Some would say that Pilot is too young at 45. However, it would be worthwhile to remember that two of the Congress national presidents in the late 1950s and the mid-1980s were 41 or 42 when they became president. And that, more recently, the person who took over as party president just five years ago in the year 2017 was 47 years old.
The biggest difference between these three party presidents and Pilot is that their surname is Gandhi. Indira became party president towards the end of the 1950s when her father was the Prime Minister of India. A year after he became the prime minister, Rajiv took over as party president in the winter of 1985 and even made a speech at the AICC Bombay session assailing the “power-brokers” who were preventing young dynamic Congress members from taking on positions of responsibility. His son Rahul became the party president in 2017, only to resign in the wake of the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
In the summer of 2008 when Rahul had come to Bangalore, a group of journalists met him at the Kumara Krupa state government guest house. We were told it would be an informal interaction and that nothing could be reported. Suffice it to say that one of the questions asked was that if, at that point of time in the summer of 2008, a certain individual in the USA with no political family background whatsoever (and whose parents were dead) was likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination, why couldn’t something similar happen in the Indian political spectrum. The response was that Rahul was already trying to promote meritocracy above family connections in the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India.
Maybe Rahul didn’t try hard enough subsequently. Or maybe the power-brokers Rajiv had lashed out against in the winter of 1985 came in the way. Or maybe Rahul’s mom didn’t approve of too dramatic a change in a very old party whose reflexes were slowing down with increasing age.
Whatever the reason, the Congress in 2022 comes across as terribly fossilized despite the ongoing Herculean attempt by Rahul to walk from Kanya Kumari to Kashmir. Take that September day last month when over 90 Rajasthan MLAs rebelled and staged a resignation-drame while refusing to issue the traditional unanimous one-line statement authorising the high command to chose the next Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader since they didn’t want Sachin Pilot to come in if Ashok Gehlot became the national party president. On that day, the TV channels showed Rahul playing football with some kids as part of the daily activities of his Bharat Jodo Yatra. Rahul appeared tone-deaf to whatever was happening in Rajasthan, one of the two states where his party was in power, according to the young TV news-channel anchor Nabila Jamal
Was Rahul’s kicking of the football an attempt to emulate the first English Queen Elizabeth’s admiral Francis Drake who insisted on finishing his game of bowls before setting out to demolish the invading Spanish Armada some 434 years ago? Whatever the reason, in the second decade of the 21st century where perception matters, Rahul’s football fling boomeranged and came across as yet another ham-handed Congress attempt to put not its best foot but its worst foot forward–pun intended.
So why didn’t the Congress high command (read Sonia Gandhi) shake up the fossilised 137-year-old party by asking the 45-year-old Sachin Pilot to file his nomination for the position of national president of the party instead of quietly requesting the 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge to `volunteer’ after Gehlot opted to stay on as Rajasthan CM?
Kharge is a veteran politician of unimpeachable integrity but could, at the age of 80, be `slightly’ too old to take on the onerous mission of revitalising the party from the grassroots at a time when the next general elections is just 19 months away, with the BJP dominating the Indian political spectrum and its president J P Nadda already having visited the over 200 Lok Sabha constituencies where his party lost in the 2019 polls.
What has cost the Congress dear is its unwillingness to give meaningful responsibility to the younger leaders in the party who are, more or less, in the same age-group as Rahul. Is this unwillingness due to the reluctance of Sonia Gandhi (or her advisers) to promote those who are in the same age-group as her son, lest they distinguish themselves and be perceived as a threat to Rahul in the future?.
Remember in the summer of 2004 when the UPA coalition led by the Congress unexpectedly came to power, Sonia and her advisers had appointed the then 71-year-old Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. Commentators would say that the rationale for appointing Singh as PM was that his age and lack of a political base would not make him a threat to Rahul.. Those with some political base and in the same age-group as Rahul were appointed as ministers of state. Rahul stayed out of the government even though Singh would not have clung on to the PM’s chair if asked to step down by the high command
Rahul resigned as Congress president in the wake of the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. Once again, instead of trusting any of the younger leaders with that responsibility, an ailing Sonia became the interim president. Whether it was the presidential position or the chief ministership of Madhya Pradesh where the Congress won the assembly elections in 2018, Sonia was not prepared to trust the younger leaders in Rahul’s age-group with greater responsibility. And, one by one, perhaps frustrated with the lack of any progress, they left the party, even those perceived to be close to Rahul, starting with Jyotiraditya Scindia and going on to R P N Singh and Jitin Prasada, all three of whom joined the BJP.
The Congress is perhaps hoping to change the seemingly inexorable downward drift with a win in the Karnataka assembly elections, some seven months away. However, even in Karnataka where the Congress is more favourably placed than in other states going to the polls at that time, there are two centres of power undercutting each other in the form of the state’s Leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah and the KPCC president D K Shvakumar. However, even a win in Karnataka could be a case of just too little too late if there are losses everywhere else.
Take Rajasthan where Gehlot is once again accusing Sachin Pilot of making overtures to the BJP leadership in 2020 when the then state unit president abruptly left Jaipur and camped with his 22-odd MLA supporters in a resort in Manesar in Haryana where the Lotus party was in power. The other way of looking at it is that if a Rajasthan CM is reportedly found to be tapping the phone of his opponent by secretly invoking the provisions of the anti-sedition law, he could well be perceived as trying to push his rival into the opposing camp.
Which is perhaps why the Grand Old Party has become the butt of jokes among all sections of the media which keep talking about the Congress being “in the ICU” (intensive-care-unit) stage. My own puerile contribution was to rewrite a legendary 1960s advertising slogan from an era where Hertz was the numero uno in the American car-hire market and its main competitor Avis responded with “We may be number-two but we try harder.” My adaptation for the younger leaders of the Congress is, “We may be number-two but we try harder not to be perceived as a threat to the number-one”–(Rahul G or Ji).
It need not just be a monochrome punny black. It is not too well known that Rahul has tried to help people, including Nirbhaya’s family. In the weeks following the horrific incident of December 16, 2012, Rahul helped enroll Nirbhaya’s younger brother in a flying academy. Nirbhaya’s brother is now working as a pilot in a leading domestic airline.
However, there is a difference between being a social activist and a serious politician. Perception is what matters in the akhara of politics. And that perception has not been helped by Rahul either playing Hamlet on the political stage (“To be or not to be the Congress president”) or football in front of the TV news-channel cameras on the day when 90 MLAs are staging a resignation-drama and refusing to toe the high-command line in one of the two states where the party is in power on its own.
As the saying goes, “If you don’t take yourself seriously, who else will?”