By stating that a "non Gandhi can become party chief", former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has triggered off a massive debate in political circles, leading to speculation that after Sonia Gandhi steps down there is every likelihood of a leader outside the family fold holding the top position. Earlier in the week, Rahul Gandhi too gave indications of "free and fair polls" for the organisational positions, thus suggesting that the Congress high command will be chosen through a transparent method next year, as this would perhaps contribute to reenergising the demoralised grand old party.
There are a number of senior leaders who are of the view that Rahul Gandhi may himself opt out of the contest, given his inclination to shirk responsibility. He did not accept the Prime Minister's position when he could have, and after the worst ever drubbing of the Congress in May this year did not deem it fit to accept the post of the leader of the group in the Lok Sabha, which could have given him a lot of much needed experience.
Rahul is also apparently aware that he has not endeared himself to either the masses or the party activists and therefore would be better off if he finds someone else who could be elevated to the key position in the Congress. There have been demands by some Priyanka Vadra supporters that she should be brought to the centre stage of politics, but her emergence as the top vote catcher could lead to Rahul's permanent marginalisation, as also bringing into focus the alleged business deals of her husband Robert Vadra in public space.
Coming back to Chidambaram's casual reference to a non Gandhi becoming a party chief, it has to be understood that the former Finance Minister, who was number two in the Manmohan Singh government after Pranab Mukherjee was elected President, does not say things till they have been thought through properly. He is astute and ambitious and knows the weak points of the Congress leadership, as also the history of his organisation, unlike many others who speak on its behalf on television debates.
There have been any number of non Gandhis who have headed the Congress. In the last 50-55 years, there was U.N. Dhebar, K. Kamaraj, S.Nijlingappa and after the historic split of 1969, it was Babu Jagjiwan Ram, Shankar Dayal Sharma, Devkant Barooah and K. Brahamanand Reddy. After the split of 1978, Kamlapati Tripathi was subsequently named the working president, while Indira Gandhi was president, and after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri occupied the august position. Sonia Gandhi took over as the chief on 14 March 1998 and has been the longest serving Congress president. She cannot go on forever and thus a replacement has to be found.
Thus, if a meaning has to be read into Chidambaram's remark, it is evident that most of the Congressmen now feel that the Gandhis (as represented by Sonia and Rahul) have lost their public appeal and are no longer vote catchers. People are reluctant to vote for them due to a perception, right or wrong, that they controlled the "corrupt and inefficient UPA government" at the Centre, as also Congress governments in many states. There are a number of party activists who believe that the present lot of Gandhis deviated from the legacy of Indira Gandhi, which brought them to power.
They did not practise her kind of politics and did everything which was against her vision. The present leadership even turned down the basic principles followed in the party since Rajiv Gandhi's time. For instance, there was a provision for one-man one-post formula in the Congress, with the party president being the sole exception. However, during UPA rule, there were ministers who continued to be in-charge of states and thus held more than one position. In the process, the ministry did not get full attention and nor did the party.
The second principle was not to give Rajya Sabha berths to those who had been defeated in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly polls. The current party leadership overturned this and brought into the Rajya Sabha, Oscar Fernandes, Shivraj Patil and P.M. Sayeed, to begin with, after they had lost the Lok Sabha polls. Subsequently, Chaudhry Birendra Singh (now in the BJP) was given a berth in the House of Elders after he lost the Assembly polls from Uchhana to Om Prakash Chautala in 2009. Even Narsimha Rao denied a Rajya Sabha ticket to Devendra Dwivedi, a close aide after he had lost from Varanasi.
If there is resentment building against the Gandhis, it is against the current stream of the family and is certainly not against Indira Gandhi whose legacy had brought them to power to begin with. Indira will remain an icon in the Congress, but the same cannot be said about Sonia. Thus the party may opt for a non Gandhi to revive it. Between us.