Ahmed Patel, senior Congress leader and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, has an affable demeanour with a strict avoidance of displays of emotion. Yet, after his roller coaster ride to his fifth Rajya Sabha seat from home state Gujarat, at 2:30 am, Patel, a night bird, was visibly moved as he hugged his son Faesal.
But sweet as it is, make no mistake - this victory which virtually saw the entire cabinet park itself in Nirvachan Sadan (Election Commission headquarters) and a counter heavy-weight Congress delegation led by P Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad, is no turning point for the Congress.
Ahmed did not want to disturb his boss Sonia Gandhi with news of winning the high wire contest versus Amit Shah. It was a battle that also saw the huge rift within the Congress escalate, as usual, at a time of crisis.
"The Sonia Congress saved the day. The Rahul Congress was busy attacking the party via interviews. Nowhere to be seen on the ground," said a senior Congress leader referring to the no-holds-barred attack by Jairam Ramesh where he said the party faces an existential crisis and while "the sultanate has gone, we behave as if we are sultans still. We have to completely redo the way of thinking, the way of acting, the way of projecting, the way of communicating."
The attack a day before the crucial Rajya Sabha polls showed the war within, and was a bit rich coming from Ramesh who enjoyed 13 years in the Rajya Sabha, had been a cabinet minister for five years and was part of the party's poll preparation committee.
The divide was further laid bare when three-term Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit reacted and retorted that "Ramesh was one of the sultans". Former Minister Veerappa Moily wanted disciplinary action against Ramesh. Dikshit earlier took a genteel jibe at Rahul Gandhi after the UP elections and asked him to go to office occasionally.
All that Ramesh did was point out the fact that the emperor wears no clothes. Perhaps he should have been the last person to point it out, but what he said is absolutely correct. The Congress is sunk in complacency, unwilling to stir itself to offer a counter-narrative to Modi's high-decibel story. The party is facing a leadership crisis of epic proportions where a family brand name is no guarantor of electoral success in a new aspirational India. In fact, the new voter demographic is impatient with entitlement and privilege apparent in the fact that the Congress is unable to attract new members to join its cadres. Rahul Gandhi, who is that strange combo of both heir and spare, is charitably seen as a "reluctant politician". Hardly enough to wrestle with the Modi-Shah duo who will not concede even a centimetre of political space. Whether the party admits it or not, Gandhi is the face of failure after failure of the party leadership. What he stands for and what his policy plans are remain a mystifying mystery for India.
The Congress has been unable to manage a generational transition and it shows up in the cracks that surface all the time. While Sonia Gandhi is only too keen to hand over the baton to her son and retire to a cottage in the hills (her oft-repeated desire), Junior does not seem to want the responsibility. And that is blocking all organisational avenues for young and talented leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, who could help reconfigure the party.
The old guard, exemplified by Patel, Azad, Chidambaram, Kamal Nath and Captain Amarinder Singh, still do all the party's heavy lifting and are united in sharing an uneasy equation with Rahul Gandhi. And while Ahmed snatched the Rajya Sabha seat from a rampaging Shah who will now face-off with him in the Upper House, the Congress' prospects for the December battle in Gujarat look dismal. The Congress had clearly underestimated the damage that an angry Shankersinh Vaghela could do; it is still woefully under-prepared and lacks a script for the polls.
The same holds true for Madhya Pradesh and all other states going to the polls in the next two years. The Vaghela twist will play out again as the Congress is unable to decide or announce who will be its face as in the case of Madhya Pradesh.
This leadership vacuum has been a gift to Shah as Gandhi seems to be his secret weapon in every contest. In Gujarat, to settle the old grudge with Patel, the BJP used every trick in the book. There are stories of huge pressure and money changing hands - the sort of allegations that emerge in every close election - but the Congress' horror at these reports appears comical. Shah, with his brilliant scheming and strategising, is just taking a leaf out of the Congress playbook - except he plays the game better.
In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP is now the single-largest group, though only one seat ahead of the Congress. And while Patel managed his 44 votes to win, the Congress would do well to remember it has just 44 seats in Lok Sabha and no real plan of how to increase them.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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