In about a week, the Congress party is likely to finalise the schedule of its internal elections meant to replace interim chief Sonia Gandhi with a full-time president. For Congress members and political observers alike, the big question is whether or not the election would witness the return of Rahul Gandhi at the helm. Rahul had resigned the Congress presidency in May 2019 after his party’s drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls – the resignation was accepted in July and Sonia returned as interim chief on August 10. He has, since, insisted on a non-Gandhi replacement.
There is still no straight answer to the question, even though a five-member Central Election Authority (CEA) constituted by Sonia is expected to recommend that the election for the new Congress president be held by February-end or early March. However, Congress leaders – including some of the 23 who had rattled their colleagues and the Nehru-Gandhi clan by demanding an end to the leadership vacuum through internal elections – claiming Rahul is finally amenable to returning to the driver’s seat are increasing with every passing day.
Of course, there has been no firm signal to this effect yet by Rahul who is in Italy – some party leaders insist he is away to meet his ailing grandmother. Rahul had quietly left for Italy on December 27, a day before the 136th Foundation Day of his party. Barring some of his close aides, even senior Congress functionaries weren’t aware of his departure.
The absence of Rahul from the Congress Foundation Day event at 24, Akbar Road – and in the midst of a massive siege of Delhi by farmer groups against the Modi government’s farm laws – was taken as an “indicator of his continued reluctance to lead the party” by a section of party leaders. Just a week prior to Rahul’s unannounced Italy departure, many within his party were busy amplifying the import of a comment made by the Wayanad MP during a meeting with seven of the 23 letter writers and some other Congress veterans that Sonia had convened on December 19 at her 10, Janpath residence.
At this meet – the first face-to-face meeting called by Sonia with representatives of the 23 reform seekers since their controversial letter – Rahul had reportedly said that he was “willing to take whatever responsibility the party gave him”. The comment was purportedly twisted ‘out of context’ when senior leaders Pawan Kumar Bansal and Harish Rawat, both present at the meeting, responded to media queries on whether Rahul had agreed to return as the Congress president. Some pro-reform leaders present at the meeting had told Outlook that the “subject of Rahul returning as Congress president was not discussed at the meeting” and that Sonia had “made it clear at the very outset that the process for electing a new party chief had been initiated as desired by us”. Rahul’s comment, a leader said, was in response to a “general discussion on our individual responsibility towards the party as Congressmen”.
So, with some weeks still to go before the CEA opens up the process of filing nominations for the Congress presidential polls, why is 24, Akbar Road agog with rumours of the Wayanad MP finally signaling his return to the party’s hot seat?
Sources say that since the letter by the 23 leaders was leaked to the media, Sonia and Rahul have fast-tracked the process of organizational revamp across the national, state and district levels of the party. “The process of revamping party units was continuing even before the letter controversy but at a slow pace. Since the letter episode, almost every week new appointments are being made. The possibility of an all-out rebellion by the 23 leaders forced Sonia to set up the CEA and several other party panels while also making new appointments of party chiefs in state units post haste.” A senior party functionary tells Outlook. Over the past fortnight the Congress’ Mumbai unit got a new chief and the process to appoint a new Maharashtra Congress chief is underway. Appointments in Tamil Nadu, UP and Rajasthan Congress have been made and election observers have also been appointed for poll-bound states of Assam, Kerala, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
A party leader close to Rahul says that the series of new appointments are a key signal. “Sonia is making sure that the seniors who were feeling left out of the party’s processes are accommodated in key roles but she is also ensuring that this new team comprises of those who Rahul can work easily with.” As a result, several of the reform-seekers who had refrained from taking fresh swipes at the leadership, are being accommodated in various panels and posts. These include leaders like Mukul Wasnik, Veerappa Moily, Jitin Prasad, Shashi Tharoor, Arvinder Lovely and others. Similarly, Kapil Sibal, who till recently was still openly criticizing the party’s lack of will to get its act together has not yet been given any new responsibility by Sonia and Rahul. Importantly, at the December 19 meeting, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had gone all out to pacify the reform-seekers; making them feel important and needed, so to speak.
