In 2017, it was widely expected that the top leadership position of the Congress Party would be extended to a member of the Gandhi family.
As widely expected, it is a return to the Gandhi family as far as the Congress Party’s top leadership goes. On December 16, 2017, Sonia Gandhi handed over the baton of party president to her son Rahul Gandhi, after having held the post for a record number of 19 years. It signalled a generational shift in the party’s leadership. One had thought at that time that it was curtains for Sonia as party chief. But fast forward to August 10, 2019, 72-year-old Sonia was appointed as the interim president of the Congress to fill the void left by the resignation of Rahul, 49, in the wake of the party’s searing defeat in this year’s parliamentary elections.
So, has the clock been set back for the party? One thing was certain: the clock was ticking away for the Congress to resolve the top leadership crisis by deciding a replacement for Rahul. Since Rahul’s resignation on May 25, the Congress Working Committee, the party’s apex decision-making forum, huffed and puffed to resolve the leadership issue for the past two and a half months. For much of that time, the party’s rank and file kept pleading in vain to Rahul to reconsider his resignation and many in the party saw this as an exercise in futility.
Finally, on August 4, when the party, ending a prolonged suspense, went public with a date to choose a new chief, it revived almost immediately the tussle between the old guard and the young Turks within the Congress for a successor to Rahul. Names were bandied about but what clearly came out from the debate over Rahul’s successor was that it had to be someone from the Gandhi dynasty. And the story was no different on August 10 when the CWC met for 12 hours to pick the party’s new head. The top decision-making body went through the motion of setting up five separate committees to elicit the views of the chiefs of the party’s units in different states, legislature party leaders, party’s national secretaries and lawmakers.
The feedback that came out of these consultations unambiguously favoured the continuance of Rahul as party chief. Rahul refused to budge from his decision to quit. A few in the CWC had suggested the name of Rahul’s sister Priyanka, but she refused to take on the responsibility. The general consensus emerging from the consultative process was that the party stood the risk of breaking up if anyone other than a Gandhi family member assumes the post of Congress president. It was clear that any name outside the Gandhi family would lead to a stalemate and tear the party apart. The CWC was, therefore, left with no alternative other than requesting Sonia to be the interim president. Sonia’s choice as the party president clearly reflected the Congress’ failure to look for someone from outside the Congress’ first family which continues to remain the unifying force for various factions in the party. Looking back, Rahul Gandhi’s loud proclamation that no member of the family would be the next party head, that came soon after his resignation on May 25, now rings hollow. It was a proclamation more out of frustration than conviction and went against the reality in the party.
The CWC decided that Sonia will be the interim president till organisational elections are held to find a full-time person for the post. But how long will the “interim” last? The process of party polls may take time and thereby seat Sonia as party chief for more than a year as the Congress may not like to go for the organisational polls anytime soon because of impending elections to legislative assemblies in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana due later this year, and in Delhi due February next year. These are the states which are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party which has already gained a head-start as far as preparations are concerned. These electoral battles will be among the first major challenges for Sonia upon her return to helm the party.
Sonia’s comeback as party chief may have put a lid on the young versus old debate within the party over party presidency. The party’s former Mumbai city unit chief Milind Deora had pitched for young leaders like Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, another gen-next leader from Madhya Pradesh. Party veterans like Amarinder Singh, lawmaker Shashi Tharoor and octogenarian Karan Singh had backed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the next party chief.
Tharoor stood out for making a strong case of holding elections to pick the new chief. Most of the other members of the party’s old guard were favourably disposed towards the suggestion of maintaining the generational change in their leadership and Sonia Gandhi’s return as president provided them with a big relief as it smothered whatever little chances there were for someone from outside the Gandhi clan to take charge. For instance, Amarinder Singh, Punjab Chief Minister, who was the first to call for a young leader to succeed Rahul, lost no time to welcome Sonia as interim head of the party saying this was “the best under the circumstances because of the challenges” the Congress faces, particularly an existential crisis since the defeat in the recent national poll.
In the near-term, Sonia Gandhi faces the stern test of pulling Congress back up and reinvigorating it and making it battle-ready for the coming series of state elections. In the two and a half months since Rahul’s resignation, the party has been hit by several desertions in its rank and file including some senior leaders in Maharashtra and Assam, most of whom have joined the BJP. Most damaging for the party was the collapse of the coalition government in Karnataka as a majority of the lawmakers who quit the alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) and reduced it to a minority were from the Congress. The Congress has been grappling with increasing drift since the electoral loss and Rahul’s resignation. Sonia Gandhi’s return as party chief may help halt that drift and prevent the exit of leaders from the party.
But what Congress needs perhaps more than its president, is a new ideological template to respond to the BJP’s vision of a “new India” being shaped by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his confidante and Home Minister, Amit Shah, with strong underpinnings of nationalism in framing policies. Congress was unable to present a coherent counter to the BJP government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution that gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. A number of Congress leaders, including Karan Singh, Janardan Dwivdi, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Hooda, went against the party’s stand in parliament on abrogation of Article 370 and backed the Modi government’s move and a bill to bifurcate the state. Officially, the Congress has strongly opposed the move and the bill to bifurcate the state into two Union Territories. This reflected the predicament of the Congress Party.
Clearly, there is a need for Congress to find a fresh face to refurbish its fragmented stances on major national issues and bring new blood in its leadership like the BJP had done soon after suffering defeat in the second successive parliamentary elections in 2009.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.