As speculation continues regarding Rahul Gandhi’s likely elevation as Congress president, one of the key reasons why such an announcement has been on hold for the past two years is opposition from the grand old party’s allies. During Sonia Gandhi’s luncheon with representatives of 17 Opposition parties on 26 May, sources tell this newspaper that she was told loud and clear by two of Congress’ important coalition partners—Lalu Yadav of the RJD and Sharad Yadav of the JDU—that they were “comfortable” with her being at the helm, and that this arrangement need not be “altered” before the 2019 elections, if the Opposition wants to come under one umbrella and offer a unified resistance to the Narendra Modi government.

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 next 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. Sources said that even though other senior leaders like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, who is not a Congress ally, did not immediately back Lalu and Sharad Yadav, there “appeared to be tacit support for what they said”.

“It was definitely a surprise comment that came up. The agenda of the meeting was to find a consensus name for the next President. It was not particularly a UPA meeting either, as parties that are not aligned with the Congress at present, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and Trinamool Congress, were also present. Sharad and Lalu Yadav’s comments were abrupt. Though they did not oppose Rahul, their comments clearly suggested that Sonia Gandhi, and not Rahul, will be acceptable to the allies if the UPA wants to regroup and reinforce,” a source in the Congress told this reporter. 

The luncheon was attended by 17 parties including DMK’s Kanimozhi, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, BSP’s Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, and Left’s Sitaram Yechury, S. Sudhakar Reddy, D. Raja and P. Karunakaran. The source said that Lalu and Sharad Yadav seemed to have deliberately chosen this occasion to voice their concern as they hoped they would get the tacit approval of all leaders, whether allies of the Congress or non-aligned, and that, in turn, would serve as a strong message to Sonia Gandhi.

Sources said that Sonia Gandhi has been receiving “signals” from her allies that there should not be any hasty effort to showcase Rahul as the face of the UPA, and that is one of the reasons she is continuing as the party president despite “not being well”. On 12 April, she had tried to skirt media questions about the prolonged delay in Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president. “Jab hoga toh pata chal jayega. People will come to know when it happens,” was her reply after hosting a ritual biannual dinner for party MPs and office bearers. A source in the Congress told this reporter that a section of party seniors are apprehensive that the Congress will struggle to find new allies if Sonia Gandhi quits active politics before 2019. “They have told her (Sonia Gandhi) that senior leaders from the Opposition are resentful of coming under Rahul. This is why she might continue in a leadership role, rather than in the mentor’s role as she would have wanted, till the next general elections,” the source elaborated.

The Oppositions’ non-acceptability of Rahul Gandhi was on display last year on 27 November when most leaders tepidly responded to an “Opposition meet” over demonetisation, which the Congress vice president chaired. The Left and the JDU dismissed the meeting, saying that it lacked agenda.

K.C. Tyagi, spokesperson of JDU, said at the time “We are of the opinion that there are no outcomes of these kinds of meetings. There is no common minimum programme, there is no agenda for the meeting and therefore, there will be no outcome of these kinds of meeting”. While Sitaram Yechury had said, “I do not want to apportion blame on anyone, but the success of any such united Opposition activity always depends on prior consultations, prior agreements and prior understandings, and then we proceed to such kind of announcements. The Congress should know better than anybody else because the formation of the UPA was done in this way”. D. Raja, who attended Sonia Gandhi’s luncheon, too had publicly expressed his reservations about attending a meet called by the Gandhi scion.

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