The battle between Rahul Gandhi and the G-23 is not just a turf war. It is a battle for personal political survival. We will not understand this if we only look it from the point of view of party politics. Realpolitiks is much more than that. The political system consists of not just what is visible to us, but the entire system of power that helps parties win.
The biggest role played here is of the various national and regional elites – big corporates, the babudom, judicial officers, media, public intellectuals, urban power-brokers, big landlords and even foreign companies, funds and institutions. It is only when a significant proportion of these disparate elites stand behind a political party that it can come to power.
Of course, in democracies, political parties rule in the name of the people. And in India, the people are overwhelmingly poor. The rule of the elites thus has to be mediated through an electoral process that can mobilise the poor behind a programme that ultimately reproduces the system. So a successful political party needs to forge an invisible coaltion between the ruling elites and the voting poor.
The Congress did this successfully for 40 years while the state controlled the commanding heights of the economy and society. From the mid-80s, the push towards privatisation changed this equation, giving a significantly bigger role to mercantile castes and classes. By the 1990s, along with the Rao-Manmohan reforms, public culture was dominated by the valorisation of entrepreneurship; the state was increasingly seen as a hindrance to India’s development.
This change in the political attitude of India’s elites is a crucial condition for the rise of the BJP from the late-80s onwards. By the mid-1990s, the BJP had established itself as the ‘party of rule’, or the party which attracted the majority of ruling elites around it. Between 1971 and 1996, the Congress was the single-largest party in six out of seven Lok Sabha elections. In the 25 years since then, the BJP has been the single-largest party in five out of seven Lok Sabha elections. In effect, the BJP replaced the Congress as the default destination for ruling elites, whether directly or through electoral alliances with regional parties.
The 2004 and 2009 elections may appear to disprove this but both these elections are outliers in the trend. And the pressures of a non-dominant power being in power showed up very quickly in the struggle between the government and the party in the UPA years. The party leadership recognised that it does not have the abiding backing of the ruling elites, and wanted to ensure a bigger standing amongst the ‘people’. The tie-up with the Left and the Common Minimum Programme made it even more suspect among corporates and mercantile groups. This is why the Congress tried to rebuild a base amongst the poor through MGNREGA and farm loan waivers.
Yet, the government itself was run by people who were deeply pro-corporate and pro-market. They were needed for the Congress to be able to build bridges with the new ruling elites of India, especially the mercantile classes and castes. Many of these former ministers are now part of the rebel G-23 camp. Even old-school ‘socialist’ ministers moved ‘right’ as they contended with babus who rose during the years when India’s economy was turning right.
Very quickly, the Sonia-led party found it difficult to control the government. The first clear glimpse of this was during the Indo-US nuclear deal, which the Left parties opposed. Veterans of the Left beat will tell you how they were convinced that a compromise had been worked out between the Congress and the Left parties. Things suddenly fell apart when Manmohan Singh gave an interview to a leading newspaper, daring the Left to withdraw support. The party had to unleash its minders to soothe things, but that round went to the PM.
Within a couple of years of the UPA’s return to power in 2009 with a bigger mandate, the Gandhis found their authority severely pruned. Cabinet reshuffles in UPA-2 show that Gandhi family loyalists were slowly eased out of key posts, and those who remained gradually began to assert their independence. The most prominent amongst the alternate power centres were Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, but even junior ministers were happy to gossip against the Gandhis in private conversations with journalists.
The agenda of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was often at cross-purposes with the Congress party’s electoral strategists. One battle that Sonia and her team lost was over the free ration to everyone. The party leadership wanted a big food subsidy to add to other vote-winning schemes like MGNREGA and farm loan waivers. The PMO blocked it by asking its own commission to study its feasibility. Even the flagship MGNREGA was gradually defunded by Finance Minister Chidambaram. This led to an open battle between Chidambaram and the then Rural Development minister Jairam Ramesh who was widely seen as a Rahul Gandhi man.
There are numerous such instances in the public domain, along with anecdotes and stories that circulate on the journalistic grapevine, that indicate that there was significant tension between 10 Janpath and Raisina Hill. It was to explode in the public spectacle of Rahul Gandhi barging into a Congress press conference and tearing up an ordinance being pushed by PM Manmohan Singh.
That was the Congress in power. The Congress out of power has continued with the same tensions. The most visible Congress leaders outside the Gandhi family are former ministers, and some of them are more technocrats than politicians. P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor have all been key faces of the UPA, and are well-known to television audiences across the country. None of them are old-school party loyalists, and they have gone against the party’s writ several times, even when it was in power.
Right now, however, the G-23 is of no value to Rahul Gandhi. He realises that they cannot win him any elections because the ruling elites do not back them when they are out of power. That is why Rahul is trying to build a new alliance by promoting a second-rung of leaders who have emerged from outside the English-speaking elite and their cohorts. He is gradually positioning street-savvy young leaders who have a vernacular connect. We saw one such person emerge during the second wave of COVID: the 40-year old former cricketer from Shimoga, Srinivas BV, who became a household name by arranging emergency services for COVID patients. Rahul has made him head of the Youth Congress.
Then there are Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar. Mevani, a Dalit activist and independent MLA from Gujarat, has often been criticised by other Dalit leaders for being too close to the Left. Kanhaiya Kumar, the poster boy of radical student politics, is the son of an Anganwadi worker. Even in 2019, there were rumours that he would get a Congress ticket from Bihar, but things didn’t work out and Kanhaiya fought as a CPI candidate. He joins the Congress directly from being a national executive member of the CPI. Both these young firebrands have demonstrated that they have big political ambitions. Yet, their youth (Mevani is 40 and Kanhaiya 34) will allow them to think of the long term. They will not mind listening to Rahul, who is in his early 50s, or playing a supporting role in alliances with strong regional parties. They also represent a strand within India’s poor who are sympathetic to backward caste and Dalit politics, but do not identify with caste parties.
This strategic shift is a result of pure necessity. The Congress cannot compete with the BJP either in the space of getting support from the ruling elites or in building a political consensus based on a religious identity. Neither can it compete with regional parties controlled by key dominant castes – SP, BSP, RJD, JD(U) or JD(S). Rahul Gandhi’s only hope is to build a ground level network of young activists and leaders who see class as the key driver of politics.
This is what is pushing Rahul to the left, and increasing the distance between him and the G-23. The leaders who emerged in the 2000s are still stuck within the power networks, where the BJP rules supreme. They cannot escape it. For now, Rahul has no use for them. They will only become relevant again, if a large section of India Inc, who ultimately finance the game of fighting elections, lose faith in the Modi Government. It is then that the prominent faces of the G-23 will again be needed.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV’s Hindi and Business news channels.)
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