Rahul, say Congress sources, is keen that the party organisation at all levels be “unwavering” in its loyalty and support to him. During his brief stint as party president, Rahul had reportedly often hinted at his lack of comfort in working with the organization that he had inherited. Even when he resigned the presidency, his open letter was seen as a critique of – if not a direct attack on – party seniors he had been forced to work with after he took over the Congress’s reins. That the veterans didn’t agree with his political machinations and only half-heartedly backed him in his verbal assaults on the BJP and Narendra Modi was his constant complaint.
Those pushing the ‘Rahul ne haan keh di’ narrative – Randeep Surjewala, PL Punia, Anil Chaudhary, among several others – also insist that the 23 letter-writers too are on-board with the idea of the Wayanad MP as Congress president as having a full-term party chief was their main demand. Some of the letter-writers Outlook spoke to said, this was “not entirely true… the demand was to have a full-term, visible and effective leadership and all three requirements must be met”. Others agreed that if Rahul indeed returns to the helm, they have “no objection”. One letter-writer conceded that if Rahul “threw his hat in the ring, he will be elected unopposed” but added that “a proxy replacement will not be acceptable unless it is someone who can actually lead… someone like Ashok Gehlot or Amarinder Singh”. The leader, however, says that Rahul’s return at the top post will meet with one immediate backlash – “he has taken a strong position publicly about not leading the party and then repeated it so many times… if he returns, the BJP will have a field day with its Gandhi dynasty jibe; within the Congress and the public at large too, many will say that if he had to return then why did we waste over a year with this drama?”
A party veteran tells Outlook that a few events of the past few months may have influenced Rahul to finally relent – key among them the recent rumour that NCP chief Sharad Pawar would replace Sonia as the UPA chairperson. Pawar had, a few weeks ago, criticized Rahul’s leadership skills knowing full well that such a barb could destabilize Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition of Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress that the Maratha strongman was instrumental in stitching together. The Sena assiduously pushed the ‘Pawar for UPA chairperson’ cry despite not being formally part of the UPA coalition. The NCP and Congress later scoffed at the rumours but Congressmen had reasons to worry. Earlier this week, in a curious turn of events, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamna, ran an editorial heaping praise on Rahul’s leadership; going to the extent of saying that Modi fears him. Whether this new tune from Sena’s bugle had anything to do with the possible outcome of the Congress’s presidential elections is difficult to say but the editorial surely must have been music to the ears of the Gandhi family.
The ongoing farmers’ protest too has given the Congress reasons to believe that the BJP’s popularity may finally have taken a hit. The Congress, thus, needs to capitalize on this early but it can’t do so if it remains headless. So far, Rahul has largely preferred to offer platitudes on farmers’ rights through tweets, instead of being physically present at ground zero. There is some speculation that upon his return to Delhi, he may visit the farmers – that is if the government hasn’t succeeded in breaking the impasse by then. Rahul’s confidante, Randeep Surjewala has been meeting with farmer groups at the protest sites in Delhi to convey the Wayanad MP’s message of solidarity with their cause and Priyanka too has been reaching out to the protestors.
There are also crucial assembly polls due in a few months from now – in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. The Congress is the key Opposition party in Assam and Kerala and will rely on its alliance with the DMK and the Left parties to revive itself in Tamil Nadu and Bengal respectively. In Puducherry, it will fight to retain power. Interim chief Sonia Gandhi has been staying away from active campaigning in the polls for over two years now and the Congress needs to finally have a party chief who is also visible during poll campaigns. Congress units in these poll-bound states and Union Territory have already been urging Rahul to lead the campaign as the party’s national president and not just a Lok Sabha MP or star campaigner.
All this gossip, however, could still prove to be nothing more than a re-run of the Congress’s sycophantic Nehru-Gandhi soap opera – there is already a parallel rumour doing the rounds that in the event of Rahul’s refusal, the party may swiftly turn to Priyanka to settle the leadership question. Priyanka has already been filling in as Sonia’s key troubleshooter – along with Patel, she was instrumental in ending Sachin Pilot’s rebellion in Rajasthan and more recently, she had worked with Kamal Nath to bring the reform seekers to the talks table with Sonia. However, the possibility of Priyanka leading the Congress – and Rahul agreeing to such a solution – are extremely remote, say, party seniors.