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Raisina Explainer: Is Rahul Gandhi’s coterie easy target?

by | Sep 1, 2022 | India

Without political and electoral luxuries that early Congress chiefs enjoyed, the Rahul coteries is finding it hard to assert itself, even as earlier beneficiaries of the culture of coteries and cabals abandon ship.

Coterie, cabal, kitchen cabinet or caucus, call it what you will, but it’s no secret that successive Congress presidents, at least since the 1978-1983 tenure of Indira Gandhi, have cultivated, relied upon, and eventually become a hostage to a select group of advisers. Sometimes, faces in the coterie have changed with the incumbent Congress chief making way for a successor, at others, there has been an element of continuity.

If Indira had endowed the likes of RK Dhawan, Yashpal Kapoor, ML Fotedar and Dhirendra Brahmachari with the enormous power of bringing the tallest of her party colleagues to their knees, Rajiv had, at least for the first few years of his Congress presidency and premiership, done much the same with pal Arun Singh, cousin Arun Nehru and Fotedar.

Over the past two decades, Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving and presently interim Congress president, adopted a somewhat turnstile mechanism for her inner circle – one that could ruthlessly chuck out an existing member only to bring in a new face when expedient while allowing some, like Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni, to stay put in perpetuity.

Often, these coteries themselves have had a sort of inner and outer ring; members who Congress chiefs would rely upon to run the affairs of the party (or even matters of government when the Congress president also doubled as the country’s Prime Minister) and others, the all powerful, who could practically meddle in everything – party, government or even choice of friends and foes.

Over time, the patronage allowed most members of such coteries to become not just brazen influence-peddlers, but also deeply vindictive gate-keepers who controlled all access to the Congress president. Expectedly then, these members of the so-called coterie of Congress presidents, came to be feared, courted and despised in equal measure by party members eager to grow in the organisation. And, whenever the party chief or the party’s chips were down, those jumping ship have blamed the coterie for the downward spiral.

Last week, it was Ghulam Nabi Azad’s turn to do the same as he severed his five-decade-long association with the Congress; a period that had seen him rise meteorically in political stature not because of his electoral base or indispensability to the party but for his ability to seamlessly move from the caucus of one Congress chief to that of another.

In the five decades since he was spotted by Indira’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, and promoted through the ranks of the Indian Youth Congress to become its J&K and then national president, Azad had the rare distinction of serving as a trusted aide not just to Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi but also to non-Gandhi Congress presidents PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri.

And, Azad had reaped a rich harvest for these associations. He was repeatedly rewarded with Rajya Sabha berths – five terms, amounting to no less than 30 years – when the Congress’s electoral dominance dwindled and took away his Lok Sabha seat of Washim in Maharashtra (he had won two Lok Sabha terms from here in the pro-Congress wave of 1980 and 1984). He remained a Congress general secretary with a seat at the high table of the Congress Working Committee for nearly four decades, served in the cabinet of every Congress-led government since 1982 and became chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir despite never having won a direct election in the erstwhile state.

If Azad fell out of favour when Rahul took the party’s driving wheel – or in the period after mid-2019, when the Wayanad MP relinquished it only to steer Congress from the back seat – it was not for lack of trying. But then, as the wise Lord Tennyson did not say: the old coterie changeth, yielding place to new. For the first time in 50 years of his political life, Azad had no place in either the inner or outer coterie of the man running the Congress theatre.

By Azad’s own admission in his five-page resignation letter and his subsequent interviews to sundry media outlets – perhaps a Freudian Slip – the cause of his palpable melancholia is that under the Rahul-run Congress, “senior and experienced leaders were sidelined and new coterie of inexperienced sycophants started running the affairs of the party”. Evidently, Azad had no problem as long as the party was run by a coterie of experienced sycophants, for he had always managed to find a place in it.

However, while Azad may have benefitted greatly from the same coterie culture he is now spiteful of, his accusations at Rahul’s caucus ring true. Sure, Azad has joined a litany of leaders who quit the Congress over the past few years making similar claims about Rahul and his group of inexperienced, apolitical and inefficient yet arrogant whipper-snappers. But, even those in the party who have managed to develop a decent working relationship with Rahul over the years and were given key responsibilities by him admit, obviously off-the-record, that the de facto Congress chief’s coterie was running the party to the ground.

After Azad’s blitz, Congress media wing chief Pawan Khera had eluded that the presently appalling state of the party was because of the coteries that ran the affairs of the Congress before Rahul’s ascendency. Though Khera was referring to Azad’s innings as a leading member of the cabal that held key offices in the party during the tenures of Sonia, Kesri, Rao and Rajiv, it was a charge equally true for leaders such as Ambika Soni, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, Rajeev Shukla and sundry others, who have long enjoyed the leadership’s patronage without commensurate returns to the party.

