Perhaps because attention was sharply focused on Rahul Gandhi’s resignation and the two-month-long reluctance of the Congress to accept that he had truly made up his mind, nowhere near enough has been directed to another glaring weakness in the leadership of the party. I am alluding, of course, to its leadership in the Lok Sabha. Yet, there are times when this is at least as important to convey the vitality and effectiveness of the party.
The sad truth is the Congress has had an unimpressive leader since 2014. Mallikarjun Kharge was a nondescript member of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet and equally in the shadow of his colleagues as the Congress’ Lok Sabha leader. His performance on the Opposition benches was rarely, if ever, riveting. In fact, it was pedestrian. Neither what he had to say, nor how he said it, captured the nation’s imagination. Consequently, he was not looked up to. He was simply there.
That’s even more the case when you turn to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. He may have made a name for himself in Bengal but he was unknown in Delhi, and that hasn’t changed. When he stands up to speak, he leaves the chamber unimpressed. In fact, you can see his party turn to their cell phones rather than listen to him. If a leader cannot command the attention of his colleagues, he’s hardly likely to make an impact on the treasury benches in front.
Chowdhury’s blunder in the debate on the constitutional changes the government made in Jammu and Kashmir was more than embarrassing; it signalled a serious problem. He doesn’t have a grip on complex issues. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was proof of ignorance or faulty understanding. The visuals – which have gone viral – of Sonia Gandhi looking at Rahul and raising her eyebrows in disbelief have irreparably undermined him. It’s impossible to recover from such a denouement.
Yet, the inexplicable part is the Congress either doesn’t accept this or doesn’t want to do anything about it. It seems to be happy for a second-rate leader to be its face in the Lok Sabha. And that leads to damaging speculation. Why did the Gandhis – who, let’s be honest, first appointed Kharge and now Chowdhury – make this choice? Are they apprehensive that a more effective leader, who wins the nation’s admiration, might threaten their position? After all, neither Sonia’s nor Rahul’s performance ever brought the Lok Sabha to its feet.
The paradox is that despite its diminished numbers, the Congress has at least two Lok Sabha members of Parliament who, if given a chance, could command attention, win respect and, perhaps, create a rallying point for the party. They are Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari.
Look at their qualities. They have presence, they have a speaking style that grabs attention, they’re pleasing to behold, smartly dressed and most importantly, there’s something about them that wins respect and admiration. They are also intelligent and know how to go for the jugular. When they hit it, it’s clear for all to see.
Perhaps it’s invidious of me to say, but of the two, Shashi has the edge. First, because he has a huge following on Twitter which means his seven million fans will be rooting for him and assiduously watching everything he says. That can’t be bad for a party in the Congress’ dire straits. His second advantage is his quirky personality – the unfamiliar polysyllabic words he uses, his accent and, even, his Lothario image. Young India warms to this. Many want to be like him. He is aspirational.
I’ve no doubt that either Shashi or Manish deserve the job, but I’m equally confident neither will get it. And that will bring a broad smile of satisfaction to the faces of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, but it will also cast a shadow over the effectiveness of our Opposition and the functioning of our democracy. Already the Congress hardly matters in electoral terms; soon its voice will cease to count in the Lok Sabha as well.