Why the G-23 can’t shake up the Gandhis for now
The battle between Rahul Gandhi and the G-23 is not just a turf war. It is a battle for personal political survival. We will not understand this if we only look at it from the point of view of party politics. Realpolitik is much more than that. The political system is made up not only of what is visible to us, but of the entire power system that helps parties win.
The most important role played here is that of the various national and regional elites – big business, babudom, judicial officers, media, public intellectuals, urban power agents, large landowners and even foreign companies, funds and institutions. It is only when a significant proportion of these disparate elites support a political party that it can come to power.
Of course, in democracies political parties rule on behalf of the people. And in India, the people are extremely poor. The power of the elites must therefore be mediated through an electoral process that can mobilize the poor behind a program that ultimately replicates the system. Thus, a successful political party must forge an invisible coalition between ruling elites and poor voters.
Congress did this successfully for 40 years as the state controlled the top of the economy and society. From the mid-1980s, the push for privatization changed this equation, giving a much larger role to caste and merchant classes. In the 1990s, alongside the Rao-Manmohan reforms, public culture was dominated by the valuation of entrepreneurship; the state was increasingly seen as an obstacle to India’s development.
This change in the political attitude of the Indian elites is a crucial condition for the rise of the BJP from the end of the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, the BJP had established itself as the “party of power”, or the party that attracted the majority of the ruling elites around it. Between 1971 and 1996, Congress was the most prominent party in six of Lok Sabha’s seven elections. Over the next 25 years, the BJP was the most prominent party in five of Lok Sabha’s seven elections. Indeed, the BJP has replaced Congress as the default destination for ruling elites, either directly or through electoral alliances with regional parties.
The 2004 and 2009 elections may seem to disprove this, but these two elections are outliers in the trend. And the pressures of a non-dominant power in power manifested themselves very quickly in the struggle between the government and the party in the UPA years. The party leadership admitted that it did not have the unwavering support of the ruling elites and wanted to secure a greater position among the “people”. The rapprochement with the left and the Common Minimum Program made it even more suspect among companies and merchant groups. That’s why Congress tried to rebuild a base among the poor through MGNREGA and farm loan waivers.
Yet the government itself was run by people who were deeply pro-business and pro-market. They were needed so that Congress could build bridges with India’s new ruling elites, especially the merchant classes and castes. Many of these former ministers are now part of the G-23 rebel camp. Even the old-school “socialist” ministers evolved “to the right” when they confronted the babu that rose during the years when the Indian economy was turning to the right.
Very quickly, the party led by Sonia found it difficult to control the government. The first clear glimpse of this came during the Indo-US nuclear deal, which left-wing parties opposed. Veterans of the left will tell you how they were convinced that a compromise had been found between Congress and the parties on the left. Things suddenly fell apart when Manmohan Singh gave an interview to a major newspaper, daring the left to withdraw support. The party must have unleashed its guardians to calm things down, but the prime minister’s turn has gone.
A few years after the return to power of the UPA in 2009 with a more important mandate, the Gandhis saw their authority severely pruned. The UPA-2 cabinet reshuffles show that the Gandhi family loyalists have been slowly removed from their key positions and those who remain have gradually begun to assert their independence. The most prominent among the alternative power centers were Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, but even junior ministers were happy to gossip against the Gandhis in private conversations with reporters.
The agenda of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was often at odds with Congress party electoral strategists. One battle Sonia and her team lost was over the free ration for everyone. Party leadership wanted a big food subsidy to add to other winning programs like MGNREGA and farm loan waivers. The PMO blocked it by asking its own commission to study its feasibility. Even the flagship MGNREGA was gradually funded by Minister of Finance Chidambaram. This led to an open battle between Chidambaram and the then Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh, who was widely regarded as a man of Rahul Gandhi.
There are many such cases in the public domain, as well as anecdotes and stories circulating on the journalistic vine, which indicate that there was significant tension between 10 Janpath and Raisina Hill. It was to explode in the public spectacle of Rahul Gandhi breaking into a congressional press conference and tearing up an ordinance pushed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It was Congress in power. The exit of the Congress from power continued with the same tensions. The most visible Congress leaders outside the Gandhi family are former ministers, and some of them are more technocrats than politicians. P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor have all been key faces of the UPA and are well known to viewers across the country. None of them are old-fashioned party loyalists, and they have repeatedly gone against the party’s mandate, even when it was in power.
At present, however, the G-23 is of no value to Rahul Gandhi. He realizes that they cannot win him any election because the ruling elites do not support them when they are out of power. This is why Rahul is trying to build a new alliance by promoting a second tier of leaders who have emerged from outside the English speaking elite and their cohorts. He is gradually positioning young, knowledgeable street leaders who have a vernacular link. We saw one such person emerge in the second wave of COVID: 40-year-old former Shimoga cricketer, Srinivas BV, who became a household name organizing emergency services for COVID patients. Rahul appointed him to head the Youth Congress.
Then there is Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar. Mevani, a Dalit activist and independent MP from Gujarat, has often been criticized by other Dalit leaders for being too close to the left. Kanhaiya Kumar, the poster child for radical student politics, is the son of a worker from Anganwadi. Even in 2019, there were rumors that he would get a ticket to the Bihar Congress, but things didn’t work out and Kanhaiya fought back as the CPI candidate. He joins Congress directly as a national executive member of the CPI. These two young brandons have shown that they had great political ambitions. However, their youth (Mevani is 40 and Kanhaiya 34) will allow them to consider the long term. They won’t mind listening to Rahul, who is in his early fifties, or playing a supporting role in alliances with strong regional parties. They also represent a thread among the poor of India who are in favor of backward caste and Dalit politics, but do not identify with caste parties.
This strategic shift is the result of pure necessity. Congress cannot compete with the BJP either in space for the support of ruling elites or in building a political consensus based on religious identity. It also cannot compete with regional parties controlled by key dominant castes – SP, BSP, RJD, JD (U) or JD (S). Rahul Gandhi’s only hope is to build a grassroots network of young activists and leaders who see the class as the key driver of politics.
This is what pushes Rahul to the left, and increases the distance between him and the G-23. The leaders who emerged in the 2000s are still stuck in networks of power, where the BJP reigns supreme. They cannot escape it. For now, Rahul doesn’t need it. They will only become relevant again if a large part of India Inc, which ultimately funds the electoral struggle game, loses faith in the Modi government. It is then that the prominent faces of the G-23 will be needed again.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was senior editor of NDTV’s Hindi and business news channels.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV assumes no responsibility in this regard.