There was a time, not so long ago, when people spoke of the "Lotus" wilting. Today the focus is on the shrivelling of the "Hand". The run up to the 2014 general election and its shock outcome showed up the spreading rot, even though it was clear that it had set in from the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the Congress a victory in the 2009 general elections, and the Gandhis decided that he needed to be marginalised.
However, the effort to check Singh, combined with the eruption of a number of scandals, beginning with those associated with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and the 2G allocation, eventually paralysed decision-making in the party.
The pattern of the disease was that it began with the periphery - Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and so on - and moved towards the centre. Now it has hit home at the high command, through the revelation of a letter written last November by former loyalist and Union Minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan to Sonia Gandhi, complaining about the way she was made to take decisions by Sonia and Rahul, in the period when she was the minister between July 2011 to December 2013.
During the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi had charged that a "Jayanthi tax" (presumably bribes) had been levied on companies to obtain environmental clearances. With the new government in place, there was talk of CBI looking into some of the cases. In her letter to Sonia, she said that she had been given "specific input" on certain projects by Sonia and Rahul or by their aides. For the first time, a specific allegation is being made against Rahul and therefore has implications for the future of the party. If what she eventually decided fell within rules, it will be fine, but if not, it would open up Natarajan, as well as Sonia and Rahul to legal action. If there is actual proof that Rahul was party to a strategy of "shaking down" corporates, using the device of environmental clearances, he could get entangled in a Chakravyuh, much like his father was in the case of Bofors.
That the party has been going downhill for a while has not been a secret. There is little point repeating the handling of the post-Rajasekhara Reddy Andhra Pradesh and the Telangana issue, or that of dealing with another Congress strong-hold Maharashtra. The consequence of this was apparent in the disastrous showing of the Congress party in both the two states.
Last year as the elections approached, the pace intensified. In March 2014 in Rajasthan, Bhanwar Lal Sharma, a six-term MLA from Sardarshahar, resigned from the party. Sharma attacked Rahul Gandhi as a leader who has been forced on the party. Equally damaging was the defection of Colonel Sonaram Chaudhry, a long-term MLA and MP who quit the party and was fielded from his home constituency and won from Barmer on a BJP ticket. The process intensified across the country where long-serving Congressmen abandoned the party and sought tickets with the BJP which welcomed most with open arms. The result was that the party crashed to its lowest ever showing. Following the defeat, process became more acute.
TH Mustafa, a senior Congress leader belonging to the party's Kerala unit, attacked Rahul Gandhi as a "joker" and said that the party should know that "being a prime minister is not child's play." He wanted Priyanka to become the party leader instead. However, Mustafa was merely suspended and returned to the party later. In July 2014 it was the turn of former MP and Sanjay Gandhi loyalist, Gufran Azam to criticise Rahul, accusing him of destroying both the Youth Congress and the party. "We are tired of hearing people addressing the Congress vice president as 'Pappu' and 'Munna' and feel ashamed," he added. Azam was expelled from the party in October 2014. Then it was the turn of GK Vasan, son of late GK Moopanaar, who split away from the party in November 2014, in a repeat of 1996 when the latter had formed the Tamil Manila Congress. Several senior leaders, some of them former legislators joined him in a new version of the TMC.
All this suggests that the party is in a free-fall. We could see more top-level leaders making the calculation about their own political future and taking a decision to cut their losses. For example, how long will someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot hang on? They, especially the former, could easily float a regional formation and retain influence in his strongholds of Gwalior and Guna. As for the BJP, it does not now face much of a threat from the Congress party. So, it will decide when and how to press the button. Of course, it is clear that former ministers are vulnerable, if there are indications that they took illegal decisions because of pressure from the Gandhis, as are the latter themselves.
Mail Today February 1, 2015