Is Sonia Gandhi an insecure mother?

Navneet Mundhra
·6 min read

“Dr Manmohan Singh owed his position to Sonia Gandhi. More than one political observer believed that she’d chosen Singh precisely because as an elderly Sikh with no national political base, he posed no threat to her forty-year-old son, Rahul, whom she was grooming to take over the Congress Party.” - Barack Obama in his memoir

As the results of Bihar's assembly elections trickled in on last Tuesday, all the political parties, their supporters and high-strung journalists remained glued to the proceedings of what turned out to be a cliffhanger. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) just managed to edge the Mahagathbandhan that comprised of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and Left parties. Tejashwi Yadav's RJD even alleged chicanery by Election Commission in counting of votes.

Amid all this breathless brouhaha, the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi was holidaying in Shimla with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra even as his party fared terribly at the turnstile. Out of 70 allotted seats, Congress won only 19 and severely damaged MGB's chances to go past the majority mark. Among all the major political parties which contested polls, Congress' strike rate was the worst. Expectedly, a raft of RJD and Left leaders are openly taking swipes at Rahul Gandhi, holding him responsible for MGB's defeat.

(Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

Such is the terrible state of the party that even its own leaders such as Tariq Anwar and Kapil Sibal have held Congress culpable of damaging MGB's chances in Bihar.

Sibal, who had raised the banner of revolt against Gandhi family earlier this year, has once again flayed the central leadership for being torpid and rudderless. In fact, a rebellion within the state unit of Congress is already brewing and is threatening to splinter the already-emaciated party.

Rahul took over as the de facto head of the Congress in early 2014 though officially he became the president of the party in 2017. He led Congress to two ignominious drubbings in general elections - 2014 and 2019 - on the trot. Under his helmsmanship, the party has become a sinking ship and is at its lowest ebb.

It has lost a host of state elections and even in the states such as Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka where it cobbled up governments, a number of Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) deserted the Congress and joined the opposition ranks. The inability of the central leadership to keep its flock together stands flagrantly exposed. With no tangible feat - electoral or administrative - to boast of, Rahul cuts a forlorn figure. Though he stepped down as president of the party in the aftermath of 2019 pasting, and his mother took over as the interim president, he continues to have the final say in all the key appointments and decisions.

Not only has he failed to arrest the rapid slide of the party and enthuse the party workers, his political acumen, commitment and zeal are also under a cloud. To make matters worse, he shares fractious equation with many of the prominent leaders of his own party and only hobnobs with a set of his loyalists who have neither the mass base nor any connect with grassroots.

But all this hasn't deterred Sonia from indulging her son with even more fervour.

In August, the group of 23 Congress leaders in August wrote a scathing letter to the interim Congress president - Sonia Gandhi - seeking full-time and active leadership and introspection behind the steady decline of the Grand Old Party.

The letter had sought radical changes in party including ending the nomination culture in Congress Working Committee and demanding democratic process for the selection of Congress president and members of the CWC. It was evident that the signatories of the letter, which included Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, Milind Deora, Ghulam Nabi Azad among others, were highly displeased with the "family" or "high-command" culture that runs roughshod over everyone else.

Sensing the swelling mutiny against the family rule, Sonia neatly scuttled it through adroit manoeuvring.

Though she still enjoys the respect of Congress leaders and supporters, the same can't be said about Rahul. But even as her own health, along with the fortunes of the party, has sharply declined in the last few years, Sonia is still hell-bent on having the firm family writ on the party.

The template is predictably conspicuous: Rahul would be the presiding potentate till the next heir from the family arrives on the horizon. Even if that means sacrificing a slew of young, ambitious and supremely talented leaders at the altar for her son.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, Jagan Reddy and Jyotiraditya Scindia are three such young leaders who have left the Congress in last 10 years and caused monumental harm to the Grand Old Party. Jagan formed his own political outfit and wiped Congress out in Andhra Pradesh. Sarma joined BJP and pitchforked its new party to great heights in Northereastern states. Scindia brought down Congress government in Madhya Pradesh after he defected to the BJP with over 20 MLAs. All three share a common virtue: mass leaders with overweening ambition.

In June this year, Congress had almost lost even Sachin Pilot, hailed as the brightest young politician in India, but for the last-minute stopgap arrangement. Pilot worked assiduously in Rajasthan from 2013 and 2018 as the state president and was instrumental in wresting the state from BJP. But at the last moment, Ashok Gehlot was chosen as the chief minister by the "high command" and Pilot was left to lick his wounds in frustration. All is still not well between Pilot and Gehlot.

Even other young Turks such as Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada et al have made their grouses public.

The overarching feeling within the party is that any young, ambitious, meritorious politician with electoral clout and gravitas is seen as a potential threat to Rahul and is either cut to size or compelled to downsize his ambition. Their destiny is preordained: irrespective of their merit, skills and feats, they're consigned to be beholden to the presiding potentate from the 'family' for life.

Hence, the self-respecting and zealous ones are abandoning the Congress and are either ploughing their own furrows or joining other political parties.

The choice is for Sonia to make: put the party interests above filial love and liberate the Congress from the family fiefdom or see it go up in flames. A party that is at its lowest ebb can either be consumed by the desire to reinvent and reinvigorate itself or be consumed by the vanity of its self-serving monarchy.

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