The Congress is all set to get Rahul Gandhi back as its chief, probably after the Delhi assembly elections. The party is also planning an All India Congress Committee (AICC) session where the Member of Parliament (MP) from Wayanad will be reinstalled on the top post. The party is singing a well-orchestrated chorus in this regard. This Sonia-Rahul-Sonia, and now Rahul again, is a kind of musical chairs being played out.
There is no surprise about this move because anyone who knows the Congress also knows that Rahul was expected back sooner rather than later. The fact that they chose Sonia Gandhi as the ‘interim’ president was proof enough of this intention. The mother was only keeping the seat warm for her son. Sonia is reported to have told Rahul when he offered to resign at the Congress Working Committee meeting on May 28 last year: “Gandhis don’t quit.”
This brings us to the questions, why did Rahul resign and why is he coming back. Both are interesting questions. He resigned in July last year because he wanted to tell the party and the world that he was a leader with a difference, a leader who owns up to responsibilities. His decision to resign was eulogised and Rahul was shown as a shining example of how a leader should embrace accountability. Many Congress leaders pointed out how he was not the run-of-the-mill leader and not hankering after power. Rahul resigned because he was miffed with the old guard, who he felt did not support him during the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaign. He was also annoyed when none of the senior leaders took responsibility for the defeat or resigned emulating him.
When he suggested that someone from outside the family should be chosen as the next chief, those younger leaders like Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Mukul Wasnik, etc, were getting ready to shoulder the responsibility. But only the old guard knew that no one else could replace Rahul except his mother. They staged a coup and brought Sonia back. The family knew why this had to be done because the 135-year-old party is stuck with the Gandhi family and the family also cannot give up the leadership of the party. Therefore, it was only expected that the family would play the game of musical chairs.
Rahul supporters also point out that during his term, from December 2017 to August 2019, he led the party in five assembly elections: Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. While the Congress improved in Gujarat, it ended up in power in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and also Karnataka (till a rebellion brought down the government last year). So he was not a failure altogether.
Rahul’s camp has been pitching for his return ever since he stepped down as the younger lot feel that this is the time when the Narendra Modi government’s popularity is sliding because of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and also the declining economy, etc.
The strategy for Rahul’s return has been planned well. Over the last few weeks many senior Congress leaders, including Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Bhagel and Madhya Pradesh’s Kamal Nath have batted for Rahul to return to lead the party. After the victory in Chhattisgarh and the formation of the coalition government in Maharashtra where the Congress is a partner, this “Rahul Lao” chorus has grown shriller. It was the main theme on the 135th foundation day of the Grand Old Party, on December 28, 2019.
Rahul supporters are enthused by his growing involvement in the party’s affairs in the past six months. They cite examples like his participation in the Bharat Bachao rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan and the party’s Satyagraha against the CAA as well as his visit to the families of those killed in protests against the revision in India’s citizenship rules.
Above all, the signal from party’s general secretary in-charge of organisation KC Venugopal, a close aide of Rahul, is clear. “The party needs his leadership most now. There is a loud chorus from party workers from different parts of the country and we all hope he will listen to them soon,” he said.
The party tried Rahul once and he did not click. It might give him a second chance. The only question is whether Rahul will utilise this opportunity or fritter away the goodwill once again. To make a success of his second innings, Rahul has to change his style of functioning and become a 24/7 politician. He should stop playing truant by taking holidays in the middle of a big event. He should change his coterie culture, which consists of people who have no experience in active politics and replace them with those with electoral experience. The old guard needs to be humored. He should pick the right person for the right job. The state units need to be strengthened and reorganised. His first priority should be building the organisation and get the party poll-ready.
Above all, the Congress should be precise in what it stands for and also the leadership should explain it to the people. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom won the elections in 1997 after it changed to ‘New Labour’. The Congress too should attempt to build a ‘New Congress’, in line with changing voter aspirations.
(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are personal)