At the Congress’ 186th foundation day, one thing has stood out: the absence of Rahul Gandhi, who according to party is away “for a few days on a personal visit”. The news of his travel took many by surprise and disappointment.
The Congress had also launched a ‘Selfie with Tiranga’ campaign on the day to show that the BJP was violating democracy and Constitution in trying to suppress the ongoing farm protests. The Congress is accusing the government of bulldozing popular opinion with these bills. The idea for this campaign came from Rahul Gandhi himself and so it was disappointing for party leaders that he was absent.
Sanjay Jha, a former spokesperson, who has recently written a book on Congress functioning said Rahul Gandhi could have easily avoided this uncalled for bad publicity. “It has not happened for the first time. In public life, perception often matters more than reality,” he told News18.
This is the third time Rahul Gandhi has taken a break, and it’s the timing – in the middle of the ongoing protests and the occasion of the Foundation Day - which is the issue. Congress leaders, on condition of anonymity, said he could have gone a day later as his presence at the event would have boosted the morale of the party cadre.
In the absence of Rahul Gandhi, there was another scene at the Congress office which grabbed attention. It was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra hobnobbing with party leaders, senior and old, and also with the karyakartas. She dodged the question on Rahul Gandhi’s absence but was aggressive in her attack on the government over the farm laws.
This is not the first time that Priyanka Gandhi has stepped in when her brother was away or even when he was engaged in fierce battles with the BJP, whether it was the Rajasthan crisis, where she bought peace thanks to her personal equation with Sachin Pilot, to the Hathras rape case, where she took on the Adityanath government.
Her style of easily mixing with party workers and meeting leaders when they ask for time is seen as an edge she has over Rahul Gandhi. In the absence of Ahmed Patel, the Congress urgently needs a crisis manager. Not just Congress but even many of its allies depended on Ahmed Patel to connect with the Congress.
But the party today has no one on whose phone call that connection can be made. Many feel Priyanka can play that role. “Priyanka Vadra is intrinsically sharp, tough as nuts, brilliant communicator and has a friendly disposition,” says Jha.
There is also a strong belief that only a woman can successfully take on Modi. Sonia Gandhi had stood her own and even many in BJP find her a touch nut to crack. Despite Priyanka’s inexperience, it’s believed that she can stand up to BJP and Modi.
Her consistency in contrast to the inconsistency in Rahul Gandhi’s style is another advantage she shares. Among the crisis she has fought and helped the situation tide over was when Sachin Pilot camped in Delhi with his supporters and the Rajasthan government seemed to be heading for trouble. Sachin and the MLAs in his camp refused to budge till the leadership issue was decided once and for all.
Gehlot had his supporters in Congress’ top leadership had refused to budge, and it was Priyanka who stepped in and used her personal equation with Pilot to broker peace. She assured him that his time would come and soon. Pilot agreed to show his support for the Congress on this condition and on the word of Priyanka. Even now when there seems to be a state of limbo, its Priyanka’s word which gives hope to Sachin and his aides.
But the biggest crisis to hit the party was the letter by ‘group of 23’ to Sonia Gandhi on the state of the party. At the CWC meeting held soon after, many of these senior leaders were attacked and this upset them even further. Many retreated while some sulked. Again, it was Priyanka’s idea to reach out to them as she felt that seniors who are unhappy and remain so won’t make the Congress look good.
She also disagreed with those who felt the letter writers should be sidelined. The crisis has been temporarily defused and the writes came out after an amicable meeting at 10 Janpath, where interestingly, Priyanka Gandhi was present.
But for many, it’s baffling that Priyanka has not emerged out of the shadows of her brother. The one time closest aide of the siblings, Pankaj Shankar, says “She definitely is the better one, but the brief from the mother and son to Priyanka is do what you’re told to do. She won’t be allowed to grow”.
Gandhi family observers don’t buy this theory as they say the bond within the family is too strong for any animosity to emerge.
Rahul’s closest aides say that Rahul’s repeated vacations is his way of telling the party that they would have to accept him as he his, that he won’t change nor is he interested in the top job and they should search elsewhere. Rahul Gandhi himself has been on record, saying, “I don’t have to be the party president to work for my party.” Eventually if Rahul doesn’t agree to be the president, his colleagues would have to accept his decision.
More than a president at this critical juncture, the Congress needs someone who clears up the mess, who connects with the cadre and other allies. It’s increasingly Priyanka who is filling this slot.