BY PALLAVI GHOSH | CNN-News 18, New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to be the face of the Congress party in the 2019 general elections as the party’s old guard, led by his mother and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, retake the reigns of the party. A clutch of upcoming state elections will most likely now be fought under the leadership of older satraps rather than Rahul’s youth brigade, multiple sources familiar with the matter have told News18.
There have been hints pointing to the massive strategic shift, with a steady increase in the role of the party elders. It was Sonia Gandhi, and not Rahul, who was at the center of recent deliberations to forge a broader opposition unity to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. She also helped pick candidates and forge alliances for the presidential elections. The most recent change was Thursday’s announcement of the Congress’ Communication Committee, which will now be dominated by senior leaders such as P Chidambaram, Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad.
“What’s clear is that it will have to be the entire opposition together to take on Modi. And Congress alone is no longer capable of doing it. A truncated Congress needs the charisma and clout of regional satraps. I am not sure Rahul can be the interface,” said one Congress functionary familiar with deliberations on this topic in the party’s top echelons.
What News18 has picked up from not one but from at least five top leaders within the party who were involved in the deliberations is that even if Rahul is elevated to the post of party president in October, he will not be the face. Former union minister Anand Sharma evaded questions when CNN-News18 asked him about the change in guard.
Some political analysts feel this would be a sensible move by the Congress. “Rahul has simply not clicked at the popular level. When you talk to people who are unhappy with the BJP, they would say, so what’s on the other side? Rahul Gandhi does not enthuse them,” says columnist Neerja Chowdhury.
A senior Congress leaders admits that Congress currently is in no position to dictate terms within the secular front. “The situation in 2004 was different. First, there was no Modi then, and Congress was still a force to reckon with. Unlike then, when Congress under Sonia called the shots, this time it is the regional allies who are dominant,” says the leader.
The issue of the party’s leadership has been simmering for a long time. The tipping point, however, was Rahul’s vanishing act at the peak of the farmers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh last month. “We thought we had the government on the mat for the first time on agrarian crisis and lynching cases. We had planned a nation-wide campaign before the upcoming monsoon session. We would have followed it up by cornering the government in Parliament,” says a leader not willing to be identified.
But the opposition campaign was soon derailed, as after making a visit to violence-hit Mandsaur, Rahul went on one of his foreign trips, triggering backlash from the party’s allies.
Which is why when Lalu Yadav called Congress President Sonia Gandhi to extend an invite for the mega rally planned in Patna, he was careful with his words. If the you cannot make it for some reason, send Priyanka instead, he reportedly told her over the phone. Perhaps this was also the reason why Bihar CM Nitish Kumar upped the ante and gave Congress a wake-up call by supporting BJP’s presidential pick.
It is not just the Congress allies from Bihar who have reservations on Rahul being the face. Sharad Pawar has gone on record to say that he won’t be able to do business with him. Pawar accepted Sonia in 2014 despite him having broken away from Congress over her foreign nationality.
With elections just two years away, Congress know that their regional partners need to be on board, and Sonia Gandhi still has the clout to keep them together. “When Sonia picks up the phone and calls, say, a Mayawati or Mulayam, they would listen to her. It’s her age and her charisma that works. Rahul still has a long way to go,” says another top source.
To bolster this claim, the leader sites a recent lunch hosted by the Congress President. It was a full house, with the who’s who in the opposition ranks being in attendance – Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee and JD(U) members, they all turned up. It was Sonia who had the political authority and stature to call up both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, requesting them to stop squabbling and save the mahagathbandhan.
The growing unease with the current state of affairs outside has also triggered a re-think within. Sources accept that till date, there is still a larger demand for Sonia to be more proactive not just by her party but by its allies as well.
And the anxiety within Congress is not just confined to the old guard. For leaders who have many years of political career ahead of them, it’s an unenviable situation. Some have already left for greener pastures. Some others like Amarinder Singh have fought their way against Rahul’s team to assert themselves.
Others like Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah have minced no words in indicating where their loyalties lie. “I was brought to the Congress party by Ahmed Patel,” he recently told the media in Bengaluru.
Another worrying factor for the Congress is its loosening grip in states where it was traditionally very strong. Even in the worst of times, when it was in opposition under Sonia, the party was in power in Maharashtra, MP and Karnataka. If Congress fails to retain Karnataka in April next year, it will face a huge resource crunch before the next general elections.
A Congress leader who was a cabinet minister in UPA-II rues that “some like us, who are so intrinsically associated with the family, can’t even join the BJP”.
So each time the Congress faces failure, the demand for Priyanka resurfaces. The family, however, has not responded to these calls, for it would create multiple power centres within. Priyanka’s debut before UP polls was almost certain. The party leadership backed off at the last moment.
Sonia has also had to step in to defuse the extended crises in state units often. The Congress president had to intervene to coax Shankarsinh Vaghela to remain in the party. Former Mumbai Congress chief Gurudas Kamath, who had a running battle with Rahul loyalist Sanjay Nirupam, withdrew his resignation only after the Congress president stepped in. For many who matter in the Congress, she is the last, if not only, word.