18 September 2011

Mother, Son, and the INC's Political Culture

We, including Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, know that Sonia Gandhi and her family control the reins of the UPA government at the Centre. Rather than being coy about such an unpalatable fact, Diggy Raja the Loudmouth (aka Digvijay Singh) and his ilk often go around the town bragging about Madam's remote control power. Sycophantic Congressmen are always in a race to outdo each other to become sycophant par excellence. 

Most political observers know that all Congress leaders have had a small coterie who would 'give' the Leader (with a capital L) her so-called political sagacity. Sonia Gandhi is no exception; access to Madam is restricted and even senior Congress leaders have to pass through this coterie to get an audience with their Leader. Talk about exclusivity!

For years, it has been an open secret that Ambika Soni and Ahmed Patel are part of this coterie. Now Wi
kiLeaks has shed more light on the coterie and the Congress culture. To cut a long story short, I will reproduce excerpts from two U.S. Embassy cables (with my highlighters in bold) on the dubious nature of politicking in the corridors of power.

Please note that this cable was sent from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in 2005. Since then, of those names mentioned in the cable, Arjun Singh is dead, Natwar Singh is out in the cold (because of the UN report on food-for-oil scam) while Shivraj Patil's political career is in the loop line. 
Otherwise nothing much changed in the Congress party except that the levels of morality have plumbed new depths. 

