Pointing to a picture of his grandmother Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, in May this year, told in a close door gathering of Delhi Congress leaders that she was his ideal and he was “strong like her”. It was here that he revealed that he considered his mother “soft” and he “was not soft like the Congress president” (Sonia Gandhi).
Not many took him seriously then. He had so far proved to be a non-starter, as an organiser in the party or as an electoral mobiliser. But turn of events on the calendar since September 27 to October 2 was all about his abrasive assertiveness that made him triumph over collective might of the Prime Minister, Core Group chaired by his mother Sonia Gandhi, entire Union Cabinet, allies and the Congress party.
Rahul surprised the world when he barged into his own party general secretary’s meeting, Ajay Meet the Press, to tell the world that the collective wisdom of his own government couldn’t be trusted on an issue that was agitating public mind, which had come up with a “complete nonsense” ordinance, which was only worthy of being torn up and thrown away.
He completely undermined the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, even breaking the basic protocol of not berating his office or him in person while abroad and ridiculing the entire Cabinet. But he seemed to know Manmohan Singh would still take this insult lying down and would do his business as usual. He proved right, when Singh, while returning from the US, told the media on board Air India One that he would not resign.
Manmohan Singh reasoned out that there was no grave provocation to consider resigning from the post, as his former media advisor Sanjay Baru had earlier suggested. “Well, there is no question of resigning.” The other big takeaway from his briefing was he had seen many rough weathers and knew how to negotiate in such conditions. “I think, I have been used to ups and downs and I don’t get easily upset,” he said.
A closer look at his statements make one realise that he is actually more hard-boiled, thick-skinned politician than many ever considered him to be. And, in this case, the severest, even humiliating wound that was ever inflicted on his position was— by none other than the person about whom he had said while returning from his last foreign visit on board the same Air India One flight that he was willing to work under him—that he was not giving up without telling Rahul Gandhi that if he (PM) is being faulted, his (Rahul’s) mom, Congress president Gandhi should also be faulted. It was a decision that was taken and approved by the Core Group that she heads. It was only when she took that political decision the ordinance could be drafted by the Law Ministry and placed before the Cabinet to follow the due constitutional process. He also reminded the Gandhi scion that where was he when the issue was approved by the Cabinet not once but twice, once for the then bill and, on second occasion, for ordinance.
“I am trying to understand what is agitating the mind of the people concerned. When I go back, I will discuss these matters with Mr Rahul Gandhi. He has asked for a meeting with me and I will also take my Cabinet colleagues in to confidence. We will see which way the wind blows. Well, there is no question of resigning. I said I will put all these issues before my Cabinet colleagues. These are all matters which are discussed before the highest body, the Core Group of the Congress Party. The Cabinet discussed this matter twice, not once. But it is always possible to change one’s mind and I will consult my colleagues on all these issues.” But it took only 10 minutes for the Union Cabinet, again chaired by Manmohan Singh, to fully reverse the decisions that it had taken on two occasions on the ordinance and the bill to protect MPs against automatic disqualification on conviction for more than two years, and to see the reason, as PM had said few hours ago as part of a face-saver exercise.
Rahul had become the man of the moment for the Congress, which always looked at the dynasty for success and survival. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, may still be the party president but the power centre has shifted to him. Henceforth, he is the supreme leader, even if he still is the Congress vice president, still not part of the Core Group, still does not hold any constitutional post, still does not hold any position in the government and is still not part of the structured decision-making process in what is still a coalition UPA government, not a Congress government. Rahul had suo motu acquired a veto.
For the believers in his party, he has replaced Sonia as the new “conscience” keeper of the government and the Congress leaders like to believe hope that he with his “nonsense” intervention, good or bad, has detached himself with the ills of the UPA and present himself as a fresh breath energy to the young electorate to counter a growing Modi-mania. This could well be through an understanding between mother Sonia and son Rahul. Nobody in the party sees this as a mother-son conflict but both are complimenting each other, soft mother-tough son in a Congress’s dynastic system. To Rahul’s or his core strategists’ credit he picked up right issue, where public sensitivity was already very strong and a politically astute President Pranab Mukherjee was not inclined to give a assent on a legally flawed ordinance.
The impact of Rahul’s punch has further been embossed with a political symbolism of different kind. It came on 144 birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. While the rest of the nation was in a holiday mood, the Congress, its highest decision-making body Core Group and the Union Cabinet were all forced to abide by what Narendra Modi calls, Shahzade ki ichha (wishes of crown prince) and make a dramatic U-turn to reject the same ordinance. And, the headlines changed, from Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi.
