Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s anecdote, about Rahul Gandhi’s 2013 ‘tear-the-nonsense-ordinance’ comment, is a reminder of the festering problems the Congress is yet to satisfactorily address.
In his recent book ‘Backstage: The Story of India’s High Growth Years’, former deputy chairman of the now-defunct Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia recalls how, in 2013, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked him whether he should resign after then Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi spoke about dismissing an ordinance Singh’s Cabinet had passed.
On September 24, 2013, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-2 government led by Singh had passed an ordinance negating a Supreme Court ruling directing all sitting MPs and MLAs, who are convicted, to resign. Many saw the court ruling as a welcome move and a big step towards sanitising politics in India. The ordinance, however, was dubbed by many, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Opposition, as proof of the Congress’ dalliance with corruption.
Three days later, on September 27, Rahul Gandhi, at a press conference at the Press Club of India, Delhi, said that the ordinance was “nonsense”, and that “[I]t should be torn up and thrown away…” Singh was then in the United States on a visit, and Ahluwalia recalls the PM’s reactions to Rahul Gandhi’s statements.
This episode is worth recollecting now as there have been news reports speculating that Rahul Gandhi is set to return as the Congress’ chief, after his mother Sonia Gandhi vacates the interim chief’s post.
The ‘tear-the-nonsense-ordinance’ episode is, perhaps, the biggest example of how Manmohan Singh was undermined by the party leadership and how the party leadership was a step above the Prime Minister during the UPA years.
It throws light on the two fundamental factors that make the Nehru-Gandhi family so important for the Congress: One, the Gandhis are the biggest vote catchers for the Congress. Two, the family is the glue that holds the party together.
The first factor has been blunted over the last few years. The Gandhis are still popular Congress leaders, but they have lost the vote-pulling ability once associated with them. Rahul Gandhi lost his Lok Sabha seat of Amethi in 2019, and in the recent Delhi assembly polls the Congress finished at an embarrassing third place despite Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra campaigning.
The second factor mentioned above is a more complex one. At a time when dynasty politics is a shortcoming and nepotism is frowned upon, the grand old party is not able to disassociate itself from the family. Previous non-Gandhi-Nehru party Presidents, who have had run-ins with the family have had to retreat.
In the 1950s, when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, the differences he had with Purushottam Das Tandon, the then Congress President, is well documented. In fact, to its credit, the Congress’ website notes that Tandon had to resign just before the 1952 general elections “on account of differences with Nehru over the constitution of the Working Committee and the relationship between the Organisational and Governmental wings of the Party.” In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi’s run-ins with then party presidents DK Barooah and K Brahmanada Reddy are examples of these retreats. Till the end of the 1980s a Nehru-Gandhi as Prime Minister was anytime more powerful than the Congress President. They were the final word in the party.
This equation, however, was not balancing since the 1990s after the demise of Rajiv Gandhi. Congress governments since then have had non-Gandhis as Prime Ministers with either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi as party President. It is here that the problem of dual power centres emerge — and one which the grand old party is yet to satisfactorily address.
For now it seems that the Congress’ dual power centre question is unlikely to affect India’s governance in the near future — however, it could affect the party’s functioning and its future course.
This anecdote from Ahluwalia’s book should serve as a reminder of the problems the Congress will be facing if it is unable to settle this festering problem once and for all.For more Opinion pieces, click here.
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