Shehzad Poonawalla could not have timed it worse. He chose to take on Rahul Gandhi – no less – at a time when the Congress heir apparent was in the middle of a fierce, no-holds-barred fight to wrest Gujarat from the BJP after 22 years. Coming as it did just 10 days before Modi’s home state goes to polls and five days before nominations close for the ‘election’ to the post of Congress President, Poonawalla’s tirade has hit where it hurts the Congress first family – and the party at large – the hardest. After all, questioning ‘dynastic rule’ and terming the ongoing process for election of the Congress President a “19-day well choreographed and orchestrated exercise” is nothing short of blasphemy in a party that just cannot do without a Gandhi at the helm.
Of course, every word in the strongly-worded missive – his second in the last fortnight – Poonawalla dashed off to the Congress vice president is irrefutable. ‘Election’ to the post of Congress President has always been a sham and this one is going to be no different. Dynasts have indeed ruled the roost in India’s oldest party since the time of Indira Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi’s own promise to rid the party of the scourge of dynasty after he was appointed AICC general secretary and put in the charge of the party’s youth and students’ wings has proved to be a non-starter, as Poonawalla was at pains to emphasise in his letter. But trust Congress darbaaris to launch an all-out attack against the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) secretary in the next couple of days, inadvertently proving the very points he has made in his letter to Rahul in the process. In fact, Poonawalla himself appears to have anticipated it when he wrote in his first letter; “I understand a false campaign of misinformation and calumny will be launched against my family and me by those who seek to pull me down. All kinds of rumours will be planted and old baseless skeletons will be removed.”
The fact that Rahul chose not to respond to Poonawalla’s first letter written on November 15 which makes more or less the same points (though in language less ‘blasphemous’ than the latest one) he has made or to grant him an audience he has been seeking for years suggests the would be Congress President has no intention of tinkering with the party ‘culture’ that has thrived on rule by Gandhi diktat and a cringing, obnoxious display of sycophancy. But in choosing to ignore Poonawalla, Rahul may well have lost a wonderful opportunity to win some political brownie points. Had he responded and welcomed Poonawalla to contest for the post of party President while offering a ‘level playing field’ – knowing fully well that the latter did not stand a chance in hell of winning – it would have done wonders to his already improving rating with the electorate. In the process, the Congress heir apparent would have also established his credentials as a leader willing to break with the darbaar culture that has eaten into the vitals of the party and more in tune with the aspirational youth that constitutes over 60% of the country’s population. But then, Congress would not be Congress if that were to happen!
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Apologists of the Gandhi family (and there is no dearth of them) will, of course, claim that the Congress Yuvraj would initiate the required changes after becoming the President, but it will be all hogwash. After all, wasn’t Rahul effectively heading the party since Sonia Gandhi retreated into the background because of poor health? If he had any intention of ushering in any fundamental changes in the way the party is run, we would surely have seen some signs of it already. What we have seen instead is a man who, despite his new age utterances, remains a dynast at heart. The Merit vs. Surname fire that Poonawalla has stoked will continue to slow-burn the Congress in the days ahead.
The Congress may yet win Gujarat – though even that looks highly improbable now. But neither a victory in Modi’s home turf nor Rahul’s ascension to the throne would make the Congress a fighting unit capable of taking on the might of the Modi-led BJP in 2019 unless there is a fundamental change in the way the party and its leader have conducted themselves over the years.