Rahul Gandhi & Priyanka Gandhi (Photo by Atul Loke/ Getty Images)
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Former spin doctor divulges on India’s ruling dynasty

Sanjay Jha’s new book reveals the degeneration of the oldest party in the world’s largest democracy

The Congress Party, which negotiated India’s independence from British rule, was once the largest political machine in Asia. For much of India’s republican history, it was also the default party of government: it has been in government for 55 of the 73 years since modern India’s founding. And for much of that time, the party has been under the thumb of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The mystique of the dynasty has hypnotised generations of Westerners.

When Indira Gandhi briefly suspended the Indian constitution in 1975 and ruled as a dictator for 21 months, rather than rebukes, she received praise from figures as ideologically apart as Michael Foot and Robert McNamara. A decade later, when her son Rajiv Gandhi addressed the US Congress after his administration presided over a massacre of Sikhs, the Washington Post gushed: “Watching him, you had to believe in genes.” Barack Obama admitted recently in his memoir to being struck by the “dark, probing eyes” and “quiet, regal presence” of Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia.

The Great Unravelling: India after 2014, by Sanjay Jha (Context, December 2020)

The position she occupied, Obama writes, was a testimony “to the enduring power of the family dynasty”. Obama was not, however, impressed by the latest scion of the family, Rahul Gandhi. At 50, Rahul, once advertised as the deliverer of India’s youth, has led Congress to two historic general election defeats, reduced its seats in parliament to a paltry 52, and lost his family borough. Rather than supplying opposition, the dynasty functions as the perfect foil for Narendra Modi.

As one of the most visible spin doctors of the Congress Party, Sanjay Jha worked closely with the Gandhis. He coached Sonia Gandhi when she staged her political debut in the 1990s, advised her in government and opposition, but grew increasingly frustrated as the party became progressively rudderless over the past decade under Rahul.

Congress was being eradicated in India, and India was being converted into a post-secular state by Modi, and yet all around him Jha saw careerists lavish applause on the Gandhi dynasty and refuse to contemplate reform of the party. Jha’s private pleas for change were rejected. So he made his pleas public. In the summer, he was suspended from the party. His erstwhile colleagues and friends proceeded ritually to denounce him in the hope of propitiating their incensed overlords. Jha, they murmured, had been quietly plotting to defect to Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. He never did. Instead, he re-asserted his commitment to secularism, intensified his call for the reform of Congress, and wrote an explosive insider’s account of his time in the party and around the Gandhi dynasty.

The Great Unravelling: India After 2014 details how the Congress Party, too preoccupied with coddling the dynasty to look at the avalanche that swept it to the margins of power, paved the way for Modi’s election and re-election.

While Jha is nothing but deferential to the Gandhis, his book peels away the patina of sacrifice and idealism to reveal the dynasty’s squalid obsession with self-perpetuation at the expense of India itself. The following is an exclusive excerpt from Jha’s book. It reveals the cynicism, pettiness, incompetence, opportunism, incuriosity, duplicity, servility, and degeneration of the oldest party in the world’s largest democracy.

Kapil Komireddi

***

One early morning in the last week of February 2014, I got a call from Kanishka Singh, Rahul Gandhi’s private secretary. A Wharton business school postgraduate, Kanishka, called K by party insiders, is an unusually perceptive man. Besides managing Gandhi’s appointments, he provides crucial inputs to his political thinking and works hard to nurse his Amethi constituency. When I saw his name flash on my phone, I knew it would be something important. “Tell me everything about Arnab Goswami. Everything—his career, family, friends, political ideology, what do his peers think about him, etc.” “Why?” I asked, sensing that this would be something big. I had a hunch that Rahul Gandhi would be giving an exclusive interview to the man who had become the poster boy of anti-establishment journalism—a euphemism for whiplashing the Congress and its first family.

Although most Congress leaders avoided him like the plague, I had become a regular fixture on Goswami’s signature show, The Newshour. But I knew nothing about his personal life. The spokesperson–journalist equation leaves limited scope for genuine relationships to flourish. Both parties are guarded, fully aware of the high-risk public screens they operate on. I told Kanishka what I could, based on my personal experience: “He is a relentless interrogator who does his homework well, but only on issues that suit his political fancy of the day. If he decides to go after an issue or a person, he goes the whole nine yards. Goswami has to have the last word and the last laugh; he hates being cornered and can get vindictive when challenged. On the rest, he is predictable. He relies on his theatrical loudmouth style to manipulate debates. Besides his trademark interruptions, his standard operating procedure is to get guests to go at each other’s throats and pepper his discussions with obscure anecdotes that take them by surprise. But he can be handled. A TV debate is like a community blood-fest, which is poles apart from a one-on-one interview. And to give the devil his due, he goes after each and every one equally, although the Congress is more often at the receiving end of his bombardment.”

Kanishka listened without interruption. Then he asked me what I had failed to clarify: “Is he a hard-core pro-BJP guy?” I was expecting that question. Times Now had built its popularity on the lambasting of Congress governments, both at the Centre and in the states, while being somewhat restrained when it came to the BJP’s wrongdoings. To be honest, he was unsparing in his criticism of the right-wing lunatic fringe, but there is no doubt that he was ill at ease taking on the prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and his comrade Amit Shah.

“Well, he is anti-Congress for sure,” I told Kanishka. “He plays to the urban middle-class constituency of English-speaking households, the aspirational class if you will. He knows that they would not like a kowtowing journalist. He wants to be seen as their barrister, providing a pro-bono service. They love him. If we are doing anything with him, I have just two suggestions to make: be very well prepared and don’t be fooled by his affected civility.” Then I asked pointedly, “By the way, who is talking to him?” Kanishka, master of the non-committal, let that one slide. But it was obvious to me that Rahul Gandhi was going to do an interview with Goswami. This was huge. And it worried me.

