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Will the Nehrus lose their grip over the Congress?

May 15, 2014 16:01 IST

Will the Nehrus lose their grip over the Congress?

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Anita Katyal in New Delhi

Despite best efforts to protect Rahul Gandhi, doubts will persist about his ability to take charge. It has been privately acknowledged for some time now by Congress insiders that Rahul Gandhi just does not have what it takes to lead the party.

'The Nehru-Gandhi family is the only brand we have today. And till we can find an alternative, we will not abandon the family,' a senior Congress leader tells Rediff.com

When a frustrated Congress leader recently complained to a senior leader about lack of growth opportunities in the party, he was gently reminded, "Don't forget, the Congress is a Nehru-Gandhi party."

But for how long, asked the younger leader. "As long as it takes," he was told.

With all exit polls predicting a humiliating defeat for the Congress in the 2014 parliamentary election, will the Nehru family losing its sheen? Can the Congress unshackle itself from the decades-long grip of the Nehru family?

Sycophantic Congressmen have readily accepted the Nehru family's leadership over several decades for two reasons: One, the family's pan-Indian appeal provided the necessary glue to keep the Congress united and two, the family name and charisma delivered votes for the party.

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Image: With Rahul Gandhi failing to make an impact, Sonia Gandhi remains the Congress's most credible and popular leader.
Photographs: Reuters

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Anita Katyal

It now appears certain that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who was projected as the party's face in this election, has failed to deliver.

The Congress is staring at the possibility of falling below the 100-seat mark. This could well be the Congress's worst performance till date. Its lowest tally so far has been 114 in 1999, shortly after Sonia Gandhi took charge as party president.

Given this bleak scenario, it is reasonable to expect that the Congress will witness a major churning in the coming days. Voices of dissension will become louder, a blame game will ensue and doubts will be expressed about Rahul Gandhi's utility to the party.

And yet the Congress's first family is unlikely to face an open revolt. At least not immediately. The party does not have strong leaders with mass support and a pan-Indian appeal who have the capacity to challenge the family.

The Congress leadership has actively discouraged the growth of such leaders with the singular purpose of ensuring that the Gandhi-Nehru clan remains in control.

It is not as if the Congress leadership has not been challenged in the past. Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee broke away from the parent party to set up their own shop. Both leaders remain confined to their home states, Maharashtra and West Bengal, although they see themselves as national players.

At one stage, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh and the late Andhra Pradesh chief minister Dr Y S Rajashekhara Reddy could have harboured national ambitions given their clout in their respective home states. But Digivijaya Singh's stature was diminished after his crushing defeat in the 2003 assembly election and the Congress's inability to regain power in Madhya Pradesh.

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Image: Despite every effort to protect Rahul Gandhi, doubts persist about his ability to take charge.
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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Will the Nehrus lose their grip over the Congress?

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Anita Katyal

"The Nehru-Gandhi family is the only brand we have today. And till we can find an alternative, we will not abandon the family," a senior Congress leader confessed to Rediff.com

If the first responses to the exit polls are any indication, the party's instinct will be to insulate Rahul Gandhi for being blamed for the debacle and stamp out any dissenting voice.

Well before the declaration of the results, Congress leaders started saying that Rahul could not be singled out for the party's poor performance and that defeat is a collective responsibility.

"Rahul Gandhi was not a member of the government. Then there are state and local leaders who also have a role... Defeat is a collective responsibility," says Congress General Secretary Shakeel Ahmed.

Party leaders, who were called in by Congress President Sonia Gandhi two days ago to give their feedback about the elections, lost no time in reiterating their loyalty to the family while underlining the need to stand together in times of adversity.

"Whatever the results might be, we are here," says another Congress general secretary. "We are not going to run away."

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Image: Doubts will be expressed about Rahul Gandhi's utility to the party.
Photographs: Reuters

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Anita Katyal

Pparty loyalists will not hesitate to point out that Rahul Gandhi paid the price for the Manmohan Singh government's failures, the innumerable corruption scandals which surfaced during this regime, its poor governance record and its inability to deal effectively with the economic slowdown.

Despite best efforts to protect Rahul Gandhi, doubts will persist about his ability to take charge, particularly since he had taken full responsibility for the election campaign. It has been privately acknowledged for some time now by Congress insiders that Rahul Gandhi just does not have what it takes to lead the party.

The Congress vice-president's attempts to introduce a corporate style of functioning have not gone down well with the party rank and file. His efforts to usher in a generational change in the party have alienated the old guard which owes its loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. Moreover, Rahul is looked upon as a poor communicator.

As demoralised Congress cadres come to grips with the party's declining popularity, its weakened organisational structure and erosion in its support base, it will not be surprising if Sonia Gandhi comes under increasing pressure to step up her engagement in party affairs.

With Rahul failing to make the desired impact, Sonia Gandhi still remains the party's most credible and popular leader. She succeeded in revamping the party organisation after she took charge in 1999. She galvanised the rank and file, built up alliances with like-minded parties and brought the Congress to power in 2004 and 2009 after a long spell in the Opposition.

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Image: Party loyalists won't hesitate to point out that Rahul Gandhi paid the price for Manmohan Singh government's failures.
Photographs: Reuters

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Anita Katyal

While Congress cadres will look up to Sonia Gandhi to ensure that the party does not disappear into oblivion, there will also be muted demands that her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should enter active politics.

She has, so far, confined her political activities to the management of her mother and brother's Lok Sabha constituencies, Rae Bareli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

Priyanka is seen to be more charismatic than her brother and somebody who can connect easily with the public. Congress cadres believe she could save the party from sinking further.

It would appear that instead of forsaking the Nehru family, the party's rank and file continues to look up to it to deliver it from the mess it finds itself in today.

However, it is highly unlikely that their demands on Sonia or Priyanka will be met. For better or for worse, the Congress rank and file will have to contend with Rahul Gandhi's stewardship of the party.

Congress cadres could run out of patience if Rahul does not reinvent the party and make a serious attempt to address his inadequacies in the near future. In such a situation, the Congress could witness an exodus from its ranks.

Alternatively, the party may be ready for a hostile takeover. Unless, of course, there is no party left to take over.


Image: Priyanka Vadra is seen to be more charismatic than her brother and somebody who can connect easily with the public.
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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