Senior journalist & author
These are not interesting, but incredible times in the Congress. Just as everyone thought that the 87th president of the AICC had become a footnote in history, Rahul Gandhi is showing signs of staging a comeback. So far, Rahul has been the sole Gandhi scion to campaign in the run-up to the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls.
Rahul’s loyal band of supporters, including the young guns, are looking at the post-October 24 scenario with interest and a sense of anticipation when the election results of these two states will be announced.
The Congress poll prospects in Haryana and Maharashtra are not looking too bright, yet they will have a serious bearing on internal party equations. Abject failure of the likes of regional satraps like Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Selja, and Prithviraj Chavan has a potential for the Congress craving more for dependence on the Gandhi family than revolt or desertions.
Chances of the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid, who are occasionally ranting about a sense of drift in the grand old party, opting for a signature campaign to force a leadership change within the party, are minimal. As per the Congress constitution, 15 per cent of the AICC delegates can requisition an AICC session to discuss the leadership issue. Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, Sheila Dikshit, ML Fotedar and others who were opposed to PV Narasimha Rao, when he was the Congress president, had tried using this instrument in 1994.
In his book, The Other Side of the Mountain, Salman Khurshid, a third-generation Congress leader, had taken a gentle swipe at his former party colleagues who chose to switch sides. Khurshid had quoted Sir Thomas Moore’s comment on Richard Roper who was appointed attorney-general of Wales during the former's trial for treason as portrayed in Robert Bolt’s play Man for all Seasons, “For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world...but for Wales?”
Four years later, Khurshid is sounding like a dissident, but there is no ‘Wales’ for him in sight. His ranting comes at a time when the Congress is facing a grim battle in Maharashtra and Haryana.
In this context, Khurshid’s lamentation over Rahul Gandhi's abrupt exit as AICC chief is not without significance. For some, Khurshid is not being a goofy Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Gujarat Assembly poll fame, but trying to position himself as a possible beneficiary in the near future.
Theoretically speaking, if there is no demand for a change of leadership or a contest in spite of a continuous poor showing, the inhouse party managers have the potential of citing Sonia Gandhi’s fragile health to facilitate Rahul’s comeback.
Some Congress insiders claim that Sonia is reluctant to stay on as interim chief till the Delhi Assembly polls, scheduled for February 2020. The timing of the next round of leadership crisis appears to be within a time-frame of the next six months.
It is a matter of record that between May 25 and August 10 this year, the Congress miserably failed to find a non-Gandhi successor to Rahul. Eventually, an informal head count was done and an overwhelming majority favoured the continuation of Sonia or Rahul. It was a decision that the party forced upon 10, Janpath.
Informed sources say that it took Rahul a while to accept the hopeless dependence of the party as he believed that a new, non-Gandhi family alternative would emerge.
To be fair to the Congress leaders, the period between July 3, when Rahul’s resignation as party chief was publicly accepted by the CWC, and August 9, several inhouse exercises were conducted to resolve the leadership issue. Several proposals were mooted that envisaged a working president and four vice-presidents.
At one point, Mukul Wasnik emerged as a frontrunner of sorts, but then the wise counsel within the Congress junked the idea on the grounds of being ‘impractical’. In their view, Sonia, Rahul (both Lok Sabha MPs) and Priyanka’s presence (as AICC general secretary) in active politics would make the position of the working president and vice-presidents vulnerable and draw bad optics. The move was shelved and Sonia was, much against her own wishes, persuaded to take over.
The seemingly bizarre scenario of the son replacing the mother and then the son picking up the threads again has the backing of many powerful persons within the Congress.
Rahul’s exit as the AICC chief has neither diminished his own position nor led to the dismantling of his team. Over the past two months, most members of his core team have found parking places within the main organisation or in Priyanka Gandhi’s team.
The names of Sonia and Priyanka were included in the official list of star campaigners for the Congress submitted to the Election Commission.
But so far, Sonia has not made an appearance. Priyanka has not even campaigned in the 21 Assembly bypolls taking place in Uttar Pradesh. Sonia has not been out in the field since 2017 when during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election campaign, she was taken ill at Varanasi. One exception was made during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when she addressed a rally in Telangana.
Sonia was scheduled to address an election rally in Haryana on Friday, but she did not turn up due to ‘unavoidable reasons’, as tweeted by the state party unit. Privately, some Congress leaders view Priyanka’s absence from the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly poll campaigns as ‘intriguing’.
Rahul Gandhi holds the dubious distinction of being the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to have quit as Congress president. He may create another record of sorts, for returning to the high office. Unless of course, someone like Shashi Tharoor pads up to force a contest.
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