View: Cabal, palace guards or gatekeepers — the only constant with the Gandhis
The Gandhis have always denied the existence of such ‘rootless wonders’ — who lack both mass support and political acumen.
Over the years, there has been one constant accusation against the Gandhis, from Indira to Priyanka: That they are surrounded by a coterie that influences their decision-making. Ironically, the Gandhis have always denied the existence of such ‘rootless wonders’ — who lack both mass support and political acumen, and yet manage to swing key appointments, shuffle portfolios and issue orders. Having a ‘kitchen cabinet’ does have one advantage; if things go wrong, the leader can always blame the coterie, keeping herself (or himself) untarnished. But the Gandhis don’t appear to enjoy that benefit either.
Priyanka Gandhi, barely a few months into formal politics, has reportedly inherited a large number of hangers-on and political wannabes from her brother, Rahul. Sandeep Singh, who was recently caught threatening a television journalist at Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, is one of them. Despite the bad press and social media backlash Priyanka received for this incident, there was no punitive action against Singh.
The Gandhis’ reliance on an inner circle, goes back to people like MO Mathai, who was Jawaharlal Nehru’s special assistant; ML Fotedar and RK Dhawan during Indira’s time; to Vincent George, who worked with Rajiv Gandhi. They usually start out as political aides, speech writers and logistics people, or even stenographers and telephone operators, and then grow to become the eyes and ears of the leader. Being invested with extraordinary powers — such as the ability to remove chief ministers or sack influential people — is what sets them apart from other aides.
For instance, in his tell-tale autobiography, Chinar Leaves, Fotedar provides a detailed account of how he secured Amitabh Bachchan’s resignation as Lok Sabha MP when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. Fotedar alleges that Bachchan used to interfere in matters, relating not just to Congress-ruled Uttar Pradesh (where his constituency was located), but also “in matters concerning Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra”. Fotedar writes: “Amitabh came to see the prime minister. They had discussions. That day, around 2.45 pm or so when I was about to leave for lunch, the prime minister called me. He was accompanied by Amitabh, looking charismatic as usual in a white kurta pyjama. They were walking towards 7 Race Course Road [the prime minister’s residence]. We went inside. The PM took a chair. On his right was Amitabh and I was asked to sit on his left. Rajivji said, ‘Fotedarji wants you to resign’. That was a surprise to me — and it must have been to Amitabh as well.”
Fotedar says Amitabh responded by saying: “If Fotedarji wants me to resign, I am ready to resign. Come on, give me the papers. What do I have to write?” Fotedar writes that he then asked Vincent George, personal assistant to Rajiv Gandhi, to bring a Lok Sabha member’s letterhead pad. “I told Amitabh, ‘Write in your hand to the Speaker: I resign from the Lok Sabha’. Amitabh asked, ‘That’s it?” The note was sent to the Speaker, and the actor’s resignation was accepted.
Things have played out a little differently with the younger Gandhis. Rahul’s abrupt exit on July 3 as president of the Congress, has prompted many members of ‘Team Rahul’ to flock around Priyanka. Among them are Alankar Sawai, an IIM graduate and former banker, who monitors most appointments; Kanishka Singh, who manages the Nehru-Gandhi family-run trusts and AICC properties spread across the country; and KB Byju, a logistics man and a former member of the elite Special Protection Group who quit to join the Congress, and half a dozen others. In 2019, a ‘Priyanka Sena’ — a group of 500 people, sporting pink innerwear and raising slogans in support of the newest Gandhi in the fray — also emerged. The Congress may have suffered a drubbing, but the Priyanka Sena continues to plan a bigger role for her in future through what they refer to as ‘Mission 2022, Uttar Pradesh’.
Among the more prominent switchovers to the Priyanka camp is wordsmith Sandeep Singh. A former member of the All India Students Association (AISA), Singh has reportedly played a significant role in the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal movement, and is well-known for leading students in a black-flag protest against former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he visited New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2005.
In his political career, Singh gained prominence during the February 2016 ‘tukde tukde’ controversy in JNU — which was sparked by protests against the hanging of 2001 Parliament terror attack mastermind Afzal Guru — when he is said to have advised AICC chief Rahul to call on Kanahiya Kumar at the university. The JNU meeting gave the BJP a chance to brand Rahul a sympathiser of ‘anti-national’ elements; then party chief Amit Shah even used Rahul’s alleged proximity with the ‘tukde tudke gang’ as a part of his 2019 campaign.
Priyanka’s coterie views her as being more in the mould of her uncle, Sanjay Gandhi – and, by extension, fancy themselves to be akin to Arjun Dass and Dharam Das Shastri, the shrewd, streetsmart Sanjay loyalists who were allegedly involved in 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms. During the Emergency, Sanjay had reportedly asked his Youth Congress workers to publicly beat up errant bureaucrats — which they often proceeded to do with their footwear — ostensibly to set an ‘example’ among other government officials. And when the 1977 general elections were called, Sanjay rewarded them for their loyalty by making sure the Youth Congress leaders received some hundred-odd Lok Sabha tickets. When the votes were being counted in the Tees Hazari Court in Delhi, jubilant Janata Party and Jan Sangh workers mocked the defeated Congress with the slogan ‘Congressi dikhao, sau rupiya pao (show a Congress man, and win Rs 100)’.
As Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress chief for the first time in March 1998, several breakaway factions of the parent party returned to the fold. Party leaders, who had earlier sided with former AICC chiefs PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, started a whisper campaign alleging preferential treatment to prodigals like Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, Vincent George and ML Fotedar — dubbed the ‘gang of four’ — who were said to be “misleading” Sonia. It was widely believe that these leaders were virtually hand-holding Sonia through her political debut, and had a hand in everything, from Rajya Sabha nominations to Congress floorstrategy and alliances, and more. But Sonia, who understood the need for a more united Congress, eventually replaced the original gang of four with a new one, comprising Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil. She also cut them to size: Arjun Singh was left out of the UPA-II government, and Natwar Singh was sacked over a Volcker committee report in which a UN investigation alleged the then foreign minister of colluding with Saddam Hussein’s government to “bilk the humanitarian oil-for-food programme of $1.8 billion in kickbacks and illicit surcharges”.
Rahul’s stint as party vice president and AICC chief, from 2013 to May 2019, saw the emergence of Mohan Gopal, Mohan Prakash, Jairam Ramesh, Madhusudan Mistry, Kanishka Singh, K Raju, Divya Spandana and a few others as key advisors, who were part of Rahul’s inner circle. This camp was often at loggerheads with the loyalists from Sonia’s time. In fact, from 2011 to 2013, these two groups from within the Congress, mostly worked against each other. Following the electoral defeat of the party in 2014, Team Rahul began to blame the Old Guard for the poll debacle. But by the time the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were announced, Rahul and the Congress were no longer on the same page, so to speak. Team Rahul brought in more outsiders, experts and data analysts. Even slogans like ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ were incorporated without getting it cleared by the Congress Working Committee. People like K Raju, Praveen Chakrabarty and KC Venugopal (who was a notable exception to the ‘rootless wonder’ descriptor because he was a Lok Sabha MP), were given free rein to strategise, select party nominees and pick talking points even as chief ministers from various Congress-led states, waited for an invite to be at the party’s war room at 15, Gurudwara Rakabgunj Road.
The result was disastrous; by the time the 17th Lok Sabha elections were underway, Congress insiders were betting on less than the 70-seat mark, while Rahul’s minions were projecting — incorrectly, as it turned out — a win of over 164 Lok Sabha seats, and busy shortlisting potential Union ministers and allies.