Rahul had not given a formal interview to any television channel thus far. He had given short sound bites infrequently, of course, but this was an entirely different proposition. Expectations were running high, and the Congress needed a monumental perception shift to catch up with the BJP, which was galloping ahead, with Modi looking triumphant in the saddle. Times Now began to advertise Rahul’s interview with Goswami a day in advance. A reticent, reluctant Rahul Gandhi, seen as a future prime minister of India, was to be in conversation with India’s celebrity TV anchor, known to spare no one. It promised to be great television. Gandhi was biting the bullet. Would he suddenly seize the political story away from Modi and the BJP? The snippets promoting the programme made Rahul look thoughtful, cerebral and leader-like. But the film itself was nothing like the trailer.

The thumb-rule for doing an interview well is to get your key messages out. It is important to prepare an FAQ list that assumes the most difficult, personal or unexpected questions possible, and be prepared with short, crisp answers to them. A lot of people asked me why the Congress or Rahul chose Goswami, and I had no answer to that. Goswami’s show was easily the most popular at the time, even if it was insufferably noisy and intentionally cacophonic. But then again, Goswami was a maverick and not to be trusted, and besides, he was not an admirer of the Gandhi family. The decision to go with him for Rahul’s interview debut left me nonplussed. There were better editors who conducted tough interviews with great élan, and would have been by far better options: Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Dr Prannoy Roy, among them. I feverishly hoped that Rahul was sure about his ability to steer the interview. India would be watching with bated breath to hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s great grandson articulate his vision for leading 16 per cent of the world’s population to a better future. But by the time the interview reached the halfway stage, two things were clear—Rahul was unprepared on his biggest night out, and Goswami was directing the interview towards his predefined destination: Rahul’s annihilation.

The Congress Party had decided to abandon Muslims on the calculation that their electoral significance had been neutralised by Narendra Modi’s consolidation of the Hindu vote. The Opposition rarely stood up for Indian citizens who were butchered in cold blood on Modi’s watch in 2002, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Let me cite another example to explain the ideological vacuum that afflicts the Congress today. The party’s former spokesperson C. R. Kesavan is a gritty fighter and a rising star in Tamil Nadu politics. On an election counting day in one of India’s northern states, the party told Kesavan to stay off television channels. Stunned, he queried: why? One of the Congress Party’s media guest coordinators replied that Kesavan’s south Indian accent would not be comprehensible to the cow-belt audience in the north. A miffed Kesavan took the matter up with his seniors who could not convince him that this peculiar regional embargo was the party’s media strategy. Needless to say, Kesavan refused to return to the small screen, and the Congress lost a forceful young voice. It also infuriated me that, on communally sensitive issues, Muslim spokespersons were deliberately asked to absent themselves. The Congress Party’s secular bloodline should have prompted the exact opposite position. I am not sure the party leadership was even aware of these fatal errors in its communication tactics.

So many Congress leaders complain about how difficult it is to meet Rahul Gandhi. Based on my own experience since 2014, this is absolutely true. After that defeat to Modi in 2014, Rahul withdrew into a cocoon; before then, he had been reserved but not unreceptive. In early 2017, I prepared a comprehensive political strategy report for the Congress, and was extremely excited about sharing it with him. I informed Rahul and flew to Delhi. I spent two full days in the city and sent several messages to his office (Rahul changed his phone number frequently, and I was clearly no longer on his updated contact list). All I received was a perfunctory line: “We will revert.”

Ultimately, Kanishka Singh and I had a marathon post-dinner conversation, during which I briefed him on the report in detail. Kanishka said he found several recommendations radical and many tactically brilliant, but expressed helplessness until Rahul saw it and took a call on it. He promised to talk to Kaushal Vidyarthee, Rahul’s private secretary, to ensure that Rahul saw the presentation at the earliest. Vidyarthee did not so much as acknowledge my frantic messages. And I was never asked to come back to discuss my ideas further. In the court politics of Congress, one indulges in the luxury of honest heart-to-heart conversations with colleagues at one’s own peril. The culture trickles down from the top. Everyone is on tenterhooks, looking over their shoulder. For a free-spirited individual, this can quickly get claustrophobic.

Behind the hugs and handshakes, politics is a ruthless enterprise. It is not meant for the thin-skinned or the hypersensitive; one needs to be power-obsessed, Machiavellian and merciless. The Congress leadership, if you remember, had refused to allow former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s funeral procession to stop at its headquarters in Delhi. Former Congress president Sitaram Kesri was locked up in a room as the transfer of power was put into effect in 1998, when Sonia Gandhi became Congress president. Pranab Mukherjee was the ideal candidate for prime minister in 2004 according to many, but conspiracy theorists had been whispering against him in the ears of the Gandhis. In making the apolitical Dr Manmohan Singh prime minister—even though he is one of the most distinguished, erudite and upright people in public life—the party suffered organisationally. Its various public-facing units became fossilised. Internecine feuds were rampant, and few heeded the prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi had taken a calculated risk in creating twin power centres, but it was obvious by 2011 that the experiment was floundering. The ten years of the Congress-led government, from 2004 and 2014, resulted in a deep structural fault line within the party—even if it was, ironically, a significant decade in terms of policy achievements. The Congress Party that Rahul Gandhi inherited from his mother in 2018 was fairly incapacitated and fundamentally frail. The grand old party could not fathom the phenomenon known as Nerendra Modi.

Sanjay Jha

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