The way Manmohan Singh devoted entire day on October 2 to somehow make it look like honourable and also follow the due constitutional process of withdrawal of the ordinance and the bill indicated that old established order in the Congress and hierarchy in the government was no longer of value. Rahul and his team were to be the new order. Maken’s about turn words on ordinance that Rahulji’s words are Congress view stands testimony to that new order.
Mark the words in the opening sentence of his supposedly conciliation letter to the Prime Minister, sent after his angry outbursts at Press Club: “I realise that what I feel about the ordinance is it is not in harmony with the Cabinet decision and the Core Group’s view. I also know it would be exploited by our political opponents.” And the concluding line says: “I hope you will understand the strength of my own conviction about this very controversial issue.” It’s a different matter though that the content of the letter was released by the AICC to make the larger world believe that Rahul had “nothing but the greatest admiration for the manner in which you (Manmohan Singh) are providing leadership in extremely difficult circumstances”. For last nine-and-half years, Sonia has been overtly and overly protective of Manmohan Singh, at all public and party forums. Rahul did just the reverse, publicly expressed his no confidence in collective wisdom of his own Manmohan Singh government.
Manmohan Singh has for long become a liability for the Congress, as have been indicated by various surveys and feedback that it gets from various channels including from its own cadres and thus how it impacts his immediate fate is a matter of curiosity, not concern for the broad mass of Congressmen and women. The issue for them is that if the party has to be in the reckoning, the Nehru-Gandhi family must shine.
Rahul surely knows that the Core Group is headed by mother Sonia Gandhi and was set up ten years ago to have a structured coordination mechanism between the government and the Congress party. Its composition was accordingly kept like that. It comprises Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Sushilkumar Shinde, AK Antony and Ahmed Patel. This apex committee usually meets every Friday to take stock of situation and decide on important issues. Rahul never chose to part of that committee.
The RJD and the Congress may be denying it today—after Rahul’s tear-and-throw act, and after Lalu Prasad Yadav has finally been convicted and sent to the jail—but the party sources had earlier confirmed that the Congress Core Group decided to go for the ordinance after RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav had met Sonia Gandhi and pleaded to her about his continued worth in a secular alliance and how the Supreme Court order could adversely affect their poll prospects. Lalu was the first to declare that the next parliamentary elections would be on secular-communal lines and he had successfully convinced the Congress leadership that he was the one (not Nitish Kumar) who could act as bulwark against Narendra Modi’s onward march in Bihar. It was not without reason that RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui made an emotional statement in Patna that “the entire UPA government seems to be a pygmy before Rahul Gandhi”.
Advent of the Rahul era also indicated the end of RJD-Congress relationship. The JD(U) seemed to have been waiting for this moment. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who Congress cultivated for so long, praised Rahul’s courage to speak on a critical issue. His party spokesman Rajiv Ranjan Singh hailed Rahul’s theme as a further glorious high and declared that options of alliance with Congress was open.
Rahul has certainly energised the Congress’s rank and file. They had so desperately been looking up at him. He has finally obliged them. But can he sustain on this build-up and take it as a full-time politician like the man challenging him, Narendra Modi does. The Congressmen and women want to believe that he would be there to stay and stand up.
But then there are arguments that Rahul made virtue out of necessity, of which President Pranab Mukherjee was to be the actual hero. After the BJP had lodged its protest, there was a clear and present danger of President sending it back to the Cabinet for reconsideration. The President, who had long been the wise man of Indian polity and his party, had taken legal advice and knew that the ordinance was prone to being struck down by the Supreme Court. The very fact that he had summoned three top ministers of the Union Cabinet indicates that he was not in favour of signing it without due considerations. If he had sent it back it would have created even worse situation for the Congress. Besides being a conflict situation between the Cabinet and the President, the BJP would have jumped, asking PM’s head. The prospects for the Congress were damaging on both counts—moral and electoral.
Even the Cabinet note prepared for withdrawal of the ordinance admitted of possibility of President returning or not signing. The argument is that Rahul Gandhi by his intervention has salvaged the Congress from an imminent ignominious situation, as also avoiding a possible contradictory position of the Rashtrapati Bhawan and South Block. Rahul backers say that by his assertive intervention he has displayed that he could be a “decisive and sensitive” counter to Modi in next election.
By Deepak Kumar Rath