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Congress: Sonia Gandhi back in action

Congress: Sonia Gandhi back in action
Congress old-timers, who want Sonia and not Rahul to take charge when the party is sliding day by day, are relieved

Even as the Congress sees one of its worst slides in recent history, Sonia Gandhi has initiated a reshuffle keeping in mind assembly elections in six states

 ~By Kalyani Shankar

Why has Congress President Sonia Gandhi moved back to centre-stage ever since her return from New York last month after her medical check-up? It is clear that she is desperate to control the damage to the party and keep it united as also to provide a challenge to the BJP.

Congress old-timers, who want Sonia and not Rahul to take charge when the party is sliding day by day, are relieved. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh echoed these feelings when he said recently: “The Congress will be happy if Sonia Gandhi decides to continue as party chief for another term, but she has to take a call.”

Other senior leaders have similar thoughts and while some have aired this publicly, others do so privately. That things have undergone a subtle shift is evident from the meetings held at 10 Janpath over the past few days with Sonia presiding over them and Rahul sitting in. This is unlike the old days when she used to direct party leaders to Rahul for a decision.

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The present situation reminds one of December 1997 when Sonia came out of her mourning period and took over the party leadership from Sitaram Kesri. She not only checked the erosion but also revived the party and brought it to power in 2004. She remained the power behind the throne and made Manmohan Singh the prime minister. The party came back to power in 2009 on the back of high growth and excellent laws such as the Right to Information and social welfare programmes.

KC Venugopal, Lok Sabha MP from Alappuzha, Kerala, and close to Rahul Gandhi, has replaced Digvijaya Singh as Karnataka incharge.

But the Congress began to decline after 2010 due to various scams such as 2G and CWG. She made Rahul the vice-president of the party and he was taking most decisions since 2013. After the disastrous results of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the subsequent assembly polls, the slide continued. This even led to ludicrous situations with the media claiming that one Vishal Diwan, an engineering student from Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh, has approached the Guinness Book of World Records to enlist Rahul’s name for losing as many as 27 elections in the past four years.

Despite all the push from his mother and the party, Rahul has not delivered. He now has few options—perform by becoming a 24/7 politician, quit his political ambitions or see the party perish. Obviously, Sonia wants her son to succeed and has realised that perhaps he needs more time.

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Another reason for Sonia’s re-entry is the growing tension between the old guard and Rahul’s young team which probably needs a buffer. And who better than Sonia to play that role? The old guard, apprehensive about their future in the new dispensation, has confidence in her. The UP poll debacle has created fresh doubts in their minds about Rahul’s capabilities and therefore, they are looking to Sonia for protection.

Former UP chief minister and SP president Akhilesh Yadav (far right) with wife Dimple and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi during a road show in Varanasi
Former UP chief minister and SP president Akhilesh Yadav (far right) with wife Dimple and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi during a road show in Varanasi

Many senior leaders like ND Tiwari and SM Krishna have left the Congress to join the BJP, questioning Rahul’s style of functioning. There are others in the queue as the BJP is willing to embrace them. Even as the murmurs against Rahul grow, assembly elections due in six states over the next 18 months, including Gujarat and Karnataka, are worrying. The prospects appear dim in Karnataka, the only big state where the Congress is ruling, apart from four small states and two in coalitions.  Sonia, who had kept the seat warm for her son since 1998, naturally would not allow this discontent to reach a climax.

Sharad Pawar of the NCP has responded to Sonia’s invitation to hold talks for a common opposition candidate for the presidential and V-P polls.

Sadly, the party’s status quo culture continues even three years after its worst debacle in 2014. It had not fared well in subsequent assembly polls either, except in Bihar. UP was a disaster, though winning Punjab gave some hope. This goes to show that the party is confused about its poll strategy—whether to go alone or find allies to fight the elections. It has tried both and failed. There is an existential and leadership crisis both at the central as well as state levels. Infighting and factionalism are at their worst. Those whom Rahul had put in important positions have all turned out to be pygmies. So, the mother-son duo realise that it is imperative to put the house in order.

New Faces Take Charge

The Congress effected organisational changes in several state units on May 4. AICC secretary and former Rajya Sabha MP Avinash Pande is now the general secretary for Rajasthan, replacing Gurudas Kamat. He will be assisted by Vivek Bansal, Quazi Nizamuddin, Devender Yadav and Tarun Kumar.

In Punjab, Sunil Jakhar is the new president, in place of Captain Amarinder Singh, who took over as chief minister. In Uttarakhand, where the Congress fared badly in the assembly elections, Pritam Singh has replaced Kishore Upadhyay as president.

There are also plans to appoint new presidents in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Kerala among other states, according to media reports.

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Sonia now has decided to reshuffle the party. This was evident when she took away the charge of Goa and Karnataka from senior Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh. He was criticised for not being able to form the government in Goa despite the Congress emerging as the largest party in the recent assembly polls. The charge has now been given to KC Venugopal, a leader close to Rahul. She has also got rid of two general secretaries—Gurudas Kamat (old guard) and Madhusudan Mistry (a Rahul loyalist). Interestingly, former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has been given charge of Gujarat. More changes are expected but the trend seems to be to give opportunities to the younger lot but at the same time, retain senior leaders who have delivered. Sonia will remain the captain of the ship, while Rahul will look after strengthening the states.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav has said that Rahul Gandhi will have to go deeper in politics and in his understanding of issues.

Another factor in Sonia taking control is the opposition space which the Congress seems to have ceded to other parties. With a weaker Congress, other parties like the JD(U) and Trinamool Congress are taking the lead in challenging the BJP.

Sharad Pawar had been blunt in saying that Rahul should get “serious” if he is keen to emerge as an alternative to the “hard working prime minister (Modi)”. RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav reportedly said: “Even now if they put Priyanka (Gandhi) forward, the Congress will see a dramatic change. Rahul will have to go deeper in politics and in his understanding of issues. The Congress does not understand why some core members of the party have defected. Because he doesn’t meet people, doesn’t give them time, core votes have been lost.”

In a recent reshuffle, Sonia Gandhi got rid of general secretary Gurudas Kamat (above) and Madhusudan Mistry.

When Congress managers pushed Rahul to hold a meeting of leaders of the opposition last year, the response was poor. As a tried and tested leader, Sonia is now trying to become a rallying point for the opposition.

The other parties would be willing to unite under her leadership as they did in 2004 to oust the Vajpayee government. Therefore, it is not surprising that leaders like Sharad Pawar (NCP), Sitaram Yechuri (CPI-M), Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD), Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), Nitish Kumar (JD (U)), D Raja (CPI) and Mayawati (BSP) to name a few, have responded to her invitation to hold talks for a common opposition candidate for the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential polls. The main objective is a token contest as the BJP needs just 25,000 votes in the presidential polls and has enough to elect the vice-president too.

While all this is going on, the Congress is set for a makeover in October when its presidential polls are scheduled. Sonia has led the party for a record number of years from 1998. It may be no surprise that the party might ask Sonia to continue, while Rahul is still making up his mind. The only hitch could be her failing health.