While the nation awaits the results of the elections to the country’s 16th Lok Sabha and is looking at the broader picture of which party will win how many seats, the underlying question is: What happens if Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president lose from Rae Bareili and Amethi, their respective constituencies? Or if any one of the mother-son duo loses?
With various exit polls predicting the exit of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance’s (BJP-NDA) return to power after 2004, the fate of the Congress top leadership may be in jeopardy. There are whispers of dissent within the party and louder ones outside – especially from the BJP – that the Congress vice-president is not fit to lead the 129-year-old party that has ruled the country longer than any other.
While in 2009, the UPA had swept the polls grabbing 206 Lok Sabha seats in the 543-member house, exit polls this time give the UPA a measly 97-137 seats, with the BJP-led NDA winning as many as 340 seats in a clear majority.
Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh spoke about “two power centres within the Congress”, referring to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. While the Congress leadership was quick to claim that “two power centres work well in the party”, the dissent was clear. Digvijay Singh had added that Rahul Gandhi should not be allowed to nominate a prime minister if the Congress gets a majority in the Lok Sabha elections.
Sonia Gandhi is pitted primarily against BJP’s Ajay Agrawal in her constituency, which voted on April 30. In Amethi, which went to polls on May 7, Rahul Gandhi battled it out with Aam Aadmi Party’s Kumar Vishwas and BJP’s actor-turned-politician Smriti Irani.
Historian Ramachandra Guha said Rahul Gandhi was “confused, lazy and mediocre” and that it would be “dangerous to make him the prime minister”. “I still don’t think he is capable of running this country. I don’t think he is particularly a hard working or focused politician,” Guha had said.
Guha was perhaps echoing the thoughts of many, who think the Congress vice-president failed to live up to the party’s expectation of reviving the Congress’ fortunes in its former bastion, Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi is also seen as not making many speeches in Parliament, not talking about or taking any hard policy decisions, being arrogant and self-centred and not being able to deliver when push came to shove.
On being asked about misgivings within the Congress about Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, an All India Congress Committee (AICC) member said on the condition of anonymity: “All leaders are happy with Sonia because she brought the Congress to power in 2004, but almost all leaders, even senior leaders, are angry with Rahul for non-performance and lack of leadership qualities. Rahul could not make any headway in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress has been out of power for 35 years. They think anyone else could have done better.”
“Rahul cannot achieve anything on his own without Priyanka (Gandhi-Vadra, Rahul’s sister),” he added. Will the Gandhis lose command over the Congress after the party’s drubbing in this elections? “The Gandhi family has a very long legacy of dynastic politics. They will never lose their grip on the party,” the AICC member added.
The Gandhi political legacy is indeed a long, historical one, starting from Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India’s first Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who ruled with an iron fist. As Prime Minister, she was known for her unprecedented centralisation of power, going to war with Pakistan in 1971 to “liberate” East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and ordering a state of Emergency from 1975 to 1977, the only time Article 352 was imposed in India. Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s son, was projected as her successor; he died in a plane crash over Safdarjung airport in New Delhi on June 23, 1980. His wife Menaka Gandhi and son Varun Gandhi are both Lok Sabha members from the Congress’ arch rival, the BJP.
Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, by her security guards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh as an act of vendetta for her ordering Operation Bluestar against Sikh militants in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, her son and Rahul Gandhi’s father and Sonia’s husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as Prime Minister on the same day Indira was assassinated. He was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, his widow Sonia Gandhi joined politics in 1997 and was elected president of the Congress Party the next year, a role she still holds. Rahul Gandhi was elevated as the Congress vice-president from being the party’s general secretary in January 2013.
With just 10 years in politics, a politically historic legacy to live up to and nasty whispers in the Congress corridors of power against him, Rahul Gandhi has not been the “game changer”, as the Congress’ much hyped phrase about the Food Security Bill, which turned out to be a damp squib. This crucial time around and for a decade, Rahul Gandhi used his hand to disastrously try to effect change, but it eventually turned to be … “talk to the hand, I’m not listening”.