[Analytics] Why return of Sonia Gandhi wrecks Rahul’s plans

Congress leaders at CWC meeting in New Delhi on August 10, 2019. (Photo by Vikram Sharma). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

On May 25, two days after a massive Narendra Modi wave humiliated the Congress consecutively for the second time — it was reduced to 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and only managed eight more in 2019, bringing the number up to 52 in a house of 543 elected members — Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president, accepting responsibility for the drubbing. Kaushik Deka specially for the India Today.

For the next 75 days, the nation intensely speculated on the next probable leader of the Grand Old Party, even as two things remained constant. The Congress Working Committee, in the usual show of sycophancy, refused to accept the resignation, while Rahul remained adamant on his decision. Finally, on August 10, at around midnight, the Congress announced that Sonia Gandhi would be the interim president of the party till an election is held to find a successor.

Of course the decision, once again, showcases the Congress’s inability to look beyond the Gandhis, but the larger message is this: two consecutive defeats have not eroded an iota of influence that the old guards of the party exercise within Congress. When Rahul had resigned, he had said that neither his mother Sonia nor his sister Priyanka would succeed him. His resignation was, in fact, intended to push the veterans into accepting accountability and make way for a new team. There was a direct message in his Tweet announcing his resignation: “It is a habit in India that the powerful cling to power; no one sacrifices power. But we will not defeat our opponents without sacrificing the desire for power and fighting a deeper ideological battle.”

While the veterans declined to acknowledge Rahul’s message and stayed firm in their positions, Rahul hoped that demands for changes would come from within the party and, initially, it looked like it might work. Several leaders, old and young, such as Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, former Union ministers Jyotiraditya Scindia, Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, demanded an early resolution of the leadership crisis, with Singh and Milind Deora asking for a young president. Even party leaders in the states and heads of departments were included by Rahul in the deliberations over who would be the next Congress president.

owever, the veterans prevailed and managed to install their most-preferred alternative on the most powerful chair in the party. This achievement is made all the more intriguing (and commendable) by the fact that they had failed in their earlier attempts to persuade Sonia to take on the role. She was reluctant because of her deteriorating health and because Rahul did not want her to walk that path again. But the seniors managed to get her consent last week.

The decision was taken before the CWC began its deliberations on August 10. Sonia and Rahul had left the proceedings in the middle and returned only after the five sub-committees formed by the CWC had recommended Sonia’s name for the top post. In their absence, say sources, these sub-committees were briefed to suggest her name-an idea nobody could say no to.

By pushing her name, the senior leaders have neutralised all possibilities of a rebellion from the young aspirants. If any other name such as that of Mukul Wasnik, former minister for social justice and empowerment, had been suggested, several CWC leaders would have pressed for an immediate election. Plus, without the formal backing of a Gandhi, the authority of such a selected president would always have remained in question. Sonia’s appointment as interim president has made any demand for an election highly unlikely. Nobody will have the courage to seek changes in this temporary set-up.

This is a déjà vu moment for Sonia and her trusted lieutenant Ahmed Patel. Two decades ago, when the party was disintegrating under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, Ahmed did the necessary backroom manoeuvring to create an environment for Sonia to take charge of the party. For the next 20 years, she remained the fulcrum around which the Congress revolved, pre-empting any major split. The fact that the 72-year-old ailing leader still remains the last hope of the Congress does not augur well for a party with an illustrious legacy.

So what does Sonia’s return to the top mean for the Congress? It’s business as usual. Before December 2017, when Rahul took charge as the president, the party had two power centres — 10, Janpath and 12, Tughlaq Lane. The two groups that owed their allegiance to one or the other, often clashed on multiple issues. After December 2017, several of those leaders, who had no political capital but remained powerful in the party because of their loyalty to Sonia, got sidelined. Most of them will now be back in circulation, though Team Rahul is unlikely to cede space. If the developments of the past two months are any indication, Rahul and his team have been working on building a narrative that will disassociate him from the uncomfortable legacy of the Congress-dynastic politics and the corruption charges against the UPA government.

With the two power circles working in contrasting styles and with certain types of lieutenants, the decision-making process in the party is likely to slow down further. Plus, with a third power centre emerging within the party-around Priyanka, the general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh-the confusion and bureaucracy in the party is likely to increase. It’s not an ideal situation at a time when the Congress has to fight a BJP that is firmly entrenched in power and is armed with a formidable electoral machinery in an India where Hindu nationalist sentiment is running high. Its summary sacking of the special status for Kashmir under Article 370 has elicited only a muted response from the Opposition and will only cement the BJP’s position of a party that does not hesitate to take tough decisions. The Congress is electorally devastated at a time when fast-paced actions are required to rebuild its organisational structure across the states and it needs to project an alternative ideological narrative to the BJP.

Last, but not the least, the return of Sonia has also undone one of the most significant goals Rahul had sought to achieve with his resignation-to nullify the Modi-BJP charge of him enjoying the privilege of being a dynast. His mother succeeding him was not an arrangement he had visualised on May 25.

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