The sting from Patel’s victory defused Shah’s joy at his maiden entry to the Upper House. The development showed that the man from Bharuch, who apocryphally won Rajiv Gandhi’s heart with fistfuls of the famous peanuts that grow in the district, could, if given a free hand, still turn the tables on the Narendra Modi-Shah combine. As if on cue, barely a month later, Rahul Gandhi during his lecture tour of the United States displayed hitherto unknown capacity for repartee and broke free from his BJP caricatured image.
Within months, the unthinkable happened, the lion of Gujarat almost vanquished in his own lair during assembly elections. The heartening Congress performance and the peace pipe he began smoking with Patel and the other veteran, Ashok Gehlot, gave Rahul the confidence to take over the Congress presidency. The period thereafter was even better, the party notched victories not just in by-elections across India, but even formed governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December 2018. However, the Congress and Rahul never recovered after Prime Minister Modi’s decision to launch retaliatory strikes in Balakot.
The question now is whether Rahul and his mother Sonia Gandhi have it in them to pull the party out of the morass in the absence of the man who was the bridge to everything beyond their realm. The challenge is graver now because the party and its first-family faces the now-or-never moment. The biggest vacuum will be felt by Rahul — destiny snatched his only link with party veterans, especially those with whom his litmus test was negative. Multiple crises that the Congress faces are well-known, but require recapitulation. The sub-par performance in Bihar is considered as evidence that the party is no longer a force multiplier for allies but is instead a liability. Furthermore, questions regarding Rahul’s seriousness about politics have been flagged again, by the BJP initially and later by the RJD.
What else explains his decision to abandon the Bihar campaign midway and head to the sylvan hills of Himachal Pradesh? For much of his 16 years in politics since being fielded from Amethi, it was pointed out that part-time politicians have no space in what is now a 24×7 battleground. Last summer, in a flash of exasperation and in hope that satraps would follow, Rahul resigned as president, forcing Sonia to return to the helm.
Yet, it was always evident that the seat was being kept warm till Rahul was willing to resume charge. It is a Catch-22 situation now, the appropriate time may never come, yet he is unlikely to ever quash the sense of expectancy. With the party in tailspin, old loyalists collectively flagged issues that the mother-son duo should have suo motu taken up. Instead of addressing these lacunae, the neo-coterie thinks that the solution lies in ejecting, or at least silencing, the G-23 (leaders who wrote a letter to Congress president). This schism within has just got deeper; till Patel was alive, lines of communication were open to even the bitterest critic. With little possibility of dialogue, bridging the divide has got all the more difficult. Patel excelled not just in mending fractures within, but in cementing ties with allies too. The politically awkward coalition in Maharashtra was his idea and the Uddhav Thackeray government now faces its first internal test. Its survival depends greatly on Rahul looking at the coalition as his own too.
The BJP will undoubtedly utilise the situation to its advantage and the Maharashtra government’s possible collapse will be a major boost. Unless the family stems the drift within, the Congress will continue being an impediment to the emergence of a national-level platform which can pose as an alternative. Within the party, too, the Gandhis remain hurdles to the emergence of a democratic party where elections are held and uncomfortable posers are not glared at. Not only does Sonia have to comprehend the severity of the problem, but she must make her son understand it too. Already, it is evident that her opinion of her son is at variance with that of the bulk of the nation and now, barring the Gen Next loyalists, increasingly of the party too.
From when the UPA government was in power, the Congress faced three challenges: transition of leadership, moribund organisational network and absence of a coherent ideology. Patel was aware of each but did little to address these, possibly because it was beyond his brief and others were tasked to tend to these. He focused on liaising within and outside besides mobilising vitally necessary resources. With Patel gone, challenges on both these fronts will add to the litany of tasks pending on the Congress president’s desk. The problem is amplified due to two half presidents at the helm, one whose heart is not into the job but the mind forces her to hold the fort. The other’s heart does not wish to quit forever, but the mind remains unsure.
(Mukhopadhyay is an author and political commentator)