Opposition from senior leaders within the party, as well as from allies, is likely to further defer the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president this year. The grand old party has already informed the Election Commission that its internal poll process would be over before 31 January 2018. However, sources quoting key functionaries stated that in the estimation of the party, the Congress was expected to get a drubbing in the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, which are slated in the coming winter. Therefore, it would be unwise to put the vice president in the driver’s seat ahead of the expected crash. The more opportune time to hand him over complete responsibility would be soon after Gujarat and Himachal, but prior to the polls in Karnataka.
In addition, in the 2019 Parliamentary battle, important allies are unwilling to accept Rahul as the leader of the coalition to take on Narendra Modi and the BJP. They would prefer and thereby opt for Sonia Gandhi to continue as the head of the organisation, since they find dealing with her far easier than making her son comprehend the nuances and semantics of realpolitik. Senior leaders close to Sonia Gandhi have obliquely conveyed to her that a mass exodus from the party may take place if she went ahead and appointed Rahul as her successor. Many of them have further indicated that the status quo should be preserved and perpetuated till the atmosphere is more conducive for his promotion.
A segment of senior leaders has made it amply clear that the election of the Congress president should be through a consensus. Simultaneously, they also hold the view that Sonia Gandhi’s role in keeping the flock together was equally paramount. Thus, the dilemma before Sonia Gandhi is that if she decides to put Rahul’s elevation on hold and agrees to the extension of her own term one last time, the signal would be loud and clear. It would spell in no uncertain terms, that the party believed Rahul to be under prepared for the job for which he has been groomed for the past several years. This would be an extensively problematic decision for Sonia Gandhi to make, since she has always wanted to hand over the baton to her son instead of daughter Priyanka, whom many of her colleagues find to be better equipped for the job.
There have been reports of serious differences between the brother and sister, which were highlighted during the run up to the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in particular. Priyanka had taken control of the poll management in the two states and all the key functionaries associated with the preparations were personally close to her. Rahul, who campaigned vigorously for nearly two months, found himself in a corner when his sister darned and patched up an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and its Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, leaving the Congress cadres in an unmended state.
The result: in more than 300 seats out of 403, which were not contested by the Congress, the cadres conclusively shifted towards the BJP, contributing to its massive victory. In public perception, the UP debacle as also that of adjoining Uttarakhand was credited to Rahul, while the fact is that it was Priyanka’s failure to fathom the ground situation that led to the colossal loss.
In the aftermath of the UP polls, many leaders within the Congress are having a rethink. An upcoming young leader, who, at one time, was spoken of as the future Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, recently met BJP president Amit Shah to seek entry into the saffron brigade. This particular leader is understood to have informed some of his friends that for the time being the Congress has no future in UP and by being a part of the BJP he could at least ensure his own political survival. The fact of the matter is that even Prashant Kishor, appointed by Rahul to help draw strategies for some states, found himself completely cut off and companionless. If sources are to be believed, he is absolutely disenchanted with the way things turned out to be midway. Another point of his disillusionment is that he was not given his due remuneration for his services.
Sources said that the situation was equally grim in other states. In Karnataka, where the Congress is in a slightly more comfortable position, at least two young leaders are in communication with the BJP and may announce their decision to quit ahead of the state polls. They too think that being with the BJP would provide them with some sort of a guarantee that was requisite for them to remain relevant in the political arena. In Himachal Pradesh, a senior minister has already held some meetings with Shah and so could lead an exodus to the BJP prior to the polls.
Rahul, who was away on a holiday for a couple of weeks in June and early July, is back in action and has therefore started flexing his muscles. After senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad criticised Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for not supporting “Bihar ki Beti” Meira Kumar for the Presidential polls, he has informed all functionaries that they should desist from spouting negative comments regarding allies. His intervention was seen as an attempt to contain any possible damage to the Mahagathbandhan government in the second most populous state. The vice president’s absence from the capital is being interpreted by his supporters as a conscious effort on his part to distance himself from the decision taken by the party, primarily by his mother’s key advisers, and its allies pertaining to the Presidential polls.
In the party where intrigue and power games get constantly played, there is enormous speculation on the subject of the distribution of Rajya Sabha tickets in some states, particularly Gujarat, where the term of Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Sonia Gandhi is nearing its end.
For the past several years, Rahul has been the de-facto president of the Congress barring the present period where Priyanka has begun taking overriding interest in party affairs. His political future would largely depend on how his mother navigates the storm, which is brewing under the seemingly calm surface. As of now, he stands at the crossroads of his future.