A veteran politician once remarked that all organisations, including political parties, are like a bucket with a hole. The old members and workers keep dropping out while new ones trickle in. The challenge, he said, is to nurture and groom the newcomers for specific leadership roles.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has been doing just that over the past seven years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ably assisted by his confidant Home Minister Amit Shah, has not only established their complete control over the party following their stupendous electoral success in 2014 but also transformed it by bringing about a generational change in the organisation, both at the Centre and in the states.
Congress, on the other hand, is struggling to cast aside the party’s old guard and promote NextGen leaders to infuse fresh blood and new ideas into the organisation. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been attempting to overhaul the Congress organisation, weed out vested interests and give the party a more youthful look since he was first appointed party general secretary in 2007. But to little avail. The Nehru-Gandhi scion has run into a wall of resistance from senior leaders who draw their strength from their proximity to party president Sonia Gandhi and are clearly loath to give up their perks and privileges.
Modi too had to face his share of opponents in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls before the BJP declared him it’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Senior leader LK Advani, helped by his band of followers like Sushma Swaraj and others, did try to stall such a declaration but their efforts proved ineffectual in the face of pressure from the party cadres and a go-ahead from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor.
There has been no looking back for Modi since he powered the BJP to a thumping victory in the 2014 general election and followed it up with a string of successes in assembly polls. Having established his supremacy in the electoral battlefield, Modi moved quickly to tighten his grip on the party organisation.
The process began with denying veteran leaders like LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar positions in the party organisation and making them members of the newly-constituted Margdarshak Mandal which effectively meant an end to their political career. This exercise has been continuing since then. On Monday, BS Yediyurappa, the BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka, became the latest veteran to be shown the door, providing the BJP’s Central leadership an opportunity to put a new and young team in the Southern state.
This is not a first for Modi and Shah. The two top leaders have, over the years, have brought in a host of new leaders to the party organisation and placed chief ministers of their choice in the states like Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, Raghubar Das in Jharkhand and Vijay Rupani in Gujarat.
This generational change has been effected smoothly with few protests as it is well understood by party MPs and ministers that they owe their victory and position to Modi’s charisma and popularity. More recently, Modi once again demonstrated that his grip on the party and government remains unshaken when he dropped senior ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, Harsh Vardhan and Ramesh Pokhriyal and inducted relatively new and younger faces in the latest Cabinet reshuffle.
If Modi has been successful in chopping and changing his team, it is primarily because he is operating from a position of strength. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is on a weak wicket. He has yet to prove his mettle as a successful vote-catcher who can ensure an electoral victory for the party. In fact, his inability to win elections has led to a growing view in the Congress that Rahul Gandhi lacks the requisite leadership qualities to run a political party.
The BJP’s successful campaign portraying him as an immature leader and reducing him to a joke has further weakened the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s authority. Even when Congress ousted the BJP governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018, the victories were credited to regional leaders like Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel and the Digvijaya Singh-Kamal Nath duo.
As a result, Rahul Gandhi is constantly thwarted in his effort to dislodge the party’s established regional satraps and bring about any change in the party. For instance, Rahul Gandhi was unable to install Sachin Pilot as Rajasthan’s chief minister in 2018 when he was outsmarted by the old guard which managed to persuade Sonia Gandhi that Ashok Gehlot was a better choice.
It was the same story in Madhya Pradesh when senior leaders Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh joined hands to marginalise Jyotiraditya Scindia as Rahul Gandhi failed to assert his authority. The result is that the Congress lost its government in Madhya Pradesh when a disgruntled Scindia walked out with his band of supporters and joined the BJP. The Congress also came perilously close to losing its government in Rajasthan when a defiant Pilot raised a banner of revolt last year. The government was eventually saved but the tension between Gehlot and Pilot continues to simmer.
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi can draw solace from its recent victory when they managed to push ahead with the appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as Punjab Congress chief despite stiff opposition from senior party leader and Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh who has been effectively isolated.
In fact, Rahul Gandhi has been locked in a perennial battle with the old guard for the past seven years, making it difficult for him to pursue his agenda. His move to democratise the internal functioning of the party did not go down well with the old-timers. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s choice of “non-political” advisers as well as the appointments made by him in the party organisation was another sore point.
The tension between the two sides boiled over at an internal meeting post-2019 election defeat when Rahul Gandhi accused party seniors of not being sufficiently proactive in the poll election campaign. He then followed this up by stepping down as party president, which only allowed the old guard to consolidate its position in the party, especially after Sonia Gandhi took over as interim Congress president.
The letter was written by 23 Congress leaders seeking sweeping changes in the party and a full-time and visible leader was actually a message that Rahul Gandhi had failed to deliver and he should make way for someone more effective.
If the old guard has succeeded in having its way, Rahul Gandhi has to take his share of the blame. Besides his lack of staying power and contempt for older leaders, his own political inexperience has forced Congress to depend on the seniors to bail out the party in a crisis. Whether it was the revolt by Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan or the political crisis in Uttarakhand and Karnataka when the BJP stepped up efforts to dislodge the Congress governments, the party had to dispatch its experienced leaders to deal with the crisis.
If Rahul Gandhi has to purge the party of the old deadwood and bring about the necessary generational change in the organisation, he has to start by winning elections. He failed in Kerala and West Bengal but has an opportunity to redeem himself in next year’s assembly polls in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
(The writer is an Independent Journalist. Views expressed are personal.)