Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi
With the 2019 polls now turning out to be Sonia’s swansong in the context of Lok Sabha contests, it remains to be seen whether she and the Congress would bequeath the Rae Bareli seat to one of her children or take the risk of fielding a family loyalist from the constituency that has elected a Congress MP 17 times since Independence | File photo

Sonia’s RS shift leaves Congress with the critical Rae Bareli question

Sonia’s consent in 2019 to contest from Rae Bareli, a seat she had been representing since 2004, ensured that her party wasn’t entirely wiped out of UP

Nearly 25 years after she took the political plunge and debuted as a Lok Sabha member, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi has now decided to enter Parliament as a Rajya Sabha MP. The party’s lone Lok Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh has filed her nomination for the ensuing Rajya Sabha polls from Rajasthan.

Sonia’s decision to shift to the Upper House of Parliament has spurred speculations on whether her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, will replace her as the Congress candidate from UP’s Rae Bareli seat in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls or if Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi would try his luck from the constituency after having lost the last general election from the neighbouring Amethi seat to the BJP’s Smriti Irani. Congress leaders from UP are also not ruling out the possibility of Rahul contesting the upcoming polls from Rae Bareli and Priyanka being fielded against Irani in Amethi.

A message to Hindi heartland

In true sycophantic traditions of the Congress, a slew of party leaders from Telangana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan had, over the past few weeks, urged Sonia to contest the Rajya Sabha polls from their state. That Sonia finally chose to contest from Rajasthan instead of a southern state, party sources claim, was largely in part to send a signal to Congress cadres and the electorate that the party’s first family hadn’t abandoned the Hindi Heartland after Rahul Gandhi’s entry into Lok Sabha as the MP from Kerala’s Wayanad and the party high command’s decision to back Karnataka stalwart Mallikarjun Kharge for party president.

Karnataka and Telangana leaders had invoked the Gandhi family’s political bonds and popularity with the electorate in their respective states to press for Sonia’s Rajya Sabha candidature from these provinces.

Long ties with UP

Sonia had won her first Lok Sabha poll from Amethi in UP and Bellary in Karnataka back in 1999 but had later chosen to give up the latter. Her mother-in-law and former Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi, too had been elected from Medak in undivided Andhra Pradesh (now in Telangana) in 1980, the first Lok Sabha elections held after the fall of the Janata government, which was voted to power three years earlier in the aftermath of the Emergency. Indira’s electoral association with Karnataka ran deep too, as it was from the state’s erstwhile Chikmagalur seat from where she scripted her political come back in a 1978 bypoll, a year after she lost the Rae Bareli seat in the post-Emergency 1977 election.

Many in the Congress, The Federal has learnt, had urged Sonia not to be swayed by past associations into opting for her Rajya Sabha debut from a southern state. “It would have sent the wrong message”, a Congress Working Committee member said, asserting that the “Gandhis and the party can simply not afford to be seen as abandoning the Hindi-speaking states for southern comfort, certainly not at a time like this and in the backdrop of a needless North-South divide rhetoric that some of our leaders have kicked up only to the BJP’s advantage.”

What happens to Rae Bareli?

Rumours that the five-term Lok Sabha MP wanted to quit contesting Lok Sabha polls had done the rounds in the run-up to the 2019 general elections too. The former Congress president, sources told The Federal, was, however, convinced by her party colleagues to contest the election from Rae Bareli given how fickle the party’s political fortunes had become, in UP and beyond, in the wake of Narendra Modi’s steadily ascending popularity. Sonia’s consent to contest again from Rae Bareli, a seat she had been representing since 2004 when she chose to give up Amethi for Rahul’s electoral debut, ensured that her party wasn’t entirely wiped out of UP. Though she visited Rae Bareli just once during the election to file her nomination, she won the seat by a margin of 1.67 lakh votes against the BJP’s Dinesh Pratap Singh.

With the 2019 polls now turning out to be Sonia’s swansong in the context of Lok Sabha contests, it remains to be seen whether she and the Congress would bequeath the Rae Bareli seat to one of her children or take the risk of fielding a family loyalist from the constituency that has elected a Congress MP 17 times since Independence (the only exceptions being the 1977, 1996, and 1998 polls).

Rahul, Priyanka, or someone else?

A large section of the party’s UP leaders has been urging Rahul to contest the upcoming polls from his erstwhile Amethi seat and has already demanded that, in the event of Sonia’s retirement from electoral politics, the party high command should field Priyanka from Rae Bareli. Sources said neither Gandhi sibling has, thus far, indicated his/her preference for contesting from a seat in UP and that Rahul is “not keen” on deserting Wayanad “despite pressure” from the Congress leaders of the Hindi belt and the Left Front, which is a key constituent of the Opposition’s stumbling INDIA coalition.

Sources said a clearer indication of who the party wishes to field from Rae Bareli in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls will emerge when Rahul’s ongoing Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra wheels into Uttar Pradesh later this month. Both Rae Bareli and Amethi have been included in the yatra itinerary and Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Congress’s UP ally Samajwadi Party, has also informed party president Mallikarjun Kharge that he would join Rahul’s mass outreach programme in these two constituencies. The SP has, sources said, assured the Congress leadership of “full support” to whoever the party decides to field from the Rae Bareli and Amethi seats, irrespective of how the seat-sharing talks between the two parties pan out for the state’s remaining 78 seats.

BJP eyes Rae Bareli

This should be good news for the Gandhis and the Congress, as the BJP has been preparing aggressively to wrest both seats from the Congress this time round. The BJP is also certain to project Sonia’s retirement from electoral politics as a sign of her fear of losing the Rae Bareli seat. The saffron party had built a similar narrative against Rahul when, in the 2019 polls, he chose to contest simultaneously from Amethi and Wayanad — a move, even Congress insiders concede, sealed his defeat in Amethi. Congress sources maintain that the party’s “best bet” to retain Rae Bareli would be to convince Priyanka to take on the mantle from her mother.

Priyanka has, however, proved to be no game changer for the Congress in UP so far. Her leadership of the party’s 2022 Assembly campaign was a disaster and she practically abandoned the Congress’s state unit soon after the party finished with just two of the 403 Assembly seats in its kitty. Yet, party sources feel her electoral debut could infuse some energy into the party’s poll campaign in UP and ensure a victory in Rae Bareli, a constituency she has been nursing on her mother’s behalf since 2004.

Sonia still matters

What her Rajya Sabha innings would be like for Sonia and the Congress would be interesting to observe. Battling indifferent health for over a decade, the 77-year-old Sonia’s interventions in Parliament’s Lower House have been few and far between even though she has been a regular attendee of Lok Sabha proceedings, unlike her son. The last time she spoke in a debate in the Lok Sabha was during the special session of Parliament in September when she was fielded as the lead speaker by her party on the discussion over the Centre’s Women’s Reservation Bill (Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam). That Lok Sabha MPs, cutting across party lines, including the otherwise raucous members of the BJP, heard her with rapt attention is a well acknowledged fact.

Though Sonia, now the second member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to take the Rajya Sabha route to Parliament since Indira Gandhi’s term from 1964 to 1967, is expected to continue as chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, sources said she “will not take over from Kharge as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha”. “Even in the Lok Sabha, she left the role of leader of the party to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury though many in the party urged her and Rahul to take on the role from time to time. She will not do anything to undermine Kharge’s stature in the Rajya Sabha but her presence in the House would certainly add heft to our ranks. As CPP chairperson, she will continue to guide us in both Houses of Parliament,” a senior party MP said.

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