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What happens when the Congress 'High Command' is no longer in command?

December 04, 2013 12:25 IST

'One senior Congress leader told me: "As long as Rahul is seen arriving there is no harm done, but when he opens his mouth, oh God...",' reveals T V R Shenoy.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi with her son, party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.The ballots are in. Not a single result is out. And the Congress is worried.

To understand the Congress's concern you had to be at a rally held in the Mayur Vihar area of Delhi on Sunday, the first of December. Organised by the Congress candidate Amrish Singh Gautam, the chief orator was Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of Kerala. And he drew a larger, more attentive audience than Rahul Gandhi could manage at either of his two rallies in Delhi.

The chief minister of Kerala campaigning in Delhi? When I came to Delhi, in 1965, that would have been unthinkable. The Delhi of those days was dominated by Punjabis (many from the lost West Punjab that had become Pakistan). South Indians of all shades were lumped together under the all-encompassing term 'Madraasi'.

Today, those same 'Madraasis' add up to almost two million -- in a city of somewhere around 13 million -- and Malayalis may account for up to one million of those.

In six of Delhi's 70 Vidhan Sabha seats -- Dilshad Garden, R K Puram, Shahdara, Kondli, Seemapuri, Vikaspuri -- they will decide the election.

Check out the Rediff Delhi Election Sentimeter

Mayur Vihar is home to both a Guruvayurappan and a Dharmasastha temple. And Mayur Vihar Phase-3 specifically -- part of the Kondli constituency, and where Oommen Chandy campaigned -- also boasts of a Malankara Orthodox Syrian church, a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church, a Marthoma church, a Latin Catholic church, and a Malankara Catholic church.

Very simply, no political party in Delhi can ignore the Malayali vote.

But you know what would have been even more unthinkable back in 1965? Not just that there would be so many Malayalis in Delhi, but that a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty would draw smaller crowds in Delhi than any politician from Kerala.

And that is what worries the Congress.

I should qualify that last sentence. It isn't the party as a whole that is concerned, but the more thoughtful members of the organisation. And truth be told they are not worried about the results of the ongoing Vidhan Sabha polls, nor about the Lok Sabha elections to come; they are looking ahead to a future where 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.'

The glue that has held the party together -- at least since Indira Gandhi split the party in 1969 -- has been the Nehru-Gandhi family (bar, perhaps, the five years of P V Narasimha Rao's reign).

The party cadre -- the bulwark of the Congress in the pre-1947 era -- has long since been decimated, substituted by the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhis. So, what happens if that electoral trump card fails to work?

At a rally on November 17 where Rahul Gandhi was supposed to be the main attraction, Sheila Dikshit, the Congress chief minister of Delhi, was appealing to the audience not to leave. (Rahul Gandhi was late, but by the same token I can remember huge numbers waiting until all hours of the night to listen to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in the chill of a North Indian winter.)

Despite the symbolic importance of retaining Delhi the Congress 'High Command' -- Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, to an extent Dr Manmohan Singh -- seems to have written off its chances long before Election Day.

Sonia Gandhi found time for a single rally, and the meeting scheduled to be addressed by the prime minister was abruptly called off on the excuse that the Emperor of Japan was in Delhi.

These ceremonial visits are written into the calendar several months in advance; the real reason seems to be that the only Congress leader even more uninspiring than Rahul Gandhi is Dr Manmohan Singh.

Sheila Dikshit is a formidable politician, all the more so for being under-rated. She led the Congress to victory in 1998, a feat that is all the more impressive for coming between the Lok Sabha polls of 1998 (when the BJP swept six of Delhi's seven seat) and the general election of 1999 (when the BJP made a clean sweep).

She then repeated the feat in 2003, and once again in 2008 (days after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai).

She has also been a good guardian for Delhi. I have immense respect for E Sreedharan; when the 'Metro Man' was asked which politician had stood up for Delhi Metro, his immediate response was, 'The real big support came to us from Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit', which is very high praise. And I still remember the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games; Suresh Kalmadi was drowned out by booing but the Delhi crowd applauded its chief minister.

For the first time Sheila Dikshit is running without visible support from the 'High Command'. Although she did ask her fellow chief ministers -- from Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Kerala -- to campaign in select areas, her posters don't really show her alongside the trinity of Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi-Manmohan Singh.

Why should they? They are perceived as corrupt, inefficient, or both. So far from bringing electoral advantages the presence of the 'High Command' is now a burden for a Congress candidate.

That isn't just because Sonia Gandhi is ailing or because Dr Manmohan Singh has proven to be such a wretched economist and administrator. It is mostly because Rahul Gandhi, the great hope of the Congress, cuts a sorry figure on the campaign trail.

Even Congressmen were left scratching their heads in bewilderment when the Shahzada alluded to 'the escape velocity of Jupiter'. Germans are renowned for their devotion to science and mathematics, and Angela Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry, but the Chancellor of Germany would never use such an incomprehensible analogy in election season.

One senior Congress leader -- himself a physics major in college -- put it to me like this: "One thing I know for sure is that the speed of light is far greater than the speed of sound. As long as Rahul is seen arriving there is no harm done, but when he opens his mouth, oh God..."

It is, in my opinion, too late for Sheila Dikshit to escape the taint of association with the 'High Command'. But what of others in the Congress?

The Congress lacks the bedrock of a cadre; the charisma of the High Command has faded; what direction must the party to retain its status as the formation at the heart of Indian politics?

Wiser, more thoughtful heads, in the Congress would not be worried if Rahul Gandhi showed the slightest promise. The party can survive losses in the Vidhan Sabha polls; it can even survive losses in successive Lok Sabha elections (as it did in 1996, 1998, and 1999); can the Congress survive the follies of its own fading 'High Command'?

What happens when the 'High Command' is no longer in command?

T V R Shenoy