The Grand Old Congress party could have charted a new course had it opted for a younger leadership outside the Gandhi family to steer the party, but the old guard manipulated as usual and scuttled the chances of young Turks by bringing back Sonia Gandhi as the interim president.
For 75 days, they were working on this secret plan after Rahul Gandhi resigned as the Congress chief owning responsibility for the humiliating defeat in the recent Lok Sabha polls. The senior leaders, who have been experienced in choreographing such dramatic moments, achieved their goal through a bloodless coup, all the time pretending to look for Rahul’s successor.
With most of them being die-hard Sonia loyalists, it was not difficult for them to persuade her to come back. AK Antony was the lone voice who said Sonia should not be burdened with the party again because of his concern for her health.
Sonia has been leading a life of semi-retirement after handing over the baton to her son Rahul Gandhi two years ago. To pull her out now is the last resort for the old guard who has been left in the cold after Rahul took over. Interestingly, Sonia, who wanted Rahul to withdraw his resignation till the last moment, acquiesced to the persuasion by her loyalists, led by Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Her name could not be opposed by anyone, including Rahul, though he had announced that no one from the Gandhi family should be considered.
It was the compromise struck between the old guard, who dominated the search committee, and Rahul Gandhi. The old guard stumped Rahul loyalists (like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot, who were aspiring to succeed Rahul) by proposing Sonia’s name, though some of the senior leaders, like Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh and former Union minister Karan Singh, had been batting for “old making way for the new”. Having lost the chance of their lifetime, they can now sulk or leave the party.
When Rahul Gandhi resigned, the old guard was against giving new younger faces a chance to steer the party. Dismissing several names proposed by the Rahul camp, the Sonia coterie prepared its own list and circulated names like Mukul Wasnik and Mallikarjun Kharge. Realising their plan, Rahul’s team floated names of the younger lot like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot, but ultimately lost the fight to the wily senior leaders.
Why did Sonia accept the position, albeit reluctantly? It appears that Sonia and Priyanka were not only afraid of a split in the party, but also of losing control if the former did not step in. Their plan is that Sonia can hand over the party at their time of choosing to a family member. Secondly, it has resulted in a smooth transition of power. Thirdly and more importantly, only she is the glue to keep the party united and perhaps arrest the erosion. Also with her stature, Sonia will be able to act as a binding force for the opposition.
The only drawback is her failing health and Sonia of 2019 is not the Sonia of 1998, when she stepped in to save the party.
It must be noted here that the tussle between the old guard and the young Turks has been going on in the party for quite some time. Even when Rahul was the vice-president, his camp was demanding a free hand for him while the old guard scuttled many of Rahul’s reformist ideas. While choosing the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December, the seniors blocked the younger leaders. They did not like the rootless wonders that Rahul picked in his team like Sachin Rao, Raju, and even Sam Pitroda. Even before the Lok Sabha polls, it was this team, which had a say on many things, including ticket distribution.
Rahul himself led the war against the old guard. Disappointed with their non-cooperation, Rahul pointed out at the May 25 CWC meeting that, “At times, I fought alone”.
Though in his blunt resignation letter he called for responsibility from senior party leaders, no one responded while more than 200 Rahul loyalists resigned. The old guard was not inclined to take responsibility as they were sidelined during the polls. Now that Sonia is back, they feels safe and secure.
However, it is not going to be easy for Sonia to set right things in the party which is infested with factionalism and indiscipline. There is no organisation at the ground level. She has to take steps to boost the morale of the workers and rebuild the organisation. The immediate task is to win at least one of the three states, which are going to polls in the next two months. She must give assurance to the Young Turks that their time will come and unite the party.
No doubt, the Congress is in transition, and tried-and-tested Sonia may be the best bet for now to steer the party. The party has another five years to set right things and the beginning should be made immediately.
(The author is a political analyst. Views are personal)