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Opinion: Rahul Gandhi's Yatra 2.0 Delayed By Fog, Eclipsed By Milind Deora

The son of Murli Deora, the Congress’s fund collector and first to acknowledge Sonia Gandhi as ‘the real boss’ way back in 1985, has quit the party. Milind Deora’s post on “X” (formerly Twitter) that he was severing his family’s “55-year connection” with the party eclipsed the launch of Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra 2.0. It brought to the fore the fragility of the INDIA alliance and the vulnerability of Congress as it faces pushy alliance partners.

It also portrayed the dilemma of loyal party workers struggling with the Congress’s dithering versus the BJP’s assertiveness.

On Saturday, the Congress’s bid to bring together the 28-party alliance by organising a virtual conclave resulted in 18 skipping the Zoom call, including key players like the Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party and Shiv Sena (Uddhav). The consensus of the 10 remaining participants — Congress, DMK, Janata Dal United (JDU), AAP, CPI, CPI (M), NCP (Sharad Pawar), JMM and J&K National Conference -revolved around declaring Mallikarjun Kharge as the chairman of the bloc – a suggestion that had emanated from the Trinamool and AAP last month, and which the Congress Working Committee had chosen to ignore, preferring to keep the focus on Rahul Gandhi as the party’s face.

The INDIA alliance’s seat-sharing talks have crossed the mid-January deadline. A decision to set up a permanent secretariat, taken at the Mumbai conclave in September, seems to have evaporated. With Nitish Kumar chagrined by moves to sidestep him, the question of the helmsmanship of the Opposition alliance is, for now, lost in the Ether.

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A corollary of the seat-sharing exercise has been the departure of Milind Deora, who doubted if his claim on the South Mumbai Lok Sabha seat would be honoured in the milieu of the anti-Modi alliance. Similar dilemmas may emerge across the country, especially in Punjab, if the Congress’s present approach of ‘accommodation’ persists.

Low visibility due to dense fog engulfed the Delhi airport on Makar Sankranti morning. This delayed the departure of a special Indigo airlines flight that was to ferry Rahul Gandhi and his band of loyalists to Imphal to kick-start the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. As Congress leaders waited for take-off, news came from Mumbai that Milind Deora, who was once part of Rahul Gandhi’s “G-7” core team comprising, apart from him, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitin Prasada, R.P.N.Singh, Ashok Tanwar, Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda, had decided to jump ship and climb aboard the Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde.

If weather-induced poor visibility had delayed Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra 2.0, the party’s myopia and inertia had been exposed again with yet another exit. Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda along with Gaurav Gogoi are the young crusaders by Rahul’s side now. Scindia left in March 2020 to join the BJP, followed by Tanwar, Prasada and Singh. Scindia is an important Union Minister who received accolades from Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November during a function at Gwalior. During the opening of the Ayodhya airport earlier this month and during the inauguration of Atal Setu in Mumbai, the strobe lights were on Scindia, who is perhaps being promoted as a future face by the BJP leadership.

Jitin Prasada is Uttar Pradesh’s PWD minister, tasked with infrastructure development, which is Modi’s leitmotif. Another former Congressman, Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam, has not only emerged as the party’s face in the northeast but was also given a prime slot during the last BJP national executive meeting held in Hyderabad. Former Congressmen are being assigned key roles in the BJP and that is perhaps playing on the minds of political workers who are fed up with inertia in the Grand Old Party.

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The glass ceiling of Rahul Gandhi, and perhaps Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in the Congress, creates a limitation for party workers. It is a similar case in family-dominated regional parties where either children of leaders or their nephews enjoy the upper hand. Such nepotism is missing in the BJP, as evidenced from recent chief ministerial choices and other appointments at the Centre and states. (The word ‘nepotism’ has its roots in Latin in ‘nephew’. Translated in Hindi, it is bhai-bhatijawaad.)

Apart from the young leaders, seasoned veterans like Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jakhar have left the Congress in Punjab. Legal eagle Kapil Sibal has quit. Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was the fulcrum of Sanjay Gandhi’s Congress revival brigade in 1980 has formed his own party in Jammu and Kashmir. In Assam, former state Chief Bhubaneswar Kalita is now in the BJP. The recent Cachar regional council polls have shown the irrelevance of the Congress in Assam’s discourse.

Congress spokesman Jairam Ramesh reacted to Sunday’s development saying, “One Milind Deora goes away but lakhs of Milinds remain”, while alleging that the “mahurat” (auspicious time) of Milind’s departure had been determined by “the Guru of headline management sitting in Lok Kalyan Marg”, hinting at Narendra Modi. In contrast, Salman Khurshid, who was photographed seated next to Rahul Gandhi on the flight to Imphal, made a subdued comment, regretting that a “friend and colleague” had left. With advisors like Jairam Ramesh having their way, Rahul Gandhi’s abrasiveness and inaccessibility may see more Milinds emerge in the coming days.

Murli Deora headed the Mumbai unit of the Congress for 22 years (1981-2003). He began as a municipal councillor in 1968 and went on to be a Union Minister. He came to the fore in Congress politics at a time when former party strongman, barrister Rajni Patel, joined the Congress faction opposed to Indira Gandhi in 1978. Sharad Pawar was then heading his own party, the Samanantar Congress, and running a government with the help of the Janata Party.

Those were also the days when important Marwari businessmen, under the influence of Indian Express proprietor Ram Nath Goenka, were opposed to Indira Gandhi. Murli Deora, a Marwari, negotiated the labyrinth of India’s financial capital and held aloft the Congress flag under challenging circumstances. In 1977 he became the Mayor of Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) with the support of the Shiv Sena. Milind’s migration from the Congress to the Eknath Shinde-led Sena may be viewed in this perspective.

In 1985, during the launch of an ambulance service in Bombay, Murli Deora had requested Sonia Gandhi to do the honours in the presence of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which she did, reluctantly. On that occasion, Deora Senior’s comment to the then Prime Minister that he (Rajiv Gandhi) was like the Duke of Edinburgh while Sonia ‘was the real boss’ had gone viral.

47-year-old Milind Deora snapping his family’s “55-year-old” filial ties with the Congress ought to make the Grand Old Party sit up and ponder. Jairam Ramesh swatted away the exit notwithstanding.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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