Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is likely to succeed his mother Sonia Gandhi as the party chief before his 46th birthday in June, if sources are to be believed. The succession schedule has repeatedly been redrawn in the past and Rahul’s anointment as the de jure boss has got postponed due to a strong section holding the view that Sonia Gandhi should continue for some more time in the overall interests of the organisation.

However, there is a growing feeling within the party that since Rahul was the de facto supreme leader and all his decisions and appointments were endorsed by Sonia Gandhi to send a strong signal down the line, the time was appropriate to elevate him officially. Sources said that the Congress was losing one state after the other either in elections or through cleverly manipulated defections as was the case both in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Therefore, Rahul’s promotion should take place as early as possible.

The party leadership is wary of the BJP’s moves in some of the states where Congress governments are still in power. There are unconfirmed reports that “Operation Topple” has also been initiated in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. In Karnataka, two influential brothers who support the Congress right now have met high ranking BJP functionaries. Then in Himachal, where the Enforcement Directorate’s case against Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is impacting the state politics, there has been heightened activity in the dissident camp, with eight MLAs establishing contact with the CM’s detractors. Senior party leaders were unwilling to speak about political developments in the two states. Concurrently, they tried to play down the possibility of defections as “mere speculation at this juncture”.

Sources stated that the Congress president would prefer to see Rahul taking over the grand old party while she was still around and her authority was unchallenged. In case the Congress was to lose both Kerala and Assam, where Assembly polls are taking place, her hold would start loosening. Although all her senior colleagues publicly rule out such a scenario, but behind closed doors some of them admit that the outcome of the Assembly polls would determine the future agenda of the party. In case of a loss, questions about the leadership may be asked and there could be a revolt of sorts in these states. In the eventuality of the Congress doing well and retaining its government in either of the two states, the leadership would be partially strengthened. In either case, the party would do well to sort out the succession issue at an early date as a delay could later lead to complications.

There is also awareness in the Congress hierarchy that Rahul’s elevation should not be further postponed and it should occur under his mother’s vigilant and attentive eyes. When Sonia Gandhi succeeded Sitaram Kesri as the president, there were loyalists like Makhan Lal Fotedar, Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh, who designed and shaped the turf to ease her in as the chief 18 years ago. However, as things stand today, many of the politically astute activists have been sidelined and the leadership is surrounded mostly by those who have paucity of political acumen. There are no loyalists in the higher echelons of the Congress bearing the capacity to mobilise support.

Many firmly believe that getting Rahul to lead the organisation was not a viable idea. Priyanka Vadra, it was perceived, would have made a more charismatic head. They also cite Indira Gandhi’s will where she was desirous of her granddaughter inheriting her political legacy. Thus, before this chorus of getting Priyanka gains momentum, it would be apt that the brother takes over to muffle the voices of his critics. Secondly, it is an opportune time for the transition since Sonia Gandhi would not want Rahul to be the chief if the organisation’s footprint in the country was to become diminutive with each passing day.

Priyanka, on her part, has publicly supported her brother on every occasion, though lately she is understood to have told some of her close associates that she possibly could contest the next Lok Sabha polls from Rae Bareli in the event her mother opts out of the electoral arena. This is also a worrying factor for the Rahul brigade as Priyanka’s entry into active electoral politics would certainly make her a contender for the top job, given the support she enjoys from whatever is left of the rank and file of the Congress.

There have been reports that political strategist Prashant Kishor engaged by Rahul to improve the prospects of the party had suggested that Priyanka should lead the campaign in Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in the coming year. Sources divulged that Priyanka would never accept this role and neither would her mother permit her to carry the sole burden of the UP campaign on her shoulders.

Sources said that soon after the results of the upcoming Assembly polls, the Congress president may convene a meeting of the Working Committee to pass a resolution, elevating Rahul as the president, while Sonia Gandhi herself may relegate herself to the background or perhaps continue for some time in some other capacity. The overall endorsement of the new president could take place at a later date, probably at an AICC Plenary session.

While there has been a surge in Rahul’s confidence in the past year, many in the party continue to believe that he was unfit to lead the highly complex Congress organisation nurtured over the years by several stalwarts including four generations of the Nehru-Gandhis. The hesitation in accepting Rahul as the top leader is on account of his method of working and the people he has engaged to carry forward his mission.

Many in Sonia Gandhi’s coterie do not want him, but due to the politics of sycophancy, which has been prevalent in the party, mirror a totally contrary impression to her. On her part, Sonia Gandhi has remained a status quoist and feels comfortable with only her own team members who have assisted her all these years. She continues to repose maximum trust in her political adviser Ahmed Patel with whom she shares a deep rapport and is privy to all the details despite the fact that Rahul has very strong reservations about him.

So far as the grassroots workers go, they are convinced that the best days of the party are over and it would be a Herculean task to get it back to its enviable position of being the most extensive political organisation in the country. There is apprehension regarding the future, yet simultaneously, there is resigned acceptance that Rahul Gandhi would be the leader even if with diminished trail.

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