As the cliché goes, a week is a long period in politics. Just as the Congress was contemplating picking a leader to replace a reluctant and ailing Sonia Gandhi, a rather spectacular performance in Haryana Assembly polls has indicated that the interim All India Congress Committee (AICC) chief is not merely lucky but gifted with a knack of making better decisions than son Rahul Gandhi.
Sonia's faith in Bhupinder Singh Hooda averted an imminent split in the party. In more significant terms (regardless of who forms the government in Haryana), it marked the return of a dominant caste — the Jats — in the party.
The old guard within the party is happy and would not let Sonia go easily. Anyone familiar with internal Congress dynamics would say that the grand old party is once again faced with a Hobson's choice — Sonia wants son Rahul to take over.
Most party leaders have no issues with Rahul taking the mantle of leadership, but they want him to change his style of functioning.
As the 87th AICC chief, Rahul has perhaps had one of the shortest tenures as the head of the party, but the period saw an ugly, behind-the-scenes tussle between the old guard and the younger lot.
The Congress kept losing election after election, but Rahul and his core team viewed a section of the party with disdain and contempt even when some leaders were successful. This was evident in the way the AICC chief reacted soon after the Lok Sabha results were declared on May 23.
While stepping down as AICC chief, Rahul reportedly named Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath, P Chidambaram and others for paying more time and attention to their sons' electoral fortunes than helping a beleaguered Congress. Both Nakul Nath and Karti Chidambaram had actually won their elections even as key Rahul aides such as Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia suffered defeat.
The outcome of the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly poll results is significant on many counts. For the first time, the Gandhis did very little campaigning.
Disgruntled Congressmen may even point out that at places where Rahul campaigned (Nuh and Mahendragarh in Haryana) and Mumbai for instance, the party lost the seats. Sonia was supposed to address nine public meetings in Maharashtra, but failed to turn up for any.
Party workers can, from now onwards, draw courage to face electoral battles without the Gandhis. If the Marathas and Jats can return to the Congress, why not Yadavs, Reddys, Meenas, Patels, Gujjars, tribals and the Scheduled Castes in the rest of the country?
State polls are conventionally fought on matters of bread and butter, but the BJP consciously pitched it high on nationalism, abrogation of Article 370, anti-Pakistan rhetoric, and a range of other issues. It was a successful narrative in the sense that even many opinion and exit poll agencies and the media were taken in.
Yet, farmer distress in Maharashtra's Vidharbha, automobile manufacturers’ plight in Manesar in Haryana, slack of jobs and resentment among dominant castes like Jats and Marathas proved too realistic to be ignored.
The Congress needs to invest more in regional satraps in every state on the lines of Amarinder Singh, Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Hooda.
In the south, the Congress's outstanding performance in the 2004 and 2009 general elections was largely due to late YS Rajshekhar Reddy in united Andhra Pradesh. Had the Congress managed to keep Jagan Mohan Reddy and K Chandrashekhar Rao in the party, it would have been ruling both Andhra and Telangana now.
The Congress is in urgent need of new leadership, organisational revamp and accountability at all levels of party hierarchy and this is the only opportunity its leaders have. The party is reportedly planning an AICC meet in Udaipur in January next year. Rahul should use the platform to unveil what he had promised in Jaipur in 2013.
(The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal)