The biggest lessons in life, they say, are learnt from the hardest fall; a black eye, a swollen knee, a bruised ego. Not for the Congress, though. On August 10, the oldest political party of India fell back on its matriarch Sonia Gandhi, all of 72 years, to steer a sinking ship through the roughest seas it has encountered on its 134-year-long journey. The move by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to nominate Sonia as interim president did end 78 days of intense speculation and suspense. But it also raised newer, tougher ones. Does Sonia still have the credentials to revive the party which once dominated the country’s political discourse? And even more importantly, will the people repose their faith again in the Nehru-Gandhi family which had given India three prime ministers.
For Sonia, who first became Congress president in 1998 and was its longest-serving chief, there are no easy answers; some 18 months ago she had handed over all responsibilities of the party to her son and heir, Rahul Gandhi, 49. Now it’s her burden to bear, again. So much for Rahul’s May 25 renunciation and insistence on a non-Gandhi party president. With Sonia back, the Congress lost a golden opportunity to shed the dynastic enterprise taint. Nearly every party leader described Sonia’s return as the “best decision in the current circumstances”. Among these leaders were Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor and Mumbai leader Milind Deora who had demanded that a “young, dynamic consensus-builder” be chosen as Rahul’s successor.
The stress on circumstances affirmed the sense of chaos that the party has been in since Rahul resigned taking responsibility for the LS poll debacle—when the party won just a few more seats than its 2014 tally of 44—and amplified with the continuing exodus of leaders to the BJP and the fall of the Congress’s coalition government in Karnataka. It also highlighted the Congress’s incapacity to effect a transition from the old to the new and its failure to dismantle the hegemony of a coterie of old guard that has used its loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family to stay politically relevant.
At the morning session of the CWC meet, Rahul had stunned party veterans by asking for “wider consultations” with state chiefs and legislature party leaders, MPs, and AICC secretaries by forming five region-wise sub-groups. “Since most PCC chiefs, CLP leaders and AICC secretaries were Rahul appointees, he must have thought that there would be a formidable push for a non-Gandhi president, in tune with his wishes, but such suggestions by many of us were scuttled,” a PCC chief who was part of a sub-group tells Outlook. Seniors tasked with preparing reports of the consultations before the evening CWC session “insisted on resolutions endorsing Rahul’s leadership and asking him to withdraw his resignation; something we couldn’t say no to...After Rahul predictably declined, the old guard suddenly moved a resolution asking Sonia to take over as interim chief”. The decision of the CWC to bring back Sonia with no clear timeframe on when she will call an AICC session to elect a full-time chief, thus, seemed pre-scripted—if not at the behest of the Gandhis, then certainly through their sycophants.
In 2004, Sonia had scripted one of the biggest political comebacks when she pulled the Congress out of the brink with a surprise victory over the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But it’s a new battle in a new India, with the Modi-Shah juggernaut rolling through the political landscape, and decimating all opposition. The confidence Sonia enjoyed within her party, with leaders of UPA constituents and even the non-aligned Opposition parties like Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, has greatly diminished since the Lok Sabha results in which the Grand Old Party won an appalling 52 seats.
“After the results came in, she had invited leaders of all Opposition parties for a meeting to discuss ways of cornering the Modi government but leaders like Banerjee, Yadav and Mayawati did not even respond. During the Parliament session, she was let down by her own party men on key bills to amend the RTI, UAPA and NIA acts and the resolution to abrogate Article 370. Even Congress veterans like Dr Karan Singh and Janardhan Dwivedi broke ranks with her on the Kashmir issue,” says a senior party MP.
Another challenge that Sonia faces is one that has “been created by decisions taken by Rahul during his 18-month presidential stint”. A leader pointed out that ever since Rahul became the party president, Sonia largely allowed him to make all key appointments at the central and state levels. This was evident in Rahul’s selection of most PCC presidents and the reconstitution of the CWC which saw an influx of younger leaders. “Rahul’s decision to give his younger colleagues a greater say in party matters has naturally increased the ambitions of these leaders. While an electorally invincible BJP is actively poaching Congress leaders, our younger lot is being stifled within the party. They won’t stay with us if the old guard reclaims its clout under Sonia,” another Congress leader says.
A party general secretary tells Outlook that Sonia is expected to begin discussions on revamping the organisation and she will need to strike a balance between the egos of the old guard and the ambitions of young leaders. She will also need to convince her party, including Rahul, that the Congress can ill-afford to give up its ideological commitment to secularism and the fight for the rights of religious minorities, Dalits and tribal communities—the party’s core constituency which was abandoned over the past two years as Rahul hopped from one temple to another flaunting his ‘Shiv bhakt, janeudhari’ credentials and reducing his party to a caricature of the BJP’s hardline Hindutva.
The first test for Sonia isn’t too far away. Three months from now, Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra are voting for new assemblies. The Congress is in utter disarray in these states with an additional challenge brewing in Haryana where former chief minister and Jat stalwart Bhupinder Singh Hooda is planning to launch his own party. In Maharashtra and Jharkhand, she will need to once again summon her old INStincts of stitching pre-poll alliances with NCP’s Sharad Pawar and JMM’s Shibu Soren respectively. Sonia has little time to set things right but can at least give a template for revival. It is unlikely that she will lead the poll campaign in these states, say sources, adding that Rahul will still be the main campaigner. If executed correctly, a revival plan charted by Sonia may prepare the ground for Rahul, or even daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to consider taking over as Congress president once the matriarch’s ‘interim’ stint draws to a close—or at least create a better environment for genuine intra-party elections for choosing a non-Gandhi, minus the machinations of her old guard syndicate.