January 31, 2022
NEW DELHI – Did former Congress President Rahul Gandhi nurture leaders who were weathercocks in his coterie? Going by the number of desertions of young Congress leaders from Team Rahul, it is clear that he did not judge them properly. He was not alone in this regard as his father Rajiv Gandhi also felt helpless when members of his team left him one by one. They included Arun Nehru and Arun Singh, among others.
Almost all members of Rahul’s inner circle belong to influential political dynasties. They were the showpieces of Rahul’s gen-next leaders. They were expected to become the pulse of the new Congress once the old guard faded away. After enjoying power as members of his coterie, most of his handpicked team have deserted him, finding places in parties like the BJP, the Samajwadi Party, NCP and TMC. Former minister RPN Singh is the latest to join BJP.
The party (Gandhi family) was surprised as RPN was one of the 30 listed in the current Assembly polls. Singh, son of the late former minister CPN Singh, was Rahul’s trusted colleague. Conveniently for the defectors, the BJP believes in importing wellknown second-rung leaders from other parties.
For instance, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada and now RPN Singh – all from Congress – found a place in the BJP. Rahul had promoted members of his coterie by making them ministers in the Manmohan Singh government from 2019 to 2014 and later gave them positions in the party. Secondly, by welcoming “aanewale ko Ram Ram” the BJP also jolted Congress. Absorbing the defectors, the BJP weakened the Grand Old Party and embarrassed the Gandhis. Leaving a sinking ship is not new in politics.
The restlessness of the Rahul coterie increased after the BJP retained power in 2019, while the Congress barely managed to cross the 50 seat mark. Worried about their future, they began to explore other options. They got attractive offers from the BJP. Some were even members of the Congress Working Committee, which takes years to achieve.
Scindia was the general secretary and shared charge of Uttar Pradesh with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Sushmita was the national spokeswoman and Mahila Congress president. Singh looked after Jharkhand and Jitin Prasada West Bengal. Sachin Pilot, who has one foot in the BJP camp, almost tried to topple the Ashok Gehlot government. Scindia brought down Kamal Nath’s government in Madhya Pradesh; Jitin quit Congress and became a minister in the BJP-led UP government. Rahul’s indecision to lead the party also was a key reason. The defectors had waited since August 2019 when Rahul resigned as president, owning moral responsibility for the defeat of the Congress.
When the party began to explore candidates for the next Congress president in 2019, Sachin Pilot and Scindia were in the race, but the old guard subtly sabotaged their chances. Rahul remained a silent spectator. When Sonia became the interim president, the old guard got importance again. They younger leaders felt they had no future in the party. Himanta Biswa Sarma delivered the first shocker in Assam. He changed sides and became a poll strategist for the entire northeast and recently became BJP chief minister. Scindia left on 9 March 2020, and took a chunk of MLAs resulting in the collapse of the Kamal Nath government. He is now the Union Civil Aviation minister.
The next was Jitin Prasada, a key Brahmin third-generation leader. Sushmita Dev, daughter of late Santosh Mohan Dev, is also from a Congress family who changed sides. The only prominent member of Rahul’s inner circle who remains in the Congress is Sachin Pilot. If anyone thought that Priyanka would do better, she is yet to prove herself. Under her watch, the Congress has lost five of its declared candidates for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. There have been many desertions.
In the northeast, which was once the Congress’ stronghold, the party has slowly lost ground. In another poll-bound state, Goa, after emerging as the single largest party winning 17 seats in the 40-member House in 2017, the Congress now has just two MLAs. In Goa, the Congress made its candidates swear before God that they would not switch sides.
If Rahul has to do well in the 2024 polls, now is the time for him to change his strategy and choose the right man for the right job. He must have learned a lesson already. There is not much time left for experiments. He must build solid, second-rung leaders in the states and find dependable people with a base for his inner circle. Only then will Congress workers bestow faith in the Gandhi family.