This is the second part of the Malayala Manorama series on the Congress party's election debacle and its future. Read Part 1: Congress clueless on strategy to counter BJP's deft moves.
The phrase, "Style of functioning," conveys multiple meanings in the Congress. Wrong "style of functioning" is the common and usual justification that rebels offer whenever they clamour for the ouster of a leader.
The meaning of the phrase could be the leader is not accessible to the common man, or he is under the influence of a caucus, or his functioning contradicts the party ideology or he is encouraging corruption.
A group of Congress workers led by Sonia Gandhi loyalists Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari had led such a revolt against Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. They had then raised these allegations that fall under the broader "style of functioning" usage. Years later, leaders comprising the G-23 have now come out raising the "style of functioning" charge against Rahul Gandhi.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal and Manish Tiwari have accused that Rahul and to a certain extent Priyanka Gandhi, have become inaccessible to the leaders, and the party under them has replaced intra-party democracy with the culture of nominating office-bearers.
The troika: Sonia, Rahul & Priyanka
Predicting Narendra Modi's decisions is difficult for the BJP. The Gandhi family's decisions and moves, too, are hard to predict. Though discussions are held on issues, the final decision is made by groups with only a clutchful of leaders, who are closer to Sonia, Rahul or Priyanka. The supreme unit comes above these groups. The supreme group comprises Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. This group made the final decision against Sonia becoming the prime minister in 2004.
Patient Sonia, outspoken children
Sonia is cautious while making political moves, but Rahul and Priyanka occasionally make spur-of-the-moment emotion-based decisions, a trait they got from their father Rajiv Gandhi.
Their mother Sonia is a keen listener. She talks little and listens more, without giving even the slightest hint that could help others read her thoughts.
Rahul and Priyanka, however, present a different picture. They mince no words while expressing their thoughts. Sonia would listen to even the most boring leader, but her children would cut short such rigmarole, asking the speaker to "come to the point."
Rahul is more interested in listening to the youngsters in the party. Senior leaders opt to meet Sonia with their demands and complaints. Some leaders who failed in their efforts to be in Rahul's inner circle later blamed the generation gap for the latter's inability to understand them.
Rajiv, who used to receive visitors even late in the night, had a sharp memory. Sonia takes notes while meeting visitors. She will be happy if the visitors present her a note detailing their demands. These notes were later handed over to Ahmed Patel or Ambika Soni.
Rahul will have a secretary by his side when he receives visitors. The secretary will be keying in the major points of the meeting on a computer. Priyanka, much like her grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv, keenly listens to the visitors.
Those close to Rahul claim that he doesn't deliberately keep seniors away. But his behaviour has not gone down well with several senior leaders.
Rewind to the 2009 visit of Y S Rajasekhara Reddy and son Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy to 10, Janpath, after recording a sweeping win for the Congress in the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls in Andhra Pradesh. The win in Andhra had helped the Congress to bag more than 200 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Rahul had then led the Congress to win 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The Reddys and other leaders from Andhra Pradesh waited to meet Rahul at the latter's house. Rahul did not respond to their request for a brief meeting. They once again sent a message to Rahul seeking an appointment as the wait prolonged, and the departure of the flight back home neared.
Rahul replied, asking them to wait for some more time since he was busy with other leaders. Incensed, Jagan asked his father to drop the plan to meet Rahul. Rajasekhara Reddy, however, pacified Jagan, and asked him to wait patiently for some more time.
Jagan did not forget the incident. After the death of his father in a helicopter crash in September 2009, Jagan wanted to succeed him as the chief minister. He sought an appointment to meet the Gandhis to stake claim. His request was turned down.
Jagan distanced himself from the Congress leadership, and later formed the YSRC (Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress), which made a clean sweep in the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. YSRC's resounding win rendered Congress irrelevant in Andhra Pradesh.
Humiliation of Biswa Sarma
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had joined the BJP from Congress, too, has bitter memories about Rahul. He had earlier alleged that Rahul heard him while feeding the pet dog. Sarma, then a Congress leader, had gone to meet Rahul to complain against his party colleague, and the then CM Tarun Gogoi.
Meanwhile, Rahul and Priyanka loyalists project their leaders' humanitarian side, and see them as successors to Indira's sympathetic attitude to the downtrodden. To drive home the point, they list out several instances, such as Rahul and Priyanka travelling long distances to meet abuse victims, and walking along with the farmers and guest workers.
In memoriam: Parliamentary Board
During his long political career, the late leader, K Karunakaran, was content with the chief ministership of Kerala, a cabinet berth at the Centre and inclusion in the 10-member Congress Parliamentary Board led by Indira Gandhi. He became a formidable force in national politics after becoming a member of the parliamentary board.
The board had then controlled the appointments to key posts in the party, besides formulating strategies for Parliament sessions.
Karunakaran had revealed how he had rejected an offer to be the prime minister and the role he had played in making Narasimha Rao the premier after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. After assuming power, Rao focused on concreting his leadership as the prime minister and All-India Congress Committee (AICC) president. He took over the responsibilities of the parliamentary board after refusing to constitute the body.
