It was one more episode in along-running series of embarrassments for the Congress, and it could have done without the usual round of dire prognoses—ahead of a major decision on what its leadership should look like. On August 26, in a five-page-long letter announcing his resignation from the party, former Union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad launched a scathing attack on Rahul Gandhi, de facto head of the Congress, singling him out for its dismal performance in the past eight years. Several leaders have indeed blamed Rahul while quitting the Congress, but this was the first time a party veteran of 50 years has held the Gandhi scion accountable for its electoral debacles, on record.
The unprecedented criticism came two days before the Congress Working Committee (CWC) announced the schedule for the polls to elect the next Congress president. Several Congress insiders claim the letter, as parting shots go, was meant to draw blood: to stall any possibility of Rahul resuming the party’s reins. It need not have made the effort. Tired of the constant criticism over his leadership style and the Gandhi family’s grip over the party, the former Congress chief has told colleagues on multiple occasions that he wants a non-Gandhi as president.
Likely candidates? Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor; (Photos: Nandan Dave and ANI)
Yet, there have been desperate attempts for the past few weeks—as the election schedule inched closer—to convince Rahul to return to the top post. “Rahul Gandhi is the most acceptable Congress leader with pan-India support,” says Abhishek Manu Singhvi, third-term Rajya Sabha MP and CWC member. “That’s why all Congress workers want him back. To question his candidature, by the very people who preach inner-party democracy, is itself anti-democratic.”
But Rahul has been unrelenting. On August 5, when senior Congress leaders, including the Gandhi family, were protesting price rise and unemployment on the streets of Delhi, some of them tried to persuade Rahul. “This is not the party I want to lead,” the Congress scion shot back. Azad’s letter, says a CWC member, will give him further excuse to stay away.
Why Rahul is unwilling to lead the party
At the root of Rahul’s reluctance is his disenchantment with some senior Congress leaders. He believes these leaders, who have considerable clout in the party, have the potential to sabotage any decision if it is against their interests. When he resigned in 2019, owning responsibility for the party’s loss in the Lok Sabha election, he named some leaders for being more interested in ensuring tickets for their children than fighting the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rahul had categorically stated that he stood alone in the fight against Modi and did not get the expected support from seniors. He cites that as the reason why he doesn’t want anyone from his family—mother Sonia or sister Priyanka—to take official charge. “While every decision is taken in the name of Gandhis, it’s not that the Gandhis give their consent to every decision. When things don’t go in their favour, senior leaders resort to subterfuge, making it difficult to implement decisions. But the blame comes to rest with the Gandhis,” says a close Rahul aide.
Rahul’s main grouse is against some senior leaders who can sabotage decisions that are against their interests
His detractors dismiss this as an excuse to avoid accountability. “The family simply wants a puppet as party president who will take the blame for anything that goes wrong while the three Gandhis will be the real power centre,” says a leader who was part of the group of 23 senior Congress leaders that had written a letter to Sonia in August 2020, demanding accountable, accessible leadership and organisational reforms. Two from this group—Azad and Kapil Sibal—have since quit the party. The critics point at the Gandhi siblings’ interference in Punjab, where Navjot Singh Sidhu was made Congress state president despite then chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s objection. Amarinder was later replaced by Charanjit Singh Channi, a Rahul choice. But Team Rahul calls Punjab a classic instance of how senior leaders stall change. Amarinder was asked to go, they point out, because as many as three surveys had reflected a huge anti-incumbency wave against him. But it took the ‘family’ nearly a year to persuade him to exit the stage, by which time the damage was irreparable. “And when the Gandhis took action, he joined hands with the BJP to sabotage the party’s poll chances. The Gandhis had to take the blame,” says a pro-Rahul Lok Sabha MP.
His aides say Rahul also wants to avoid the voluminous but “insignificant” paper work in the party office and concentrate on the field. “Without official duties, he can devote time to taking the Congress’s message to the masses. It’s not without reason that Modi and BJP target him. They fear his mass appeal,” says a CWC member and Rajya Sabha MP. It would suit the BJP if the Gandhis are not at the helm, says he—and they would prefer an opponent who doesn’t come with that storied family legacy. Not everyone buys this line. Many believe Rahul’s helmsmanship makes it easier for the BJP to bring up dynastic politics. With him gone, they will be robbed of the plank.
Can there be a change of heart?
On August 28, the CWC announced the Congress presidential poll would be held on October 17. Earlier, the party had decided to complete the election process by September 20. Accordingly, on August 10, the Central Election Authority (CEA) of the Congress, headed by Madhusudan Mistry, had written to Sonia recommending that the filing of nominations begin from August 21 and wind up by August 28. This whole process has now been deferred by almost a month. This delay is not without a reason. In its lieu, the party has preponed its ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, originally scheduled to start on October 2. The march will now kick off on September 7. Beginning from Kanyakumari, it will cover 3,570 km through 12 states and end in Kashmir 160 days later. Rahul is expected to walk the whole distance, covering 25 km a day, along with a core group of 100-150 people.
Aides say Rahul wants to avoid ‘insignificant’ paper work in the president’s office and focus on building the party
Congress leaders hope the mass outreach programme and the expected positive response to it on the ground may inspire Rahul to have a change of heart. By September 30, the new last date for nominations, Rahul will enter Karnataka, after having covered Tamil Nadu and Kerala, two states where the Congress did well in the 2019 polls. Rahul is an MP from Wayanad in Kerala. “We expect to get huge momentum and Rahul will see first-hand how common people want him to lead not just the Congress but all the forces against Modi,” says a Rajya Sabha leader.
