As Jyotiraditya Scindia drove into the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters, media and social media went into a tizzy: something that seemed improbable even a week ago was now prime time reality.
The murmurings of discontent had been doing the rounds for a while: who can forget the contest for the chief minister’s seat in Madhya Pradesh, which eventually went to a member of the old guard, Kamal Nath.
The theories trotted out were numerous, from references to his deep pockets to an internal battle to cut Scindia down to size. Significantly, Scindia had managed to deliver wins in his area of influence – of the 34 seats the Congress contested in the region, the party won 23 seats.
Scindia, when asked by the media, said he would welcome the opportunity of serving as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. And to his credit he was considered a viable candidate for the post, not only by his supporters, who were quick to erect life size cut outs of the ‘Maharaja’, but also the Delhi-based commentariat.
In 2019, he stood for a fifth term in his home constituency of Guna and lost the election to a former aide. In the run up to the general election, Scindia worked closely with Priyanka Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh, having been given the responsibility of Western Uttar Pradesh, a state where the Congress came a-cropper.
Scindia, rumoured to be Rahul Gandhi’s video game buddy and some time speech writer, was as ‘in’ as one could be in the family-run party, with a seat in the CWC to boot.
His departure, as admitted by even arch nemesis Digvijaya Singh, came as a surprise to the Congress.
Which makes one wonder just how out of the loop is the Congress? Of course, it is quite likely that a politician as experienced as Digvijaya Singh, might be indulging in convenient posturing. If those in the know are to be believed, he has been instrumental in ensuring Scindia’s exit.
For both Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, ready with their own generation next – the former’s son is an MP and the latter’s an MLA, Scindia was a political obstacle in Madhya Pradesh. Scindia’s ‘ghar wapsi’ was a distinct possibility for many watching from the sidelines.
On the contrary, there is every possibility that others, referred to as the ‘Young Turks’ of the Congress by the media, may be eyeing a fortuitous exit as well. The obvious candidate for this transition is Sachin Pilot, another Congress leader with a mass base and ambition.
His response to Scindia’s exit was more a lament than a condemnation. In Haryana, the Hoodas have taken some interesting positions which indicate their ideological independence, specifically on Article 370 and CAA.
Sanjay Nirupam, considered close to Rahul Gandhi, was quoted in the media as saying that the Congress alliance in Maharashtra was a mistake and could go any time. To establish his point Sanjay Nirupam, always colourful with his language, referred to the arrangement in filmy style as ‘udhaar ka sindoor’.
There have been others who have stood by the beleaguered Grand Old Party, two-time Congress MP, Gaurav Gogoi, in what was a sincere appearance on TV said that Scindia’s move, a consequence of one year of dissatisfaction impacted his legacy.
Admitting to intra-party rivalries, Gogoi believed that Scindia should have stuck it out. However, there were no solutions the young MP could offer to the vexing equations between members, but for sincerity.
The crisis in the Congress runs deep. In conversations with some of their leaders, who are to their credit mostly candid and open, there have been admissions of the drift in the party. The leadership would be the obvious and convenient answer, but the issues are deeper.
Some political commentators say it is a failed ideology or a lack of ideology. I would argue the contrary, it is the lack of ideological flexibility that is the issue.
The Congress of yore was a big tent – leaders of all persuasions came together for India’s independence. In those idealistic times, Sardar Patel, Nehru and others could co-exist and work together. Post-Independence and after Nehru’s ascension, especially post-Gandhi and then post-Patel, the party began to circle around an individual.
The generations who have lived through the Nehru prime ministership recall him a larger than life figure, much like one would assume the younger generations of today will recall Prime Minister Modi in the future.
However, the Congress succumbed to the personality cult, something Nehru himself issued a warning about, and the crisis deepened. The party lost leader after leader during his tenure and in some cases at the hands of his machinations and ambitions as well.
With Indira Gandhi, this hold became more consolidated, as her style of leadership veered dramatically from her father’s. Whilst it is alright to accuse the Gandhis today for the condition of the Congress and the family concern status of the party, this shift or ‘capture’ had taken place 40-odd years ago, and those who signed up after that knew what they were signing up for.
Besides, it is also true that Italian-born Sonia Gandhi did deliver a government in 2004 and once again in 2009, although some would argue that Dr Manmohan Singh deserves credit for the second victory.
However what also happened is that the Congress became increasingly enthralled with the Left, who worked on the dynastic image building in academia (as is done in communist nations) and codifying ‘Nehruism’ to the extent that the writer, if not the politician, Nehru would have rejected.
And in exchange ran their agenda through a powerful government. The leftist or communist agenda which is in line with its principles, eventually became steeped in identity, rejected Hinduism because it was the majority faith and argued about the historicity of India as a nation, diminishing and dismissing a centuries-old unifying civilizational identity.
Gandhis 2020 have bought this line of functioning and thinking hook, line and sinker, whilst previous family members managed to build relationships with the wider Hindu cultural demographic and not disdain it. And the party has suffered for it.
Leaders of a right of centre persuasion have been marginalised, when Congress stalwart Janardhan Dwivedi’s son joins the BJP it confirms many more assumptions about the ideological drift in the party than Scindia’s move to a party that his grandmother helped build.
This arrangement with the Left has hollowed out the Grand Old Party and rendered them out of sync with the times and ‘New India’ -- a reality that cannot be denied. Till now the Congress had seceded academia, culture, etc to the Left but never its politics – in the present day it has handed over its politics as well.
The results are there for all to see and the exits will continue till there is a decisive recalibration. Will the Congress go back to being the big tent, a genuinely liberal example? Will the family, often criticised for being insecure, permit that space for diversity in thought?
Will they be able to release the Congress to its original temperament – even though the shift began long before any of the present day Gandhis were in politics?
It might be its only option for survival.