmatism has to be based on reasonable and credible arguments. While Rahul Gandhi is trying to find arguments that would convince the people about the Congress, Mr Azad and his G-23 friends didn’t have any other issues besides electing the president of party, and whatever their reservations, they were only too willing to work with Rahul Gandhi as president. All they wanted was a place in the sun. Rahul refused to oblige. However, Rahul also failed to come up with some good middle-rung leaders in the party.

Rahul’s ideological thrust of secularism versus majoritarianism is indeed muddled liberalism, and must be shaped into a strong moral argument. There is no one in the Congress who has the intellectual strength to do it. So, he and the party are falling flat on their face. Mr Azad has not much of a remedy to offer the party. His emphasis on tactics is crucial, but that alone will not carry the Congress back to power. Leaders like Mr Azad have overplayed the tactical hand and defamed the party in the eyes of the people. But the party always needs its handful of tacticians. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi should have used them effectively as party managers because Team Rahul appears to be inept at it.
Mr Azad and his friends haven’t challenged the leadership rights of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. All they wanted is a commensurate role in party forums. Rahul can’t please the old guard as well as the new. He is caught in the crossfire between the two.

The G-23 leaders with governmental and parliamentary experience could have been a bulwark against the BJP. Rahul, in his impetuosity, seems to think the battle with the BJP is ideological, and there shouldn’t be any compromise over it. This fight can be carried with full conviction only by Rahul, however erratic his strategy. No one in the Congress, including the G-23 leaders, appears to have the conviction to fight the poisonous Hindutva ideology. For Mr Azad and his friends, secularism seems to be a tactical weapon, not a matter of conviction. This is at the heart of the Congress’ internal agony.

Sharad Pawar had walked out of the Congress on the leadership issue. Sadly, he couldn’t stay in the party and challenge Sonia Gandhi. Nearly 25 years later, Ghulam Nabi Azad felt unable to challenge Rahul Gandhi’s leadership by staying in the party. This leadership impasse didn’t hurt Sharad Pawar or Sonia Gandhi, nor will it hurt Mr Azad or Rahul Gandhi. But the Congress is paying a heavy price. The party can’t remain in the hands of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. Its atrophy hurts the country’s democratic politics. They have to be challenged inside the party and defeated. But so far, the internal challenge to the Nehru-Gandhi clan has come to nought. The party’s revival depends upon the defeat of the entrenched Nehru-Gandhi family. There will be a heavy price to be paid for this. If someone inside the Congress succeeds against the family, there will be precipitous fall in the Congress’ fortunes before it recovers. If the Nehru-Gandhi family remains, there wouldn’t be much to be done with the dilapidated structure. The Congress needs new leadership, new arguments and new strategies. This remains a wish list for now.

The party’s internal dynamics is reduced to a culture of sycophancy. This doesn’t help Rahul and it harms the Congress. There’s no easy way out of this dead end. Mr Azad’s letter is an expression of this frustration. He pointed out the heart of the problem. Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka can stay in the party without being office-holders. That way they can serve the party and the country better. They can also ask old middle-rung leaders to hold the ship on an even keel. Right now, the fight between Mr Azad and friends on one side, and Rahul with his none-too-bright band on the other, is inflicting wounds on the Congress. That isn’t a good thing. Mr Azad’s criticism of Rahul is what the Congress badly needs. But it also needs a Rahul who will allow this kind of criticism free play without his henchmen shouting “rebellion” and “blasphemy”.

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