Lashing out at the Bharatiya Janata Party for taking the country back to the medieval ages, a combative Rahul Gandhi finally took over on Saturday as the president of the Congress, ending endless speculation regarding his elevation. His formal installation took place amidst much fanfare, with senior leaders, workers and supporters hailing his election and describing the transition as the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. A beaming Sonia Gandhi, visibly elated after Rahul planted a kiss on her forehead, profusely thanked all those who had stood by her and the party during her near 20 years’ tenure as the chief.
The momentous event, barely two days prior to the declaration of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, furnished enough indications that Rahul in his new avatar was all geared up to shoulder the new responsibility and meet challenges from his adversaries—both outside and inside the party. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi and her husband Robert Vadra were there to witness the passing of the baton. Priyanka on the sidelines was at pains to dismiss the suggestion that her mother was retiring from active politics, clarifying to a news channel that she (Sonia) would be contesting from Rae Bareli, the family bastion in 2019 as well, this despite the outgoing president having confided to close aides that she has had a surfeit of politics.
Rahul’s elevation has led to intense conjectures regarding the composition of his team. He is viewed in party circles as a master of his own mind and unlike his mother he is neither a status quo-ist nor is reluctant of taking difficult decisions. Therefore, the old guard in general, and Sonia Gandhi’s coterie in particular, is feeling insecure about their own future, given her public announcement of her retirement.
Those familiar with Rahul’s style of functioning are aware of the fact that he does not appreciate advice doled out by seniors on how to do this or that. He interprets matters after formulating his own analysis and then takes the appropriate decision. Thus, several seniors, who are in the habit of giving unsolicited counsel, could readily find themselves on the periphery. Rahul is likely to strengthen the office of the Congress president by including his close associates as an integral part of his team. Thereafter, he is expected to announce his set-up that could include Bhanwar Jitender Singh, R.P.N. Singh, Sushmita Dev, Gaurav Gogoi, Deependra Hooda and Jitin Prasada. He is eager that the Congress should acquire both a new and a younger visage, while concurrently ensuring that experienced leaders would also have a role to play, something which was reflected in his opening speech, that he wanted to make Congress “a grand old young party”.
The expectations from Rahul were visible during his taking over ceremony, and many seniors, who arrived late, as had become their customary habit, had to fend for themselves, since no one was willing to offer them their seat. Party insiders stated that those flying high would, in the new president’s regime, have to come down by several notches.
He is also understood to be working on a plan to bring back Congressmen, who had exited so as to form breakaway parties in the past few years. It is being speculated that Rahul could appoint a seasoned politician as his political secretary, someone who can be a bridge between the older generation and the new lot and is accomplished enough to read political undercurrents. In this context, several names have been doing the rounds. Kamal Nath, nine-time MP from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh and an old Doon School buddy of Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, could emerge as a front-runner. Other than him, Ambika Soni, who was originally Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, could make a comeback, given that she enjoys a good chemistry with him.
Rahul’s greatest challenge, other than dismantling the Sonia system, which was the cause of both the erosion and diminishment of the party, and which had paved the way for “outsiders” to rule the roost and consequently carrying away pivotal positions, would be to restore the pride of the Congress worker. He has already indicated that he would first strengthen the organisation and thereby make it worthy to face any kind of opposition from any kind of adversary. His speech was by and large, reconciliatory, barring his frontal attack on the Prime Minister.
“We, the Congress, have always fought for our brothers and sisters. We consider the BJP our brothers and sisters even though we don’t agree with them. They want a ‘Congress-Free’ India—we do not fight hate with hate.”
He clearly stated that the “Congress took India to the 21st century, but the PM today is taking us back to the medieval times. We are now being compelled to imagine that businesses can be built without harmony; that only one man himself is the voice of reason; and that expertise, experience and knowledge can be cast aside for personal glory.”
“You have an example in front of you. Once fire breaks out it is difficult to douse it. That is what we are telling the people of BJP, that if you set the nation on fire it will be difficult to control. Today, the BJP has spread the fire of violence across the country,” he stated, continuing with his tirade against the ruling party.
There is speculation over the role Rahul would assign to his trusted aides such as Kaushik Vidyarthi, Kanishka Singh, K.B. Byju, Alankar Sawai and Sachin Rao. All of them are his backroom boys, while Divya Spandana (Ramya) has been looking after his social media work.
His promotion would also see the Congress moving away from the minority tilt it had acquired during Sonia’s regime, towards a more central path, where no community received preference over the other. This would effectively mean that many symbols of the party, in terms of its spokespersons and figure-heads, could be changed.
However, everything is far from picture-perfect within the Congress, where the sibling rivalry between the brother and sister could leave its impact on several crucial decisions. It is an open secret that Priyanka enjoyed greater control over the organisation and demonstrated her clout as and when she needed to. Now whether this too would change is something that needs to be seen. Brother-in-law Robert Vadra’s political ambitions may also be cut to size, once Rahul starts exercising greater influence over the party.
Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s political adviser Makhan Lal Fotedar, who passed away earlier this year, had in his book, The Chinar Leaves predicted a bleak future for the Congress. The man who had played the most significant role in installing Sonia Gandhi as the party president in 1998 was of the view that the Nehru-Gandhi family had reached a cul-de- sac. He confided to some close well-wishers that the Congress had become a snake-pit of sycophants who may one day tie the “Sehra” of presidentship on Rahul Gandhi, yet would take no time to take it off when things do not work out well.
Fotedar would be more than happy to be proved wrong.