By leaving for an undisclosed foreign destination, a day ahead of the 136th raising day of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has left his entire party red-faced; even his staunch supporters have been unable to defend his departure. Some functionaries are claiming that he had to go at a short notice since one of his close relatives, probably his maternal grandmother was ailing and even if this were the case, he could have left after the flag hoisting ceremony at 24 Akbar Road.
There was a feeble attempt made by certain members of interim president Sonia Gandhi’s coterie to generate a consensus on his return as the party chief at the meeting held with dissident leaders in the third week of December. Rahul appeared to be reluctant, but did not lose the opportunity in taking digs at some of the senior leaders who were present to demonstrate that he was still in command even if he was not occupying any official position.
The clear political message that has emanated from his foreign visit is that he shall not be returning as the party chief anytime soon and may like to foist his nominee instead. This may not be acceptable and the Congress, instead of trying to work towards a 2024 road map, may have to face several internal problems. The dissidents who wrote to Sonia Gandhi urging her to strengthen the organisation at every level, do not have the strength to break away and exist on their own. However, collectively they have sufficient experience to create doubts in the minds of people.
Those who follow the Congress closely, know that the Gandhis are not going to give up on the party they run as virtually a personally owned entity in partnership with some of their hand-picked associates or sycophants who have lost their relevance. Therefore, a different political game may start which could be aimed at diminishing the role of the Gandhis in the overall opposition politics. The Congress has been performing poorly in most elections, and now the prospects of it losing the Chairmanship of the UPA are also looking possible. Sharad Pawar, NCP chief, and one of the senior-most politicians of the country, is a probable nominee, who could be in line for leading a combined Opposition, even if it is by another name. This is because, no Opposition leader of today would like any of the Gandhis to be the spearhead of any Opposition unity, though they could easily settle down if a more serious person gets projected.
Within the Congress, there are several seasoned leaders, who have been prevented from working at the full potential. These leaders have become disgruntled, but have nowhere to go and the BJP can only pick them if they fit into a saffron strategy of toppling some Congress regime in a state.
Thus, what appears to be a possible game plan of the Opposition leaders is to try and isolate the Gandhis and their supporters within the Congress. That would enable Sharad Pawar to give a call to all Congressmen, past and present, to join hands with him to pose a challenge to the BJP. Obviously, since Pawar enjoys tremendous goodwill amongst politicians, he could be acceptable to Opposition leaders who matter such as Mamata Banerjee, Jaganmohan Reddy, Stalin, Omar Abdullah and even Sukhbir Badal. From the socialist stream, both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh hold him in high regard.
So far as Maharashtra is concerned, every leader cutting across party lines considers him to be the most formidable politician in the country.
If the BJP experimented with the “Gujarat Model” before introducing it in the national arena, Pawar could be replicating a broad-based Opposition alliance inspired by the Maharashtra coalition that has checkmated the BJP. He could also serve as a magnet, which could attract parties and individuals opposed to the BJP towards him.
The reason why Pawar did not surpass his mentor, Y.B. Chavan’s achievement is because like his guru, he had so far acted only as Maharashtra’s stakeholder in national politics. The time has come to change that and he is definitely going to have one last attempt at being the collective Opposition’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2024, if his health remains perfect.
Pawar has maintained very close personal relations with leaders from various parties. The late Arun Jaitley, though a BJP loyalist, never shied away from complimenting the Maratha for his political and administrative acumen. Despite being a staunch Congressman, Pawar has parted company with the party on several occasions. The last time was when he raised the matter of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and faced expulsion along with the late P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, who, incidentally, is back and general secretary of the Congress. The first time when he parted ways with the Congress was back in 1978 when he along with his political guru plotted to oust the Vasant Dada Patil-led Congress (S)-Congress (I) government. At that time, he had outwitted Maharashtra rivals such as Nasikrao Tirpude and a leader as strong as Indira Gandhi. Therefore, for him to take over the overall leadership of the Opposition can only be a matter of time. That is if he does not have a different plan up his sleeve and backtracks at the eleventh hour.
However, the Congress should look beyond the Gandhis if it wishes to counter Pawar. He is a man of all seasons. Between us.