Cong might get a non-Gandhi head, but will it solve its problems? Unlikely
Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has convened a virtual meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) this Sunday (August 28) to approve the schedule for the election of a new party president. With Rahul Gandhi still adamant on not returning as the Congress president – he had quit the post after leading his party to a rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls – speculation is rife that the party may, after nearly a quarter century, finally have a non-Gandhi at the helm.
What is clear, however, is that whoever takes over as the Congress president eventually – assuming that Sonia declines the demand of a sizeable section of her colleagues who want her to continue leading the party at least until 2024 if Rahul refuses to accept the presidency – will be pivoted to the post by the Gandhi family.
The Hindu newspaper has, in a report published on Wednesday, claimed that Sonia has asked senior party leader and Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot to take over the party’s presidency. Gehlot’s name for the party’s top post has been doing the rounds for a while but the Rajasthan CM, a staunch loyalist of the Gandhi family and the party, has maintained that only Rahul as party chief would be acceptable to a majority of Congress workers.
Gehlot in the forefront
Those close to Gehlot also claim that he is unwilling to move to Delhi and leave the party’s affairs and government in his home state to his bête noir, Sachin Pilot. However, if the Gandhis indeed command Gehlot to lead the party in their stead, it would be highly uncharacteristic of the 71-year-old Congress veteran to refuse. Sources in the party also say that of the several names that have been bandied about time and again as potential candidates for the Congress presidency from outside the Gandhi gene pool, Gehlot is the safest bet.
“He is a die-hard loyalist of the party, belongs to a backward caste community, is a first generation politician with over four decades of electoral and organisational experience behind him, comes from the electorally important Hindi-belt, has an excellent personal rapport with a majority of party leaders, including those from the so-called G-23, and also has good relations with the media… if the Gandhis refuse the presidency, he is the best we have for the job,” a party leader told The Federal.
The leader added, “if the Gandhis bring Gehlot to Delhi, it will also solve the problem of rehabilitating Sachin (Pilot) as he can then take over as our CM in Rajasthan… Rajasthan has a tradition of voting out an incumbent government every five years and for all his qualities, it is a fact that on both occasions (in 2003 and 2013) when we contested the Rajasthan polls after five years of Gehlot’s chief ministership, we were wiped out by the BJP; a change of CM a year before the polls may finally help us break the jinx… if Gehlot is party president, he will have no option but to ensure that the Congress does well in his home state even if Sachin gets the credit.”
Of course, all these claims are subject to the Gandhis actually endorsing Gehlot’s candidature for party president. The party’s efforts to bring Gehlot to the vanguard have, however, been all too apparent in recent months. The Congress had relied on Gehlot to host the party’s Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan’s Udaipur in May. Later, when Rahul and then Sonia were called in by the Enforcement Directorate for questioning in the National Herald case, Gehlot was instructed to camp in Delhi and lead the party’s charge against the BJP for misusing central agencies to target political rivals.
Sonia is presently out of the country for her annual medical check-ups, accompanied by Rahul and Priyanka, which is why Sunday’s CWC meet is being convened virtually. Sources say that it is unlikely that the CWC meet will discuss probable candidates for the presidency though demands by its members for Rahul to take over the reins or Sonia to continue in the post are likely to be made. The CWC is likely to just give its nod for the schedule of the election process – the date of filing, scrutinising and withdrawing nominations and, in the event of some party leader actually challenging the candidate backed by the Gandhis, the date of polling. The whole process, party sources maintain, will conclude by September 21.
As such, if Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka refuse the presidency, there are only two developments or possibilities that Congress members and political observers will need to watch out for after the CWC clears the election schedule. First, who, if not Gehlot, the Gandhis back in the election, and, perhaps more importantly, will such an election be unanimous or will the Congress’s in-house irritants such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Manish Tewari – the last remaining members of the largely neutralised G-23 rebels – field a challenger.
Azad and Sharma recently quit the responsibilities given to them by Sonia in their home states of J&K and Himachal, respectively. Though Azad has chosen to keep his counsel since, Sharma launched a tirade against his party, accusing the leadership of “humiliating” him. Sharma also asserted that the perception that only Rahul or Priyanka are fit to take over from Sonia as party chief is “an insult” to the Congress.
Tewari, meanwhile, has confined himself to his Lok Sabha constituency of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab and avoided a direct confrontation with the high command but, on the few occasions that he has spoken his mind on political issues, he has defied the party’s stand – a recent example was his support for the Centre’s controversial Agnipath scheme that the Congress has opposed stridently. Party MP Shashi Tharoor, also a signatory to that famous August 2020 letter by the G-23 which had demanded an effective and full-time leadership of the Congress, has also refrained from embarrassing the Gandhis but has made known his frustration with the Congress’s perpetual state of drift.
If the self-styled reform-seekers such as Azad, Sharma, Tewari and Tharoor decide to put up a candidate against one backed by the Gandhis, it would obviously lead to some in-house acrimony for the Congress. However, a record of the few elections that have taken place in the Congress for its president’s post – the last was in 1999 when Sonia herself was unsuccessfully challenged by party veteran Jitendra Prasada – is testimony of the fact that a candidate who does not have the backing of the Gandhis never wins.
The long shadow of Gandhis
is widely acknowledged that the crown of the Congress presidency will also be one of thorns. Thus, if the Gandhis sit out and field a nominee instead, her or his victory is guaranteed. However, it Whoever succeeds Sonia will not just have the ominous task of putting the Congress back on the path of electoral revival against a viciously competitive and vindictive BJP but also of overseeing – with the expected stamp of the Gandhis – a revamp of the party organisation and negotiating future poll alliances with existing and potential allies, many of whom now treat the Congress as an avoidable liability.
And then, a non-Gandhi Congress president will also have to keep her or his ego and ambition constantly under check as the accusation of being a rubber stamp of the party’s first family is expected to come in thick and fast the moment such a candidate’s identity is revealed.
On September 4, the Congress will hold a massive rally against price rise in Delhi and, on September 7, it will launch its 3,570-km-long Kanyakumari to Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra. In both these events, Rahul will take centre-stage and questions are bound to be raised on why the entire party leadership, at the national level and in the states, must always play second fiddle to the Wayanad MP when he technically holds no position in the party except that of being a member of the CWC.
Rahul’s constant meddling with the affairs of the party – all key appointments require his approval – while maintaining that he is just another party worker who does not hold or covet any post, was the main trigger for the G-23 rebellion. It is unlikely that the Wayanad MP will give up his penchant for hoarding power while shunning actual responsibility and accountability to the party. Working around this matrix is, arguably, the bigger challenge for Sonia than finding a candidate for the Congress presidency and Sunday’s CWC meet too is unlikely to address this prickly issue.