Congress president Sonia Gandhi has made up her mind to install two senior leaders as the party’s vice presidents, if and when her 47-year-old son, Rahul Gandhi, currently her deputy, replaces her as the Congress president. In information available exclusively to The Sunday Guardian, Sonia Gandhi is considering the names of Ghulam Nabi Azad and P. Chidambaram as the two likely vice presidents. This could pose a major impediment to Rahul Gandhi’s effort to wrest control from the old guard of the Congress ahead of the general elections in 2019.

Reliable sources told this reporter that Sonia Gandhi is “very annoyed” with the way Rahul’s meeting with China’s envoy Luo Zhaohui was handled by Rahul’s “young” team, which the Gandhi scion wants to concentrate power in. A spokesperson’s faux pas on 10 July—he first denied the meeting as fake news “planted” by “bhakt channels” and then admitted that the meeting indeed took place—has convinced Sonia Gandhi that older and more experienced leaders should continue to play a pivotal role in managing the Congress’ communication and election strategies.

“Rahul Gandhi wants to promote the ‘young’ leaders but Sonia Gandhi is not willing. She cited the mishandling of the Rahul-Zhaohui meeting as an example of the recklessness that can take place under an all ‘young’ team, as they do not have the experience… She wants the experienced, older leaders to be brought back into focus and play a key role in the 2019 elections and the Assembly elections in Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh ahead of it. Her recommendation is that P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad should be made the vice presidents of the party, when Rahul takes over the reins from her,” a top Congress source told this reporter.

The source added that Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who played a key role in the Congress-Samajwadi Party pre-poll alliance in Uttar Pradesh, much against Rahul’s wishes, is also on the “same page with Sonia Gandhi”. “Priyanka too thinks that letting all the ‘young’ Turks take control of the decision-making is not a wise idea. She has seconded Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion that two senior leaders should be made the vice presidents in case a change of guard takes place,” the source said.

Significantly, the Rahul-Zhaohui controversy was followed by the immediate restructuring of the Congress’ communication department, wherein Sonia Gandhi’s trusted aides—Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, P. Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Jairam Ramesh—were inducted with major responsibilities. From Rahul’s team, only Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Dev managed to find a berth. The controversy surrounding Rahul’s meeting with China’s ambassador, at a time when India and its hostile neighbour are engaged in a bitter troops’ impasse at Doka La or Doklam area at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction, earned the Congress much negative press.

Commenting on the development, a source said, “Sonia Gandhi is very particular that there has to be deft media handling, and a very clear communication has to be established.”

Political commentators are of the view that increasing pressure from allies, some of whom have overtly or covertly conveyed to Sonia Gandhi that they are more comfortable dealing with her than her son, may be the reason why the Congress is delaying Rahul’s elevation as party president. Officially, senior Congress leaders, including P.L. Punia, have stated that Rahul will be made the party’s de jure No. 1 before the year ends.

This reporter was the first to mention that during Sonia Gandhi’s luncheon for leaders of 17 Opposition parties on 26 May, two of Congress’ allies Lalu Yadav and Sharad Yadav pointed out to her that she should continue to be at the helm till 2019 (‘Lalu, Sharad opposed Rahul elevation at Sonia lunch’, 3 June). Although the two leaders did not say anything critical of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, sources said that their unsolicited comment, made in a meeting called to discuss the presidential election, was seen by the high command as a “friendly warning” that if Rahul were to be made the sole in-charge of the Congress, and consequently the face of the United Progressive Alliance, the allies may disappear.

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