The pugnacity that Congress President Rahul Gandhi is exhibiting vis-à-vis the RSS and the ruling dispensation in the country is rare for a Congress leader. Usually, having ruled various states in the country and the Centre for the better part of Independence, what I’ve seen is that Congressmen have too much to hide and too many irons in the fire to want to take on the government of the day for fear of being acted against. The only exception, apart from a few youngsters not yet weighty enough and too low down on the food chain to be noticed by the big fish, is Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam. That is why the two made a good pair during Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai on June 12, where he was present essentially to attend a defamation case filed against him in a court in Bhiwandi in Thane District, for describing the RSS as killers of Mahatma Gandhi.
The court hearing may have been scheduled much earlier but it was a fortuitous coincidence for the Congress that Rahul should come to Maharashtra less than a week after former president Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Nagpur, where Mukherjee shared a common platform with RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. Whatever the spin on Mukherjee's pep talk to the RSS, the fact remains that his very presence at an RSS event has done untold damage to the Congress psyche and Rahul, who had uttered not a single word against such a decision by a party veteran, lost no time in seizing the opportunity with both hands and telling those running the current government in the country a thing or two about bigotry and divisive politics.
According to informed sources in the All India Congress Committee, Rahul Gandhi has been worrying for a long time about booth management in the party. Unlike the BJP, the Congress does not have even a fraction of the resources the BJP does, to employ paid workers to manage booths and voters and has been looking for solutions other than money to motivate its workers. That concern has filtered down to many party leaders and Nirupam was starting early in Mumbai to put his workers in personal touch with Gandhi, in the hope that personal loyalty to the party president will help to keep them loyal to the Congress.
What, however, Gandhi and Nirupam perhaps do not know, but a clutch of pretty prominent Congress leaders in the state do, is that they have some help on hand. More than a year ago, a clutch of public intellectuals loosely calling themselves Democrats came together on a common platform in the interest of keeping up the liberal ethos in the country. They comprise journalists from all mediums, lawyers, doctors, social workers, chartered accounts, professors and others whose main commitment initially was to democracy and liberalism. Gradually, looking at the tanking economy and growing intolerance against minorities, their desperation led them to look for solutions and one of these solutions was to go public, convert themselves into a trust, set up a website in all languages and support any party that will deliver liberalism and democracy to India. Although not all are too fond of the Congress, there is the practical recognition that it is only the Congress which is in the best position to take on the BJP and they must pull out all the stops to help the party to do so.
There is only one problem. Not many Congress leaders in Mumbai, where most of its members are currently based (voluntary disclosure—moi aussi) seem interested in the help being offered. Most of these Democrats had been communicating with each other on social media and not everybody knew each other. But, last week, they came face to face to discuss issues threadbare at a meeting to which Maharashtra Congress president Ashok Chavan (not part of the group) had been invited as a guest of honour, but failed to turn up. While that rattled some of the organisers, Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai where he jumped in with both feet and energised the workers reminded me of what Sharad Pawar had once told me during an election campaign in 2004.
More than a year ago, a clutch of public intellectuals loosely calling themselves Democrats came together on a common platform in the interest of keeping up the liberal ethos in the country. Although not all are too fond of the Congress, there is the practical recognition that it is only the Congress which is in the best position to take on the BJP and they must pull out all the stops to help the party to do so
When his Nationalist Congress Party had formed an alliance with the Congress, then Congress president Sonia Gandhi had addressed a joint rally with Pawar in Solapur. Sushil Kumar Shinde, the reigning chief minister, had burst into tears of relief at the certainty of winning his election after their campaign. Pawar had curled up his nose to say, “Unfortunately, Congress leaders do not know how to win an election. I have built up a whole gamut of second rung leaders who can take the load off my shoulders and campaign as well as me.” At the time he had pointed to Vilasrao Deshmukh as the singular Congress leader who could do the same. “Everybody else just begs and pleads with their party president and hopes one visit to their constituency will do the trick. They do not know how to turn the tide in their favour on their own. They do not know how to engage with people who may not love them but are not against them either."
I can see that is still happening in the Congress for the most part, although Rahul has now empowered a series of state leaders and is willing to be guided by them rather than the other way round. Although the Karnataka experiment did not quite pay off, I am sure the other states will. But Congress leaders, including Rahul, continue to fall short on one score—their lack of initiative in engaging with public intellectuals who are not Congress groupies but may not be really hostile to the party. Unless that gap is covered the Congress will continue to fall short of resources, both intellectual and financial, and may not be able to get all the help it needs so badly.