AMID THE SUSPENSE ON THE afternoon of Saturday August 10th about the Congress’ choice of its next president, a young party leader, having a relaxed lunch, sounded certain of two outcomes: that the Congress had reconciled itself, helplessly, to the idea of a non-Gandhi as its chief, but Mukul Wasnik, who was then seen as the front-runner, had no chance at all. There were still about five hours to go before the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was to meet again at night to take a final call. The leader turned out right on one count. Wasnik was out of the race. But, on the other hand, he had miscalculated. After the meeting that night, Sonia Gandhi was made ‘interim president’, with the Congress sending out the message that the party was not ready to arrive at a consensus on a name—old or young—outside the family.
A Congress leader described it as the “second best option”, the first apparently being Rahul Gandhi, who refused to budge from his decision to resign. After nearly 10 hours of brainstorming over two days, sipping tea and taking bites of time-honoured samosas and biscuits, the Congress retreated into its most familiar cocoon—the Gandhi family—at least for now.
The old guard had checkmated the Young Turks. Rahul Gandhi, who had vehemently opposed the idea of a Gandhi—his mother Sonia, sister Priyanka or himself— leading the party, was unhappy with the status quo, one of the younger leaders said on condition of anonymity. For some in the younger lot, the move, scripted by seniors like Ahmed Patel and P Chidambaram, is seen as a step back for the party, the leader said. For most in ‘Team Rahul’, the first choice was his continuation as president, and if not him, then someone young and ‘energetic’ who had his endorsement. Rahul Gandhi had sought the opinion of leaders from different parts of the country in one-on-one meetings. Senior leaders like Wasnik, Sushil Kumar Shinde or Mallikarjun Kharge were largely unacceptable to the youngsters, most of whom wanted a fresh, youthful face to lead the party. Rahul, sources said, was in sync with the idea of a young leadership, knowing well this would make the senior leaders uncomfortable, whom he had earlier blamed for failing him in the Lok Sabha elections.
In the end, however, a reluctant 72-year-old Sonia Gandhi returned to take charge, convinced by senior leaders that she alone could keep the flock together in a party whose faultlines had widened after the electoral debacle earlier this year. The Congress, refraining from any adventurism of putting up a new face, replaced a Gandhi with a Gandhi, laying bare the interdependence of the Gandhis and the Congress. The party is undoubtedly in a precarious bind. The current crisis in the Congress has exposed its predicament—its compelling need to have a new face at the helm to infuse a fresh lease of life into it and its nervousness about taking such a step at this juncture. Either way, it has reasons to worry. The Congress is going round in circles and a delusional calm seems to have enveloped it. The question is: for how long?
“Everyone, including the five region-wise groups the CWC was divided into, wanted Rahul Gandhi to continue as party chief. When he refused, then
Sonia Gandhi was requested to take over as interim chief, using a provision in the Congress constitution. She was not ready. We told her it was the decision of the party rank and file. It was the choice of the party leaders and workers, not the Gandhi family,” says senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. At least now, everyone is relieved because the party has to prepare for elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, he says.
Congress leader Manish Tewari echoes this when asked why the Congress could not have arrived at a consensus over a non-Gandhi despite Rahul Gandhi’s insistence. “We have always decided on the most widely accepted name and that was of Sonia Gandhi.”
A reluctant Sonia Gandhi returned to take charge, convinced by senior leaders that she alone could keep the flock together. The Congress, refraining from any adventurism, replaced a Gandhi with a Gandhi
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An ‘interim’ arrangement could mean two years, and in politics two months is a long time, said one of the young leaders who did not want to be named. Besides, who can set a timeline for the interim term of Sonia Gandhi, who had led the party to electoral victories in 2004 and again in 2009, barring Rahul Gandhi and herself? For a section within the party—which is diffident about relinquishing the post of party chief to an individual outside the family—if a non-Gandhi were to be at the helm, it would favour someone pliable, till Rahul Gandhi was ready to reclaim the post. A young face like Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia, who may be neither pliant nor from among those who have risen through the ranks, is unlikely to fit into this group’s scheme of things.
ACCORDING TO PARTY sources, at the meeting on Saturday night, presided over by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram proposed that Sonia Gandhi be made interim president. Priyanka Gandhi objected to the proposal and was supported by former Defence Minister and senior leader AK Antony. Scindia, however, asked why Sonia Gandhi could not be given charge, if Rahul Gandhi was not ready to accept the decision of the CWC to continue as party chief. At that point, Ambika Soni, Asha Kumari and Kumari Selja supported the idea, asking Sonia Gandhi to accept the responsibility till a new president was decided upon to keep the party from disintegrating. After 75 days of being rudderless, with Rahul Gandhi insisting on a non-Gandhi president, the leaders seemed to be arguing that they needed time for transition.
“The feedback of the party from the ground was such that it was not sure if this was the right time to experiment with a new face. The question before the CWC was if it really wanted to try it at a time when the party was dealing with so many problems at the political and organisational levels,” says Congress leader Sushmita Dev. However, she does add that if the party wants to select a non-Gandhi, what has become apparent is that the exercise needs to be undertaken with proper consensus and with a build-up to it.