The deferment of the election will also help the party avoid a technically embarrassing situation. Rahul will flag off the yatra in the absence of Sonia, who has not been keeping well. In addition to his surname, Rahul carries a degree of legitimacy in performing that ceremonial role, having been a former party chief. If a non-Gandhi becomes president before the yatra, Rahul will have no authority to launch it, and if he still does, his opponents will have a field day, parroting old accusations against the Gandhi family.
With the family unwilling to take official charge, the Congress may have its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years. The post has been with the Gandhis since 1998, when Sonia assumed office. She remained at the helm till 2017, when Rahul took over. But even while presenting a public face of withdrawal, the Gandhi family is unlikely to give over the reins of the party to someone they cannot trust. They have been through that kind of situation before. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991, when Sonia was reluctant to join politics, P.V. Narasimha Rao became the prime minister as well as the Congress president. The Gandhis backed him in the belief that he was a retired politician without much clout. Soon, however, Rao started displaying a mind of his own and proved to be a shrewd manoeuverer who knew how to elude their control entirely and chart his own path—even if the party did not exactly stay in robust health in that phase.
His successor, Sitaram Kesri, too, wasn’t amenable to taking orders and displayed all signs of going for full autonomy before being shunted out in a coup where Sonia formally took charge of the party.
If not a Gandhi, who?
That was a phase that reflected two realities. One, given a chance, a non-Gandhi leadership is eminently possible—there is no dearth of either talent or ambition. Two, that does not automatically entail the best results for the party. Sonia’s arrival at the helm had restored a sense of order and coherence that had been missing.
This time, the first family is being careful about who takes charge in their absence. Reports have it that Sonia has requested Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to contest, but the 71-year-old leader is reluctant. Congress sources claim he has placed two conditions for accepting the job—either he be allowed to continue as Rajasthan CM or pick someone of his choice as his successor. While there has been no confirmation from either Gehlot or Sonia, fulfilling either of the conditions will not be easy. For one, the Udaipur resolution of the Congress in May proposed a ‘one person, one post’ policy. His second condition is aimed at denying bête noire and former deputy CM Sachin Pilot any opening. No official confirmation exists, but insiders claim the Gandhi siblings had worked out a compromise deal with Sachin to mollify him when he threatened to follow Jyotiraditya Scindia’s path of rebellion in 2020: that the chief ministership of Rajasthan would be his a year before the state goes to polls in 2023. The Gehlot gambit fits in with that.
That apart, the Rajasthan CM ticks almost all the boxes for a Congress president. He is a prominent leader from the north, where the party has performed abysmally in the past two Lok Sabha polls. He has been a former Union minister, is a three-time chief minister and is nifty with organisation-building. As then general secretary (organisation), he was also instrumental in the party’s superlative performance in the assembly polls in Gujarat in 2017—where they ran the BJP close in Modi’s home state. (He will be the party’s election observer for Gujarat later this year.) Also, vitally, he is an OBC leader, just like PM Modi, and is someone who rose through the ranks. While almost all parties have been trying to woo the OBC vote bank, a swing factor in any election, the most potent criticism against the Congress is its obsession with the Gandhi dynasty. Gehlot as Congress president will be a strong counter to those who accuse the Congress of being a one-family party, and also bring it in sync with the OBC axis around which a common anti-BJP politics might turn in the run-up to 2024, driven by themes like a caste census. Here, the Congress needs to build alliances with Opposition parties. While Sonia has taken a back seat, several Opposition leaders are not comfortable with Rahul’s working style. Gehlot, by contrast, shares a warm equation with most Opposition leaders. Even within the Congress, the Rajasthan CM maintains a cordial relationship with the G23 leaders, making him more acceptable than others. All this, while also enjoying the trust of the family.
Names like Mallikarjun Kharge, Meira Kumar and Mukul Wasnik are doing the rounds too, but Gehlot has an edge because of his access to business leaders. The Congress has been facing a resource crunch and the Rajasthan CM could use his contacts in the corporate world to generate funds. “It’s unlikely he can say no if the Gandhi family firmly tells him to do so. The Gandhis would not bother much about Pilot if he has to be sacrificed to make Gehlot fall in line,” says a Rajya Sabha MP.
Gehlot has few advantages: An OBC leader who rose through the ranks, he will be a strong reply to criticism
Irrespective of which non-Gandhi puts his or her hand up, there will be a contest, unlike in 2017, when Rahul was the only one in the fray. The last time the Congress saw a presidential election was in 2001 when Jitendra Prasada fought against Sonia. Of the 7,542 valid votes, he polled only 94. While the Gandhi-backed candidate will have an advantage, there is speculation that Shashi Tharoor, three-time Lok Sabha MP and one of the G23 leaders, may throw his hat in the ring. Tharoor declined to comment, but some leaders say he has been trying to “galvanise a discussion” around the need to have a fair election process. “I hope several candidates come forward to present themselves for consideration. Putting forward their visions for the party and the nation will surely stir public interest,” Tharoor wrote in a newspaper article on August 29.
What’s certain is that the Congress will have a new president by October 17. “Irrespective of who heads the party, it will remain one united family and the pivot of the Opposition,” says Singhvi. That’s ambitious for a party that has repeatedly fallen back on the Gandhi surname to avoid disintegration.