Where there is smoke in Congress — is there fire?
Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh criticised last week how decision-making within Congress was made in a “narrow context” — meaning the Gandhis. He quickly backtracked by swearing loyalty to the family, but only after being publicly snubbed by Sonia Gandhi.
This came amid a controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s very public trips around India — leading to him being called “Crown Prince”. Some said he was overshadowing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Clearly there is controversy over what should be the role of these two Gandhi’s – the heirs to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that has run India on and off since Independence – in an election year.
Around the same time I had been in Karnataka, spending a hot afternoon at a rally by Sonia while covering this key state election. Sonia spoke in Hindi to thousands of people who only understood Kannada, one of the languages of Karnataka. As a journalist, I found it difficult to find one exciting quote I could use for my story — something unusual for most politicians who understand like no one the value of the sound bite.
Sonia obviously struggles to be great public speaker, but I wondered why no effort has been made either to get a translator for the crowd, or for her speechwriters to present a more media-friendly speech for the Karnataka election.
As Sonia spoke, I turned around behind me to look at the faces of the crowd. Many were falling asleep in the heat, others chatted among themselves. Many people seemed eager to go home.
The next day Hindu nationalist BHP party aides told me they were rubbing the hands in glee at the lack of a strong message in Sonia’s speech.
The same aides were also happy that Congress had not put forward a candidate for the chief minister’s job, common practice in a party where the top brass plays a game and divide and rule with state-level officials.
While Congress may openly criticise Singh for betraying the family name, the more important question for Congress may be asking if the Gandhi name still inspires the kind of voters who attended this rally. They may need to worry about the loyalty of voters.
Few have a bad word for Sonia. But when I asked people why they had come, most said it was to glimpse her as one would turn out to see a Bollywood celebrity. Some said it was to see her “fair skin.” But it was not about politics.
Driving back from the rally, a journalist with 20 years experience in India told me that one could easily forget that Congress leaders in decades past could be awe-inspring public speakers that would draw tens of thousands of eager voters — He mentioned Indira Gandhi as one and he contrasted Sonia with the reception that BJP Narendra Modi had received in rallies.
The string of state election defeats show both Rahul and Sonia are clearly struggling to resonate with voters. One wonders if the time will come when more members of Congress start to ask if the Gandhi dynasty needs to make way for newer faces — a “Modi” equivalent for Congress.