Senior journalist and author
The Congress is witnessing considerable ferment in the field. Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s move to align with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has won a crucial battle of perception even though Left-liberal and ‘puritan’ elements within the grand old party continue to shuffle in unease.
Sonia has followed her illustrious mother-in-law in many ways, including getting the tag of ‘Mrs Gandhi’. While the current Mrs G has done many things differently from her larger-than-life predecessor, it is beyond doubt that much like Indira of the 1970s, she wants her son to play a bigger role. However, unlike Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi’s induction in the top echelons, years of apprenticeship, high offices, including the stint as AICC chief between December 2017 and July 2019, Rahul has not become the most acceptable leader from within the Congress parivar, let alone among voters.
Sonia, who turns 73 today, is not keen to continue as interim chief of the party. She has been telling everyone who matters in the Congress hierarchy to find a successor and a deadline of March 2020 (after the Delhi assembly polls) has been set. Sonia has been citing her health, inability to campaign and her disinclination toward 24x7 political engagements as some of the reasons to quit.
Senior Congress functionaries, Working Committee members, chief ministers of party-ruled states, state party unit heads and other significant players are, however, pressuring her to not get into the retirement mode. At this juncture, the party is witnessing an interesting interplay. Each time Sonia is asked to stay on, broad hints are dropped to bring Rahul back as the AICC president.
Sonia’s reported interest in Rahul’s return is proving to be both an asset and a liability for the young Gandhi. If Rahul indeed has to take over as Congress president, he need not have a protective shield in the form of his mother.
The twin power centres within the Congress organisation have turned out to be counter-productive on several counts. Rahul and his team know from practical experience from 2006 onwards (when Rahul went on to become AICC general secretary, vice-president, president and ex-president) that at the functional level, it is virtually impossible to ensure accountability if there are twin power centres. While mother and son have a strong personal bond, the top level of the Congress is sharply divided between Sonia loyalists and those claiming to be members of Team Rahul.
Even as a deadlock over Sonia’s potential successor continues, it is not that Congress leaders are collectively opposed to Rahul, but they do not relish the prospects of him as head of the party in Sonia's absence. Rahul's style of functioning is said to be his biggest handicap. As a campaigner, Rahul is seldom sought by party candidates and his electoral defeat in Amethi in 2019 has made a huge dent in his image. Even as Wayanad MP, Rahul’s performance in the Lok Sabha has been negligible as he is often seen traveling abroad when the Parliament session is on or the nation is witnessing some big political developments.
A large number of Congress leaders are unable to forget Rahul’s performance of July 2018 when the Amethi MP sounded every bit aggressive, threatening to cause a bhookamp (earthquake), but the fire was missing. From Rafale to Doklam, Rahul’s allegations lacked facts, figures and details. His move to hug Prime Minister Narendra Modi boomeranged when he was spotted winking in delight. Rahul miserably failed to influence undecided voters, disgruntled farmers and millions of those who make up their voting decision closer in the 2019 General Election.
A majority of Congress leaders remained clueless about Rahul’s own views about the alliance with the Sena. The former AICC chief maintained a stoic silence throughout the ministry-formation in Maharashtra, giving the impression that he was not too happy with the idea of tweaking the secular ideology. But a closer look at Maharashtra would reveal something different, where Rahul’s favourite Balasaheb Thorat has emerged as the biggest beneficiary. Thorat, is currently state party chief, CLP leader, minister in the Uddhav Thackeray ministry and chief whip of the party in the state Assembly!
State after state, there is a similar story and pattern that Rahul would promote someone at the expense of the rest. One could argue that this was something both Indira and Rajiv practiced, but then they were able to carry it off from a position of strength. Sonia, during her 20-year stint as AICC chief, tried to strike a fine balance among factional leaders. So, when Bhupinder Singh Hooda was made Haryana Chief Minister, rival Selja was drafted as Union minister and Choudhary Birender Singh as AICC general secretary.
Sonia and Rahul’s biggest predicament is not about passing the baton, but the manner of ensuring a smooth transition. For years, Rahul advocated restoration of intra-party democracy in the grand old party. Should he not be setting an example by contesting for party president’s post even if the entire Congress poll apparatus is far from satisfactory?
Interestingly, not many within the Congress would relish the prospect of contesting against Rahul. However, a majority of them want Sonia and Rahul to hold free and fair elections of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Among other things, the CWC polls will bring in a sense of hierarchy in the pecking order after the Gandhis. Privately, many senior and well-meaning party leaders argue that if PV Narasimha Rao (Tirupati, April 1992) and Sitaram Kesri (Kolkata, August 1997) could hold ‘free and fair’ CWC polls, why should not Sonia and Rahul experiment with it?
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