True, many members of the earlier coteries were unelectable (Soni, Sharma, Shukla being prime exemplars) while many others enjoyed key roles highly disproportionate to their political dexterity. Yet, what did make them look a shade better than Rahul’s brigade was that by their sheer longevity in the party they had gained the experience of dealing with leaders within and outside the Congress adroitly while also helping the party, in varying degrees, in running its state units as in-charge general secretaries. This can’t be said about most members of Rahul’s caucus.

While KB Byju and Alankar Sawai are best known within Congress circles for ensuring that even electorally or politically important party leaders do not get an audience with Rahul before frustratingly long waiting periods, others such as Jitendra Singh, Randeep Surjewala, KC Venugopal, Mohan Prakash, Avinash Pande, et al., who have held important positions within the organisation have nothing but failure to show for every task given to them. And yet, with every failure, Rahul has rewarded them with roles more important than those they previously held.

But this is only one of the problems with Rahul’s coterie, and it isn’t unique because earlier Congress presidents too were criticised from time to time for similarly poor choice of the cabals they worked through. So, what then is so different about Rahul’s coterie than the kitchen cabinet of previous Congress show runners that has not just disgruntled party leaders but even fairly satisfied ones up in arms?

One plausible hypothesis could be that the Congress as well as the country’s political landscape during the Rahul Gandhi years is vastly different from the era when the Grand Old Party’s affairs could be overrun by the whims of a private secretary to Indira Gandhi (Dhawan) or her supposed yoga instructor (Brahmachari) or Rajiv’s school pal (Arun Singh).

It is fairly evident that the Congress today is a pitiful caricature of its former self. Its electoral footprint across the country has greatly diminished from the time of Indira, Rajiv or even Rao, Kesri and Sonia; though each of them had a role to play in this steady erosion. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a breakaway faction of the Congress invariably left the ‘original’ edifice, and the hold of the Gandhis on it, stronger. Recent decades have proved that the departure of satraps who have gone on to form their own regional outfits – Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee or even YS Jagan Mohan Reddy – has damaged, if not crippled, the Congress.

The dominance of the Congress and the resonance that the Gandhi surname had with the electorate have been chipped away steadily and, lately, very swiftly. Simultaneously, the passage of 75 years since the Congress’s stellar role in gaining India its independence has also diminished the sense of history among the electorate. Millennials or even a generation before them aren’t beholden to the Congress for its role in the freedom struggle. Indeed, a chunk of them have unquestioningly consumed a counter, albeit often false, narrative of that period owing to an increasingly saffronised education system. The Gandhi surname, which was, arguably, the Congress’s greatest asset until even a decade ago, is now largely portrayed as a liability.

In short, Rahul’s predecessors had a multitude of political and electoral luxuries – a larger base in the electorate, a legacy that clicked with the voters, a political and ideological vision that hadn’t run its course, rivals who were still struggling to find their electoral ground and narrative and a surname that wasn’t yet a liability. As such, the coterie didn’t matter as long as the party was electorally buoyant and its leader acceptable to both the public and the party. Rahul, unfortunately, can boast of neither and so it is not just easy to target his coterie but also him.

 What hasn’t made it easier for Rahul is his own style of functioning, his penchant for rewarding failure with upward mobility and his abject refusal to acknowledge that at least some, if not all, members of his coterie are severely lacking in electoral heft, political stature and even the basic understanding of both Indian and Congress politics?

 

This is not to imply that members of the earlier coteries were founts of such virtues, but then the leaders who sheltered and emboldened them had the chops to carry the party electorally. More importantly, Rahul’s predecessors knew (sometimes belatedly, as was the case with Rajiv who suffered the consequences of relying too heavily on the two Aruns) when a member of their kitchen cabinet had lost her/his utility, become a liability or simply needed to be taught a lesson.

In contrast, Rahul has become a hostage to his own cabal and that too at a time when his own ratings, as also those of the Congress, are evidently at rock bottom. If KB Byju, Alankar Sawai, KC Venugopal, Sachin Rao, Praveen Chakravarty, K. Raju, Randeep Surjewala, Jitendra Singh and sundry others who are either part of Rahul’s personal staff or hold official positions in the Congress are abhorred by many Congress members it is not only because of their inefficiencies, arrogance and lack of any personal standing but because Rahul, as a leader, has repeatedly failed to deliver to the Congress electoral victories, or their imminent possibility, that earlier members of his family could bring in.

The criticism of Rahul and his coterie of inexperienced sycophants is unlikely to end until such a time that the withering Congress finds itself an elixir for electoral revival. Unfortunately for Rahul, that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Our Correspondent
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