A week after Congress’ humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, one of the party’s young Turks, who also happened to be a minister in both United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regimes, told Peppystores: “Now Pappu will understand it means being in politics. It’s not easy to survive in the opposition camp.” Pappu is, of course, a derogatory reference to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who has been popularized by his detractors on social media.
The comment was later withheld at the request of the chairman, but it was one of the first signs of resentment among the younger crowd that came to the fore after Rahul entered politics in 2004. While the Gandhi scion “survived” – even running the party Despite the numerous electoral debacles since that disastrous summer of 2014, several leaders of his generation, including the minister who made the aforementioned remark, eventually left Rahul and the party.
On January 25, RPN Singh left the convention ship as the last member of “Team Rahul”. This ambitious clique took shape in July 2003 at a three-day chintan shivir (brainstorming session) of the Shimla Congress. At the Shivir, a Secretary-General of Congress, known for his close ties to the Gandhi family, had gone around asking attendees to nominate young congressmen who could be trained as future leaders. On the final day of the session, July 9th, a few names were scrawled on a piece of paper – Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada and RPN Singh. They were expected to work closely with Rahul and all but two others – Ajay Maken and Manish Tewari – were given tickets to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, where Rahul also made his debut. Five years later, two more names – Jitendra Singh and Milind Deora – were added to the list, which consisted mostly of descendants of political dynasties.
No longer relying on the advice of any particular leader, Rahul has embraced what one leader calls a horses-for-race approach
Nearly two decades later, his team — all of whom have served as Union ministers — has disbanded. Three of them – Scindia, Prasada and RPN – have joined the BJP. Pilot and Deora have expressed their dissatisfaction on many occasions. Tewari, one of the leaders of the Group of 23, who wrote a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 seeking an overhaul of party organization and leadership, has not been given a significant assignment, despite being a senior leader in the loco Sabha is. Only Maken and Jitendra Singh have remained unwaveringly committed to Rahul, although they too have not won a single election since 2014.
Aside from the original team, Rahul also supported several other young men and women over the years, giving them significant roles in the party. A 38-year-old Ashok Tanwar, who was also a past President of the Youth Congress, was appointed President of the Haryana Congress. Sushmita Dev, daughter of Gandhi family loyalist and former trade union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, has been appointed Chair of the All India Mahila Congress. Both joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) last year. Although none of the breakaway leaders have publicly uttered a word against Rahul, sources attribute their disillusionment to the latter’s leadership style and the party’s failure to develop a narrative that can draw voters.
Privately, many complain that the congressional leader can be “fugitive,” regularly changing advisers and nurturing a new clique while others slip off the radar. Even if he turns his back on someone, it becomes very difficult to get an audience again. Having lost patience and trust with many, Rahul no longer relies on the advice of any particular leader and has adopted what one leader describes as a “horses for courses” approach. “It makes his decisions seem more arbitrary. One day he consults Jairam Ramesh, the next KC Venugopal. A party decision can even be made after a casual chat with someone from another party, such as CPI(M) Secretary-General Sitaram Yechury. It makes its own leaders uneasy,” says a member of the CWC (Congress Working Committee).
Rahul’s supporters dismiss such criticism, claiming that “the deserters” were moved because they could not even protect their own constituencies. “The party continued to give these leaders tickets and whatever else they wanted. Rahul and Priyanka have also stood up for some of them. But they spent little time on party work in their constituencies, so they kept losing. How can you blame Rahul for this?” asks a Lok Sabha MP from the party. While Scindia and Sushmita won the 2014 Lok Sabha Poll, they lost in 2019. Prasada, Tanwar and Jitendra Singh have been losing since 2014.
Several congressional leaders even claim that the perception that these leaders were close to Rahul is a “carefully cultivated public relations exercise.” They were seen around the same time he was roaming around Parliament with him when he first became a member of Lok Sabha, and he interacted with them more because they were his contemporaries. “As a manager, Rahul is very affectionate towards his colleagues. Many of us misunderstand it as a pass to get the positions we aspire to. But when it comes to party and organization, he keeps the big interest in mind and does not practice favoritism. Then the so-called friends get upset and blame him for their inability to deliver,” said Manickam Tagore, MP for Lok Sabha and Congress CWC member.
BAside from the dwindling electoral capital, these former friends worried about the gradual marginalization within the party organization. Even the de facto leader of the party apparently did not intervene to protect their “legitimate concerns”. In 2018, Rahul selected veteran Kamal Nath over Scindia as Chief Minister for Madhya Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh, Prasada attempted to position himself as a Brahmin leader. But when Priyanka Gandhi became Secretary General of UP, he found that he played no part in their scheme of things. Former Kings and Kurmi leader RPN Singh has been embroiled in a turf war with State Congress President Ajay Kumar Lallu, whose Tamkuhi Raj constituency is part of Kushi Nagar, the Lok Sabha constituency from which RPN is withdrawing. Lallu is a close friend of Priyanka’s, by the way.
Tanwar was upset because he was deposed as President of the Haryana Congress in 2019. Rahul also did little to protect him from state satraps like former Prime Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who allegedly made life difficult for Tanwar. But as one Haryana congressman asks, “Why does he blame others when he couldn’t win his own seat twice?”
Many within the party acknowledge that Sushmita Dev’s departure was necessitated by the changing socio-political scenario in Assam’s Barak Valley, where her Silchar constituency falls. The Barak Valley is dominated by Bangla-speaking Hindus and Muslims. Most immigrant Hindus support the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, but Congress opposes it. Though Sushmita took a separate stance from Congress on the issue, it was not enough to persuade the Hindu voter bank. She weighed her options and decided to join the TMC, which is the party that campaigns for the Bangla-speaking population of Assam, regardless of their religion.
The desertions haven’t affected the party much, but they have caused a major dent in Rahul Gandhi’s political brand equity
Congressional insiders say unlike Scindia, who was instrumental in dethroning the congressional government in MP, the other defectors will not do significant damage to the party. Scindia and Sushmita have taken the Rajya Sabha route to Parliament, while Prasada has moved into the upper house of the UP legislature. RPN and Tanwar are still undecided on their next course of action. But the desertions have caused a major dent in Rahul Gandhi’s political brand equity as these leaders were perceived as close to him.
Salvation will now depend on his latest venture – electing Charanjit Singh Channi as the Congressional CM candidate for Punjab and ignoring the erratic Navjot Singh Sidhu. Just a few months ago, Sidhu was Rahul and Priyanka’s chosen soldier in their plan to neutralize former Prime Minister Amarinder Singh. The results of the Punjab general election will determine whether this new move was a masterpiece or another dud by the eternal party lord. n