‘Brand Gandhi’ losing sheen?

Kalyani Shankar
The brand Gandhi seems to be at a historic low at present. The grand old Congress Party has proved that it can survive without the dynasty as the recent Assembly polls to Haryana and Maharashtra showed. In both the states, the Gandhis did not campaign much, but the party had done much better than expected. Gone are the days when the party depended on the leader at the top to get the candidates elected as in the days of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Today, it is the personal drive and popularity of the individual candidates, caste factor, local issues and the clout of the local satraps that get them elected.
So what is the role of the First Family now, which had taken a step back during the recent Assembly polls in campaigning? What is the role of the former Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the party? Though many suggest that the party should dump the Gandhis now, it is clear that the Congress will continue to hang on to them because it can agree on no one else to head the party. Moreover, there is no charismatic leader in the horizon to lead the party. Therefore, as long as Sonia Gandhi continues to be active, she might head the party.
In fact, after her stewardship, the party has done well in both the states, even with her limited time available to set things right. Her right decisions in removing the Pradesh Congress chiefs in both the states and putting the right people as well as depending on the old guard has helped the party. Sonia could not campaign in the recent polls and her only rally in Haryana was cancelled due to her health and Rahul Gandhi had to step in at the last moment. In fact, Congress party did not field any other star campaigners except former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Still, Gandhi loyalists do not want to put the blame at her door.
Priyanka Gandhi, who sailed into politics early this year, has confined herself to Uttar Pradesh as in charge of the state. She did not campaign in the recent Assembly polls. Except some tweets criticizing the Modi and Yogi Adityanath government, she is not much visible. It is not clear how much she has managed to set right the UP state unit.
As for Rahul Gandhi, he is still sulking and has not forgiven the old guard for not standing with him during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He had expressed his anguish in his resignation letter, which was made public. Though he did not want anyone from the family to head the party, the old guard prevailed and Sonia Gandhi came back as interim president. He continues to lead delegations and make statements, tweet and go round the country, making speeches and he has found a place in the party but without any official responsibility.
The party is reconciled to Rahul playing truant and taking breaks for a week or ten days every now and then, which the party spokesman Surjewalla claimed, his meditational breaks abroad. Even now he is away when the Congress has planned a countrywide agitation from November 5 to 15 to focus on the economic slowdown, unemployment and farm crisis. So the party is handicapped with a not so healthy president, an absentee Rahul Gandhi and a not-so-effective Priyanka Gandhi. “Don’t worry about Rahul Gandhi, he will come back with more strength,” A.K. Antony, a Gandhi family loyalist, claims pointing out Congress is rising like a phoenix in the sky.
Technically, no one should question Rahul, as he is not holding any office. However, most decisions have his stamp. The Congress has survived as has been shown earlier in Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and now in Maharashtra and Haryana where the strong state leaders had carried the day. The problem was that the Gandhis did not develop strong state leaders. Those Rahul chose to lead the states proved to be mostly ineffective like Ashok Tanwar in Haryana and Sanjay Nirupam in Maharashtra.
The Congress never had to go through this phase of leadership crisis with no vote catcher at the top. One might argue that despite all drawbacks, the party did get about 12 crore votes in 2019 polls. It only shows that the party would have fared better had it projected a credible prime ministerial face. If the trend in Maharashtra and Haryana continue, the party is likely to revive more from the strength of the local units than from the Central leadership, which in a way is how the democracy should work.
Later this year there are elections in Jharkhand, and the next year Delhi will go to polls – Congress has high stakes in them. One thing is clear. The Gandhis will continue to have a hold on the party. Perhaps, having learnt a lesson or two from the recent polls, the family might change their style of functioning and try to adapt to the new situation. (IPA)