Another CWC member, who did not want to be named, says it was not entirely a young-versus-old strife. Everyone in the Congress agrees there should be a transformation—if it is a healthy one, and at the right time, with a candidate who is energetic and has the ability to gain the confidence of the rank and file, according to this CWC member. Till then, all eyes will be on Sonia Gandhi, watching her every move to see what she would do to turn the party’s fortunes around. The party faces crucial Assembly elections in a few months in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, all states where the BJP is in power and has swept in the recent Lok Sabha elections. A resurgent BJP, with Home Minister Amit Shah at the party’s helm, is not going to make things easier for a decimated Congress. The results would be seen as a litmus test for Sonia Gandhi, now back in the saddle after a brief retirement.
When the names of veterans like Wasnik, Kharge and Shinde started doing the rounds, the Congress realised that it could not afford such optics, says author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai, visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. “When the Congress started counting its options, it saw that it could either have a young face as its president or go in for an interim chief with youngsters as vice-presidents,” says Kidwai.
The Gandhi family retains control of the Congress’ political leadership—Sonia Gandhi is Raebareli Member of Parliament (MP), Rahul Gandhi Wayanad MP and Priyanka Gandhi a general secretary—and would lead the campaign, whether or not a Gandhi was party president. What the Congress was looking for was a person to act as a link between the leadership and rest of the party, says Kidwai, author of the books Sonia, a Biography (2010) and 24 Akbar Road (2011). “Sonia turned out to be the most acceptable option… the only bridge between the old and young. The grey area is the naamdar versus kaamdar narrative, which works well for the BJP leadership.”
Faced with Rahul Gandhi’s insistence on resigning, a discord within the party on Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the forthcoming Assembly elections, the party believed time was running out. There was a sudden spurt in desertions in the Rajya Sabha. Three of its leaders from Assam—the party’s chief whip in the Upper House Bhubaneswar Kalita, a member of the Congress’ Central Election Authority, former MP Santiuse Kujur and Gautam Roy—joined the BJP. While Kalita cited the Congress stand on Article 370, Kujur expressed disillusionment over the “directionlessness” of the party. Kujur and Roy joined the BJP in Guwahati, in the presence of Himanta Biswa Sarma, himself a former Congress veteran. Just days earlier, the Congress’ Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Sinh joined the BJP. The Congress’ Jharkhand unit chief, Ajoy Kumar, while quitting from his post, shot off a letter to the party’s central leaders. ‘I only wish that the Congress party could go back to its original roots and raise the issues that are critically important for the people. It’s vital that we have good people in both the opposition and the government. Instead, what are we have now is a long list of rent seekers,’ he wrote.
Kumar, who has not resigned from the party, acknowledged that he did work with some genuine party leaders at the Centre. “All of them continue to fight for the common man and they have shown me what selfless and decent politicians can achieve over some rapacious senior leaders and their own primitive idea of what modern politics entails. These so-called ‘senior leaders’ have shown me what politics should not be,” he says. Some people in the CWC feared that if the party did not get its act together now, it faced the risk of collapse. Party leaders realised that they could not put off the selection of a chief any longer. Abhishek Singhvi, who said that a delay in selecting the new chief was not an option, quipped on Twitter, as the meetings were being held: ‘In lighter vein, I gave analogy of wise men of Vatican locked in a room indefinitely until they got a nomination! Subsequently, it has to be followed by full intra party elections.’ On the night of August 10th, the believers waited for the white smoke to emanate from the AICC headquarters. The smoke was neither white, which signifies a new Pope, nor black, which indicates that the cardinals could not reach a consensus. The Congress’ smoke was grey. The CWC had arrived at a consensus ad interim.
Some people in the CWC feared that if the party did not get its act together now, it faced the risk of collapse. They could not put off the selection of a chief any longer
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Unlike the earlier meeting, in which emotions had run high, this one was about brass tacks. When the CWC met on August 9th evening in a hall packed with around 35-40 members, Rahul Gandhi spoke for nearly 30 minutes. According to sources, he said that he had learnt from the experience of the Lok Sabha elections and, in an oblique reference to those who had defied the party’s line against the abrogation of Article 370, underlined that the Congress cannot afford to toe the soft Hindutva line while projecting itself as an alternative to the BJP. In what would be consolation for his cheerleaders, Rahul Gandhi made it clear that he was not going anywhere. His sister Priyanka, who had reached the venue earlier, remained silent during the meeting. Among the senior leaders who spoke were Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad and V Narayanaswamy. But with Kashmir looming over the political scenario, it figured prominently in some speeches.
The party’s eight-member Central Election Authority, which conducts internal elections, has a tiny cabin on the premises of the AICC headquarters at 24 Akbar Road, New Delhi. In December 2017, it announced Rahul Gandhi as party chief, unopposed, taking the mantle from his mother, who held the position for 19 years. “Democracy eludes internal elections in Congress, like in any political party,” says Kidwai.
The desire of Rahul Gandhi and his loyalists to have a non-Gandhi as party president is temporarily up in smoke. The Congress may heave a sigh of relief for now. But the party has no time to waste. It is facing its moment of truth. The Congress’ struggle, at this moment, is not for power but survival.
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