Rao's successors in AICC, Sitaram Kesari, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, too, made no move to constitute the parliamentary board. Sonia, however, formed a core committee with Manmohan Singh, A K Antony, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni and other prominent leaders as its members. One of the demands of G-23 is to reconstitute the parliamentary board.
Sonia Gandhi's tenure as the AICC president could be divided into three periods. Her style of functioning was different during each period.
Phase I: The beginning (1998-2004)
During the first phase, Sonia learnt the undercurrents of national politics, and simultaneously rejuvenated the Congress. Rajiv Gandhi loyalists Ahmed Patel, Oscar Fernandes, Salman Khurshid, Jairam Ramesh, Arjun Singh and Ramesh Chennithala were retained as AICC office-bearers. She gradually dropped the followers of her predecessors Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari.
After the good show at the Assembly polls between 1998 and 2000, she appointed powerful leaders Sheila Dikshit, Digvijay Singh, Vilasrao Deshmukh and S M Krishna as the chief ministers of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, respectively.
The then Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee had taunted Sonia as a 'reader', referring to her reading out the speeches and her inability to deliver impromptu speeches. She deployed Dr Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukharjee, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Madhavrao Scindia and Shivraj Patil to take on the BJP in the parliament.
During this period, Sonia established a good relationship with leaders of other parties, especially with Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Sitaram Yechury (CPM), A B Bardhan and D Raja (CPI).
Phase II: Winning ways
The second phase of Sonia's leadership began with her leading the party to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. She ensured the outside support of the Left Front for the government, but refused to be the prime minister. Instead, Manmohan Singh was made the premier.
As Congress President Sonia played a pivotal role in formulating the government's policies. She formed a National Advisory Council with her favourite economists and social activists as its members. National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, Pulok Chatterjee, and Special Protection Group Director Bharat Vir Wanchoo kept an eye on the bureaucrats on Sonia's behalf.
She directly controlled the ministers, and the Congress won Assembly elections one after the other. Ahmed Patel became the de facto convenor of the United Progressive Alliance. 'AP', as he is known, grew from strength to strength and became the key person having a say in appointments, both in the party and government. He was the political secretary to Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
Rahul's entry as the general secretary in charge of Youth Congress and later as the national vice-president effected some changes in the power centres. Sonia handed over some of the party responsibilities to Rahul.
Sonia's office was manned by experienced leaders like Ahmed Patel, but Rahul appointed young leaders and MBA degree holders as his staff members. Young MP Jitendra Singh, former IAS officer K Raju and MBA holder Kaushal Vidyarthee took over the reins of Rahul's office. They, however, lacked the efficiency of Sonia's team.
Even as G-23 leaders were criticising the lack of intra-party democracy in the Congress, it should be recalled that it was Rahul who initiated steps to hold elections in the party's affiliate organisations in 2010.
Phase III: Hard times
Sonia took over the reins of the AICC once again as the interim president after Rahul had quit as AICC president following the debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This marks the beginning of the third phase.
Though Sonia was the interim president, Rahul continued as a parallel power centre in the background, actively involving in party matters. Soon, Priyanka too became active in the party, and a third power centre was formed.
K C Venugopal became a part of Rahul's inner circle when he was the general secretary in charge of Karnataka.Venugopal's efficiency in executing responsibilities entrusted on him gradually took the leader from Kerala closer to Rahul. After Ashok Gehlot took oath as the chief minister of Rajasthan, which left one general secretary post vacant, Rahul appointed Venugopal as the general secretary in charge of organisational affairs. He still holds the post even after Rahul's resignation as the AICC president. Despite being in constant touch with Sonia, Venugopal spends more time with Rahul.
Former general secretaries who had been assigned the responsibility of organisational matters were experienced leaders like Oscar Fernandes, Janardan Dwivedi, and Gehlot, who were close to the high command for long. Venugopal is currently trying to cement his place in the national leadership.
Priyanka Gandhi has some Rahul loyalists in her core circle, with Sandeep Singh playing a major role. Former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University's Students' Union, Sandeep Singh was also an ex-leader of All India Students' Association (AISA), a left-wing students' organisation, a rival of Congress' students' wing, the National Students' Union of India (NSUI).
Sandeep joined the Rahul camp in 2017 as the latter's speech writer, shocking the NSUI. NSUI wrote to Rahul demanding to drop Sandeep, who had waved black flags at the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he visited JNU in 2005. Their demand, however, was rejected. He has now become a part of Priyanka's core circle.
It is widely said reserving 40 per cent of seats for women in the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was his idea. Though the idea was incorporated in the poll manifesto, Congress was trounced at the polls.
The demand for drafting leaders from Congress to Rahul and Priyanka's core groups still remains unheeded.
Read Part 3 of Congress Poll Debacle: Procession of failures, but Congress is still learning