Still stunned, still looking for answers rather than solutions, the Congress party is grappling to come to terms with Madhavrao Scindia's death, coming as it does after a series of tragedies that have befallen the second line of leadership. Initially, Rajesh Pilot's death last June was written off as an unfortunate road accident. Then, Jitendra Prasada's brain haemorrhage made the more superstitious among the Congress talk of the stars not being kind to the party. But most dismissed it as a coincidence. A senior Congress MP even joked with Scindia that perhaps he was the next target. Scindia laughed it off, not realising that death would soon come calling.
However, after September 30, no one is joking anymore. Ashen-faced and bewildered MPs are still to address the most crucial question of all: who will replace Madhavrao Scindia in the party hierarchy? Sources in 10, Janpath claim that Sonia Gandhi has not yet decided if she is going to appoint another deputy leader of the Congress in Parliament. But most concede the exercise is not as simple as picking a name out of a hat. The replacement would have to combine Scindia's political expertise with his youth, articulateness and experience. And here's the irony: both Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada could have filled this role. But they are not around any more. Sharad Pawar would have been an option if he had not left the party.
Call it bad luck but Scindia's death has shown up a party that is bereft of a second rung of leadership. "I would call this a vacancy, not a vacuum," counters senior Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyer. "There is no dearth of Congressmen and as an institution, the Congress will just have to move forward." But this is easier said than done. There is more at stake here than merely filling up a vacant slot. Natwar Singh and Mohsina Kidwai were perhaps more on the mark when they called Scindia's death an "irreplaceable loss". It's not just that the Congress has lost Scindia but also that his is the third such Congress seat to fall vacant in just over a year.
A cursory look at the party's current leadership would be to labour the point. Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh and Natwar Singh are too old. As Rajya Sabha MPs, as is Ghulam Nabi Azad, they have to toe the high command's line rather than follow any independent line of thought. Kamal Nath, Mani Shankar Aiyer and Priyaranjan Das Munshi lack the right image, experience and mass appeal. And those that do fit the bill—such as Digvijay Singh and S.M. Krishna—are confined to regional politics.
The absence of second-rung leaders stems from the Congress' dependency on the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rues a cwc member: "The Congress party has relied so heavily on dynastic politics that we have done little to build a second line of independent leadership. In fact, those that have dared to come up have been castigated as rebels. So you had Pawar and even Pilot and Prasada. We have no place for an L.K. Advani or a Murli Manohar Joshi in our party." Adds a bjp MP: "By the looks of it, the Congress cannot even claim a Pramod Mahajan or a Sushma Swaraj."
Congress strategists claim that Scindia's death will see Nath, Azad, Das Munshi and Ambika Soni playing a more active role in party affairs. They constituted the party's unofficial anti-Scindia camp and were all once Sanjay Gandhi loyalists. On the other hand, all those who have died were all Rajiv Gandhi's men: Scindia, Pilot and Prasada were known for their proximity to the former prime minister.
Let alone the centrestage, Scindia's death will also see a realignment in Madhya Pradesh politics. Although Scindia's men fared badly in the 1998 assembly elections, winning only nine out of the 34 seats in the Chambal region, an area known to be Scindia's stronghold, he had served as a balancing factor between Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath. Until now, the two shared a love-hate relationship, uniting on an anti-Scindia axis.
Sonia Gandhi now has two choices. Either she promotes a new face to the seat next to her in the front row of Parliament, or she becomes more assertive and plays a more active role, both in parliamentary and electoral politics. But that is not all. She would also have to nurture new talent to erase the impression of a party led by doddering old leaders.
And that's no easy task. Sonia called Scindia's death both a personal loss and a loss for the party. As Scindia's friends have pointed out, he may have wanted to be prime minister but lacked what Kamal Nath calls 'the killer instinct' to make a bid for the top job. This is exactly what made him such a favourite with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He was clean, politically savvy and had an electoral appeal beyond his state. Despite these strengths, Scindia always toed the 10, Janpath line. For Sonia Gandhi, Scindia was an ideal No. 2. Unfortunately, she is hard pressed to find a replacement for him.