The voters of Andhra Pradesh had been so loyal to the Indian National Congress from the very first general election that even when large parts of the country threw the Congress out after the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the Telugu people stood by Indira Gandhi. She wielded so much power that she could overlook the claim of every senior party leader and appoint the diminutive T. Anjaiah as chief minister. So beholden was Anjaiah to the Delhi durbar that he spent more time in Delhi than Hyderabad. He was loyalist par excellence.
Then one day Rajiv Gandhi landed at Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport, wagged his finger at Anjaiah, admonished him for some reason on the tarmac, in full view of the state’s council of ministers and the media, got into his plane and flew away to Delhi. Poor Anjaiah was reduced to tears. The media captured that unfortunate moment.
That photograph, of Rajiv admonishing Anjaiah and Anjaiah’s pathetic expression, was splashed across every newspaper in the state the next day. The revulsion of the Telugu people at New Delhi’s arrogance generated a sympathy wave for Anjaiah, which N.T. Rama Rao immediately took advantage of. NTR swept to power on Anjaiah’s bent back.
Those who have inhabited Delhi’s durbar have always been given a reality check every now and then by the ordinary people of this subcontinent. If Rajiv had good reasons to upbraid Anjaiah, he could easily have done that in private. Why did he have to do it on an airport tarmac in full view of the media? Everyone concluded that Rajiv was either arrogant or immature.
The Anjaiah episode sprang to mind as I watched Rahul Gandhi seek to project himself as the angry young man of the Congress Party rebelling against the sleaze and the corruption of his seniors. It would have been one thing if Rahul had in fact publicly upbraided someone known to be sleazy or corrupt and ejected him from a position of power. That would turn him into a hero. Instead, he chose to embarrass his own party spokesperson, who was first defending a decision of the party’s own government and was then forced to criticise it, and worse, he embarrassed the entire government by describing a decision of the Union cabinet as “nonsense”.
Perhaps the decision was wrong. But why was this view not expressed when the issue was being discussed in the preceding weeks? Even if it was the case that wisdom suddenly dawned on a newly enlightened party vice president, was the method adopted to seek change of policy and the language used appropriate? And all this anger directed at a government led by a prime minister who has never deviated from party line. Why admonish the government in public?
That error of judgement with respect to the manner of expressing dissent and the visible lack of grace has angered many around the country. It was like Rajiv’s Begumpet admonishment. The issue was not the admonishment. It was the method, manner and mode of expression. Poor Anjaiah was in his own state capital. Manmohan Singh was on foreign soil with a series of important meetings lined up. That made the episode even more unwholesome.
Then followed the Pavlovian response of sycophantic junior ministers, supplicants in the Delhi durbar, jumping up to praise their leader’s criticism of their own government. None considered it necessary to quit as minister, give up the Lutyens bungalow, white Ambassador with red light, and all the perks of office before belittling one’s own government. Will such self-serving radicalism be rewarded with votes?
This is not the first time that members of the Sonia Gandhi Congress and ministers in the Manmohan Singh government have happily hunted with the hounds and run with the hares. Nor is it the first time that a hapless prime minister has been snubbed by his own party while representing the country abroad. Whether or not Manmohan Singh will say “enough is enough” and stop carrying the can for his party remains to be seen. He has been a loyal soldier of the party, never raising his own profile and diligently doing his work. He may well continue to do that, not worrying about his public image or political legacy.
But the episode last Friday raises serious questions about the political strategy of Rahul Gandhi. Rahul has for long toyed with the option of either succeeding Manmohan Singh or dethroning him. Part of the problem with the second Manmohan Singh government has been this confusion. Should the Rahul loyalists praise the government and inherit their success or criticise the government and grab the reins?
Some media commentators have drawn a parallel with Indira Gandhi’s revolt against the Congress Syndicate and Rajiv’s own attacks against the “party bosses”. The parallels don’t work. Indira mobilised the party’s “Young Turks”, socialists and communist fellow travellers to seize power from the entrenched power brokers of the party organisation. Though Nehru’s daughter, she was an outsider in the party hierarchy. Rajiv’s criticism of the party old guard in 1985 came after he became PM, when he had power and responsibility to act. Rahul is an insider, in more senses than one. Yet, he has tried to project himself as an outsider.
This contrarian strategy was first revealed in his address to a group of students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2009, when he said, “The hierarchical system exists (in Congress). It is a reality. But what is the option before me? I can either propagate the system or change it. I am not the one to propagate it so I am trying to change it. You do not like the system; even
I do not like it. We have to work together to change it.”
In itself, this is not a wrong strategy to adopt. But an agent of change can build on his inheritance rather than seek to rubbish it. You can be a John Major to a Margaret Thatcher or a Kevin Rudd to a Julia Gillard. The electorate rewarded Major and punished Rudd. It requires great sophistication and maturity to provide leadership to a transition without undermining the image of the predecessor.
Unfortunately, for Rahul, many around him chose the ill-advised path of mocking the PM and blaming him for all the party’s errors of judgement and acts of misdemeanour. It was almost as if Rahul’s strategists wanted to first give the government a bad name so that they could then project Rahul as the agent of change and hope for better government. Can an inheritor of power also be the rebel, the radical, the outsider?
The writer is honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research and former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh