G-23 - A Veritable Storm in a Teacup
Group of 23 (G-23)
A letter written last month by some quite well-known names from the Congress party- some of whom are high profile individuals – essentially seeking accountability from the Gandhi family, and demanding party elections and return to earlier procedures and forums of collegial functioning- became a media sensation.
Perhaps this was because the Congress seemed to be shooting itself in the foot or because the makings of a challenge to the domination of the Gandhis generated excitement. Whatever the cause, the development deserves to be placed within the broader framework of the goings-on in our national affairs and the country’s political, economic and social life.
Seen in this light, some questions arise, the foremost of which is: Where is the letter to be pegged in the hierarchy of concerns in a time of serious national crisis triggered by the government’s actions across the board?
Other questions are: One, are the concerns expressed in the letter likely to impact voter mood (let’s say in the upcoming Bihar Assembly election, the only poll that is round the corner) when separated from other pertinent factors, or is the letter only an impassioned theoretical plea for inner-party democracy with no practical implications?
And two, in what ways is it likely to help consolidate a national citizens’ mobilisation in interrogating the egregious actions of the government?
There is also a related question: No matter what we may think of the Gandhis, and although we may continue to scrutinize them minutely since they sit at the top of decision-making in the country’s main opposition party, do we proceed on the premise that they are a nuisance and a hindrance to offering a concerted response to the challenges posed by the government?
Answers to these questions may help place the much talked-about letter in perspective. While it is not unlikely that the letter may go down in history as the marker of a watershed moment and become a document of reference for commentators a generation from now, it is early to say if it possesses true historical worth. The determination of that may never be easy, and is likely to depend on the future shape of the Congress party if a Gandhi continues at the helm or, alternatively, under a new, duly elected, leader.
If the Congress’ fortunes can improve vastly in terms of Lok Sabha results- patently the real concern of the letter-warriors- under a non-Gandhi, the authors would probably have made their point decisively. Their effort would be remembered by posterity for having brought back democratic functioning to the Congress menu.
The same effect would probably not be achieved if the Congress does decisively well under a Gandhi once again (admittedly after a gap), for that is likely to be put down as yet another example of the inscrutable Gandhi magic, as in 2004, when none other than the nationally acclaimed PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, from the BJP-RSS stables- unlike the present incumbent, a deeply divisive figure who seems clueless on governance and clued in only on incendiary political rhetoric- was unseated through Sonia Gandhi’s adroitness in shoring up her own party and bringing about great coalition chemistry, beating all odds.
A caveat is needed here: Election results derive from a host of complex considerations, and do not depend on the quality of a party’s leadership alone, although in public perception this remains disproportionately important since most other factors are not visible or overt. Here it is useful to remember that the BJP too had lost two consecutive elections (2004, 2009) after being in power nationally, and at a time when it was helmed by its most cherished leaders who usually had the wind behind them.
At any rate, the scribes have highlighted the leadership issue, linked it to inner-party elections, and have indirectly commented on the pervasive culture of sycophancy and nepotism within the party, although practically to the last man they are beneficiaries of this culture. This makes their plea just a little bit curious, and one single explanation may not fit each of the twenty-three letter writers.
It is of course not clear how deeply committed the group are even theoretically to the proposition that inner-party elections must be held, no matter what. When the Congress led the UPA government for ten consecutive years, no one went public (as they have done now) demanding inner-party democracy. They were in power and quite enjoying it. It didn’t matter that a Gandhi was at the helm of the party.
The exception in the group is the eminent lawyer- a former Union minister- Kapil Sibal. In 2000, when the Congress was out of power, he had been in the small party faction which believed that the post of Congress president should be decided on the basis of a contest, and had politically sided with (the late) Jitendra Prasada, who challenged Sonia Gandhi for the position, although he lost badly, as expected.
But it was the symbolism of the challenge that counted as it underlined the spirit of democracy, although it is useful to consider that the challenge was mounted when the Congress was sitting in the opposition. What was good and wholesome about the whole thing, though, was that neither Prasada nor Sibal was banished to Siberia.
It was also noteworthy that the contest was not preceded by letter-writing and the leaking of any memo or essay on inner-party democracy to the media before it could be taken up for consideration either by the party president (Sonia Gandhi) or the Congress Working Committee.
In contrast, the ‘manifesto of the twenty-three’ was leaked to the media, unleashing a public trial of sorts, and appraisal, of the Gandhis before the CWC (meeting virtually, in these Covid times) took up the letter issue. This led to the impression that really the intended recipients of the letter were the people of India, and not Sonia Gandhi, the formally named recipient.
More, a hatchet job was sought to be done on Rahul Gandhi- whatever view we may take of his political career and graph- while the virtual CWC meeting was on. False news was circulated to television channels shortly after the meeting commenced that Rahul Gandhi had sharply attacked the letter-writers and accused them of being in cahoots with the BJP.
Acting on this basis, Sibal (not a CWC member) shot off a sharply-worded Tweet that was flashed repeatedly on TV screens. A prominent English-language channel, which likes to be seen as liberal, even organized a quick discussion to debunk Rahul Gandhi for his presumed act of vengefulness against seekers of inner-party democracy.
Shortly afterward, catching everyone by surprise, Sibal tweeted again to say that Rahul Gandhi had personally phoned him to explain that what was being attributed to him was untrue and bogus, and the lawyer promptly- and graciously- withdrew his earlier tweet, which was causing a mini-storm within a storm.
However, even after the clarification, the first tweet premised on falsehood continued to be prominently displayed on television. No upholder of the ideals of “serious journalism” in the television news business was contrite or apologetic.
This sequence of events was more in the mould of CIA or KGB disinformation war tactics consciously employed to produce a specified political outcome, create a certain atmosphere, and to discredit particular individuals or political factions, and hardly reflective of sincere efforts to correct deviations from the path of democracy in the country’s main opposition party.
Who was responsible? Was it an individual or a faction from among the letter writers themselves, was it some clever agency at work at the behest of the powers-that-be, or is there another explanation? It will be useful to find out.
If the quest for an answer does not take off, it is more than likely that we will see a repeat of similar tactics in key political moments, with shoddy or compromised sections of the media, not particular about fact-checking, becoming willing or unconscious accomplices in their pursuit of sensationalism.
It is surprising that, while demanding fresh elections in the Congress party organization and the election of a new party chief and CWC, the Group of 23 or G-23 have expressed unhappiness with elections held in the Youth Congress and the NSUI’s, Congress’ feeder organizations to which Rahul Gandhi as party chief had specially directed his attention. More elections, not less, should have been the G-23’s creed. But they appear uncomfortable with the infusion of fresh blood into their party system.
It is sometimes suggested that some of the new lot, who have become MPs and unit chiefs in states, act as Rahul Gandhi’s “coterie” and that this upsets the senior folk in the party. The coterie culture is frequently itself a by-product of the absence of inner-party democracy. It is pointless saying that in no party in India are proper elections held. The Congress ought to endeavour to be different, for it does possess a long democratic tradition.
In light of this tradition, and in order to be fair, the letter-writers could have openly acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi had indeed submitted himself to the notion of accountability when he resigned as Congress president last year, taking responsibility for the party’s defeat in the Parliament election under his leadership. Such an act has not been seen in any party in India in a very long time, and in the case of Rahul Gandhi it denoted a repudiation of the dynasty principle. He deserved credit for this.
Instead, he received pleadings from the highest forums of the Congress, including by elements now in the G-23, to take back his resignation and carry on as before. In this regard, Shashi Tharoor, now a three-time Lok Sabha MP, was different. He (and only a few others) did root for elections. However, the idea was not pursued either by any groups of individuals (as is being done now), or by the Congress institutionally.
The G-23 have sought to draw pointed attention to the Congress’ present sorry plight on account of depleted Lok Sabha numbers, and an absence of “visible” leadership, an indelicate reference to Sonia Gandhi carrying on as provisional president in spite of her poor health. But this is at best a partial picture.
Since 2014, when the BJP came roaring through the Lok Sabha portals under Narendra Modi, handily beating the Congress, the Congress has proved itself to be more than the saffron party’s equal in Assembly elections in states where there was a one-on-one contest between the two national parties with diametrically opposed ideologies.
The most stunning example of this was Gujarat in 2017, when the Congress almost took the state from the well-entrenched BJP. PM Modi and Amit Shah, sons of the soil, fought with their backs to the wall. The PM even concocted some cock and bull stuff about former PM Manmohan Singh, former vice-president Hamid Ansari and a former Army chief, conspiring with Pakistan to have him defeated. Rahul Gandhi had led the Congress campaign.