Congress Culture Defines Sonia Gandhi's Role (Link to cable here)
 Summary: Since the Congress-dominated government has been in power, there have been widespread allegations by the opposition BJP and media commentators that party President Sonia Gandhi has been pulling the strings of government.  Our conversations with a wide variety of insiders suggest that her role is more muted and nuanced.  She has deliberately attempted to preserve the image of being ""above the fray"" politically, taking maximum advantage of Congress culture, which prescribes that the party figurehead be surrounded by an ""inner coterie"" to provide advice, and shield the leader from criticism and dissent.  The Gandhis remain coy as to which of their many advisors are ""in"" and which are ""out,"" leading to endless speculation, and large numbers of people claiming to be ""close to the Gandhi family.""  Mrs. Gandhi also heads the National Advisory Council, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Steering Committee, and a committee that administers relations with the Left Front (LF).  She restricts her role in these meetings to presiding as chair and utilizes senior Congress leaders to do the talking.  Embassy contacts emphasize that Mrs. Gandhi prefers to wield power behind the scenes, relying on discrete back-channel communications with key figures in Congress and allied parties to address outstanding problems.  While this elaborate system protects her from blame for GOI shortcomings, it also complicates honest assessments, as her handlers strictly control information flow and access.  End Summary.
The Web Around Sonia
For decades, Congress culture has had an ""inner coterie"" around the Gandhi family, to offer them advice and protect them from dissenting opinions and criticism.  The family has been secretive about who belongs to the inner circle, which makes it difficult to define the current membership.  Embassy contacts claim that this complex web assists and inhibits Mrs. Gandhi to wield power.  While the BJP accuses Mrs. Gandhi of acting ""as a shadow Prime Minister,"" our contacts generally agree that she and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have defined their roles, with the PM acting as a corruption-free technocrat handling governance, who remains above the political fray, while Mrs. Gandhi concentrates on the constant give-and-take associated with running an enormous political party with tens of millions of members and a disparate coalition. Mrs. Gandhi's three principal advisors, Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh, have served the Gandhi family for many years, and derive their power through proximity to her.  Party insiders believe that Soni is on the ascendant and currently among those individuals that Mrs. Gandhi trusts the most.  Ramesh is primarily viewed as a thinker and wordsmith, who drafts Mrs. Gandhi's speeches and helps shape her views.  Insiders dismiss Ahmed Patel as an intellectual lightweight, known primarily for his skills as a political ""errand boy"" who gets things done behind the scenes for Mrs. Gandhi.  His star has fallen after allegedly mismanaging recent assembly elections in Jharkhand and Bihar. 
Unlike the advisors, who tend to remain with the Gandhis over the long-term, individual politicians move in and out of Mrs. Gandhi's inner circle.  At present, the three most prominent include HRD Minister Arjun Singh, Party General Secretary Digvijay Singh, and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.  All three are extremely ambitious and would like to become Prime Minister.  According to our sources, Arjun Singh's chances are fading, as he is viewed as too old and too overbearing.  Sharad Pawar, once plagued by ill health, seems to have recovered and is considered one of the most senior and competent of the old Congress leadership. Digvijay Singh, the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, is highly regarded as one of the few senior Congress leaders with the ""common touch.""  Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee occupy a separate orbit of super Ministers whose long-standing personal ties to the Gandhi family and seniority in Congress politics allow direct personal access to Mrs. Gandhi, and routine input on Congress decision making across a range of issues.  Of these three, Mukherjee is clearly the most formidable -- and reportedly harbors the greatest hope of some day becoming Prime Minister.
Sonia and the NAC 
Mrs. Gandhi's role as NAC Chairman provides her with Cabinet rank and a ""secretariat"" with a complement of civil servants and staff that report directly to her, as well as office space and a travel budget.... Contacts tell us that while Mrs. Gandhi nominally chairs the sessions, she restricts her involvement to brief opening and closing statements.
Since the NAC has been largely moribund, some political observers theorize that Congress created it to provide Mrs. Gandhi with needed Cabinet rank and infrastructure, to help convince the Communists that it was serious about the CMP, to help burnish Mrs. Gandhi's image as a ""compassionate leader"" who cares about the poor, and to provide entre for NGOs in the policy process.
Sonia and the UPA
There are three components that must be placated and balanced to keep the UPA government in power: Congress, the Communist parties, and the regional/caste parties.  Sonia and the Congress leadership complain about Communist obstruction, but are convinced that these parties, although ideological, are not ""irresponsible.""  In the eyes of Congress leaders, most Communists are ""pragmatic,"" projecting an image of looking after the poor and downtrodden, in order to mollify the party faithful, while not preventing government from functioning.
 While many in the Congress inner circle have some affinity with the Communists and work together with them on selected issues, they view the regional satraps of the UPA allies with disdain, and prefer to keep them at arm's length.  The recent Congress fiasco in Bihar, for example, convinced many in Congress that Bihar-based politicos Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are ""loose cannons"" who cannot be trusted.  Their disdain for these often rustic regional politicians has prevented Congress from properly managing the UPA coalition.  Because of these engrained prejudices, Congress has been unable to focus on the BJP as its principal adversary, and instead has become mired in internecine squabbling. 
According to our contacts, Mrs. Gandhi plays a similar role in the Steering Committee meetings as she does in the NAC, sitting silently through meetings without participating.... these meetings, which are held largely for public consumption and to demonstrate to the public that Congress is a responsible party interested in "coalition maintenance."
As one of the world's oldest and largest political parties, Congress has evolved an elaborate culture aimed at protecting the Gandhi dynasty.  Mrs. Gandhi's inner circle carefully controls her access to information, and inoculates her from criticism, while her carefully scripted public appearances protect her from making gaffes or missteps.  This has the advantage of preserving the ""sanctity"" of Mrs. Gandhi and the dynasty, but can also complicate her efforts to wield power.  This system prevents Mrs. Gandhi from asserting herself and reduces her charisma, and makes her overly reliant on a selected group, which may not always have her or the party's best interests at heart.  She appears more comfortable working with the often high-caste and well-educated Communists than with regional satraps of the state-based parties, which suggests that the bumpy Congress/UPA relationship is likely to continue. 
The Son Also Rises (Full cable here) 
Congress Party supremo Sonia Gandhi appointed son Rahul Gandhi to a senior position in the Congress Party on September 24, a move that gives Rahul a formal role in the party organization and is seen as ensuring a clear line of dynastic succession.... Rahul is widely viewed as an empty suit and will have to prove wrong those who dismiss him as a light weight.  To do so he will have to demonstrate determination, depth, savvy and stamina.  He will need to get his hands dirty in the untidy and ruthless business that is Indian politics.
Congress Party officials and workers reacted with enthusiasm and fanfare to the elevation of Rahul Gandhi and the infusion of the younger MPs into the organizational structure.  Unfortunately for them, the buzz surrounding the appointment was short-lived.  It was overshadowed immediately by euphoric nation-wide celebrations when India lifted the cricket Twenty-20 World Cup on September 24 by defeating arch-rivals Pakistan.
Much has been made about Rahul Gandhi taking a party post once occupied by his father en route to becoming the Prime Minister.  The political landscape that Rahul steps into, however, is very different from what Rajiv Gandhi encountered in the eighties.  The Congress Party then was by far the most dominant political force in the country.  Except for a brief post-Emergency period, it had been in power continuously since independence.  It had a clear majority in Parliament.  It controlled most key state governments. Opposition parties, including the BJP-precursor Jan Sangh, were mere irritants to Congress Party rule.  Rahul Gandhi enters the national stage in starkly different circumstances.  The Congress Party is a much weakened entity.  The Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin coalition that kept it in power for so long has unraveled.  The party no longer has a presence in Uttar Pradesh, once the seat of its power in Delhi.  Regional parties have gained at the expense of the Congress Part as they have better harnessed regional aspirations.  Coalition government is the rule rather uthe exception in Delhi.
Little is known about Rahul Gandhi's personal political beliefs, if any.  He is reticent in public, has shunned the spotlight, and has yet to make any significant intervention in Parliament.  His singular foray to center stage during the UP elections was unremarkable.  He is widely viewed as an empty suit and will have to prove wrong those who dismiss him as a lightweight.  To do so he will have to demonstrate determination, depth, savvy and stamina.  He will need to develop his own networks of loyalists and operators. He will need to engage with coalition allies and cross words with the opposition.  In sum, he will need to get his hands dirty in the untidy and ruthless business that is Indian politics.  Relying solely on family inheritance may get him the top job but it will not be enough to make for a successful long-term political career in India.
Let us look at how things have turned out for Rahul Baba since his entry into politics. His impact on Congress' electoral prospects everywhere has been zilch. Look at Uttar Pradesh: all his efforts to galvanise the INC at the grassroots level have flopped. Forget Gujarat; both mother and son were swept away by the Narendra Modi tsunami. And Jayalalithaa pricked their bloated egos in Tamil Nadu. 

Any electoral win is attributed to the charisma of the mother-son duo but any electoral loss is the result of the opposition's money and vote bank politics as well as the weakness of the local Congress leaders!

Rahul Gandhi was nowhere in the picture when Team Anna lauched the Jan Lokpal agitation. Even when he emerged toward the end days of the agitation, he sided with the UPA government. So much for his ideals of a corruption-free and all-inclusive society. 

Till date, he has not defined his political beliefs. Not that they are needed if you happen to belong to the Gandhi Dynasty. 


Nish said...

One of the best articles I have ever read sir..!!!

gowhereyoufeelmostactive said...

"Sycophantic Congressmen are always in a race to outdo each other to become sycophant par excellence. "- lol sir!!

And its an awwsum one sir! :)

rohit goppishetty said...

sir u dint discuss about the impact of rahul on the young politicians (reffering to sachin pilot,jyothiraditya scindia.....i guess dey hav done some good in der respective fields...)

and also about a common prank which goes around in the media
"at 40 how can he potray himself as youth"??lol:P