But the Congress was found wanting in state after state with a strong regional party. Practically all regional parties are non-communal, though they may not be averse to playing the BJP’s game. As such, the “secular” vote is split and the BJP is frequently the beneficiary. This is a factor that in no small measure has disadvantaged the Congress in Parliament elections also of late, although the Congress suffers from many other disabilities- linked to tactics, such as those related to candidate selection and absence of organizational cohesion (and sometimes even presence) on the ground- when it comes to the bigger stage.
The Congress needs to mull over why it is able to take on with elan a party that is so often described as the best election-fighting machine in the world in state polls when BJP is its only adversary, but not at the national level. Narrow pinpointing is called for in the case of each state, not a broad-brush analysis.
Is it a leadership issue, and more specifically an issue of a capable local leadership? Is it the division of “secular” camp votes? Is it the changing of national mood in favour of religion-based majoritarian politics? And, is all of this immutable, impervious to change?
There are many capable individuals among the G-23. They should offer their party the benefit of their analysis, rather than regard a picture with a skew and present it as the whole.
There is another important matter to consider when a Congress versus BJP stock-taking is done. The past year has seen two fascinating developments. The first was the political manoeuvring in Maharashtra that caused the sundering of the BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena, its oldest partner, and the formation of an alternative Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government. The NCP played a strong hand in this and the Congress went along after initial dithering on so-called ideological parameters. For the BJP, Maharashtra has been a shock that may be hard to recover from.
The second is the stout-hearted handling- leading to comprehensive defeat- of the BJP’s defection game to topple the Ashok Gehlaut Congress government in Rajasthan. The CM held strong and had the backing of his party leadership at the Centre which was both alert and “visible” during the crisis. The BJP looked petty, small, ready to topple elected governments after losing state polls fair and square. The writing of the G-23 letter just when the BJP had been delivered a licking on political tactics did not speak particularly well of the letter-warriors’ sense of timing.
The Modi government has messed up the country on every count- economy, defence, foreign affairs, and has failed to protect our borders. The recent growth rate data is a story of 25 per cent negative growth- the worst in possibly one hundred years. On the pandemic front, India now leads the world in daily case numbers due to sheer mismanagement. Chinese troops have captured a large area and are sitting on it for five months. Practically every neighbour of India has turned away from us and is being coddled by China. The government lives in a world of propaganda and make-believe.
It is time for the Prime Minister to sack some of his key ministers and advisors on finance, defence and health. Instead, he is lecturing the country on purchasing Indian toys and keeping only dogs of Indian breed as pets. The ‘diarchy’ running the show in New Delhi is widely thought to be alienating itself from its own state units, and state governments. This is directly a function of an all-round failure of policy and the spreading of frustration among ordinary people.
Communal-design perversions like stripping of J&K’s autonomy to suppress the constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy of and the unleashing of militarized repression on the only Muslim-majority state in the country, and the outsize fanfare with which the building of a Sri Ram temple in Ayodhya has been commenced, are unlikely to be the balm that people need, but it is the only palliative a fanatical and majoritarian regime can hope to sell.
Will the trick work? The answer is no one knows. However, a government coming more and more to be seen as rapidly losing its elan can behave in desperate and unpredictable ways. Will the next election in 2024 actually take place, or will the government misuse its bulldozing majority in Parliament to go for a system change and toy with the idea of a presidential form? PM Modi has clearly read his massive mandate all wrong. Instead of bringing prosperity, stability and security to the country, he seems all set on creating “disorder in the heavens”.
Under Modi raj, the country’s social cohesion has been badly impaired, affecting national unity. The official narrative demonises large sections of India, practically telling “You don’t belong here” even as they plead this is their soil as much as anyone else’s. This is a pitiable situation for India which can lead on to a tragic morass if the ruling party does not wake up and if the opposition does not play its part. The threat is to our life and culture and our deepest civilisational concerns, not only our livelihoods and borders.
Not just the Congress, but all parties of the opposition need to look reality in the eye and take considered and wise steps that they will not regret, steps that will give the people confidence and hope.
The great master of poetry, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, inarguably South Asia’s poet-laureate of the last half-century, always spoke the voice of the people and never of masters. We may read these lines and take heart:
“Dil na-ummeed toe naheen, nakaam he toe hai;
Lambi hai gham ki shaam, magar sham he to hai!”
(A loose translation: “Even if it’s sometimes no good, this heart is never without hope; Indeed long is the evening of sorrow, but it’s only an evening, remember!”)
Cover Photograph- File photo 2018 Congress party’s 84rth plenary session