So, Rahul Gandhi has made up his mind about whether or not he’ll throw his hat in the ring for the electoral contest of the Congress presidency scheduled for October 17. Of course, the former Congress chief, presently on his Bharat Jodo walkathon in Kerala, is in no hurry to reveal what exactly is in his mind. Yet, those who claim some proximity to the Wayanad MP insist that it’s a Nay and not Yea from him for the party’s presidency.
If Rahul is indeed steadfast in his refusal to retake the helm of his party, it is understandable. When he quit the post in mid-2019 taking moral responsibility for leading the Congress to a humiliating rout in the Lok Sabha polls, he had insisted that the party must be led by a non-Gandhi. His suggestion wasn’t accepted at the time by a party that has, for decades, been hostage to a culture of sycophancy around the Gandhi family. After a prolonged stalemate that saw Rahul rebuffing all pleas to take back his resignation, the party brass forced Sonia Gandhi to abandon her retirement plans and return to take interim control of the party in August 2019.
However, the Congress has since been on a steeper electoral and organisational tailspin than the one it was caught in prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Gandhi family retainers such as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma who were part of the shenanigans that pivoted Sonia back to the hot seat have turned against the high command. Azad quit the party last month and has declared that he will launch his own outfit in Jammu and Kashmir soon. Sharma is, perhaps, still auditing the empty ledger of his political and electoral worth in search of a pitch he can make to some other party that would dare to acquire him.
Among the party’s deserters and amid those who remain on-board, the predominant view is that the morass that the Congress finds itself in today is largely the result of the way Rahul ran the organisation, be it as de jure president or a de facto one calling the shots with his ailing mother acting as his shield.
Publicly, of course, most Congress leaders still insist that Rahul is the only acceptable successor to Sonia but off-the-record, many concede that it’s about time the Wayanad MP’s push for a non-Gandhi party chief be lapped up, even if only as a stopgap arrangement. Those like party MP Shashi Tharoor, who is considering the option of entering the presidential contest, are of the view that “no party should put itself in the position of believing that only one family can lead it”.
If the Congress grapevine is anything to go by, Sonia had summoned Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot last month before she left for her medical check-ups abroad along with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Sonia reportedly told Gehlot to “lead the party”. However, the Rajasthan CM, unwilling to leave his seat of power in Jaipur for rival Sachin Pilot, has since repeated ad nauseam that he will continue to exert pressure on Rahul to assume the presidency. Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha whose name had also been speculated in some sections as a probable choice of the Gandhis to take over from Sonia, has also echoed Gehlot’s views.
In all likelihood, if Mukul Wasnik or KC Venugopal – other so-called contenders being tapped by the first family for the ominous task – are asked about running for party president, they too would parrot the “only Rahul is acceptable” line.
As such, when Tharoor stuck his neck out to say the Congress presidency mustn’t be tied to one family alone, Rahul should have lapped it up considering that none other in the party has yet made public their intention to contest the election. Instead, what we got was Rahul’s Man Friday and AICC general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal’s perfunctory statement to the media: “it’s an open election, anyone can contest”.
A widely held view is that though Rahul may genuinely want a non-Gandhi at the helm of the party, the Gandhis – Rahul included – do not want to lose effective control of the Congress. Thus, they’d rather have someone like a Gehlot or a Venugopal – people with seemingly unquestionable and unwavering loyalty to the first family – to run the party in their stead. Part of the arrangement would obviously be that all key organisational decisions by the non-Gandhi chief will be implemented only after Rahul gives his seal of approval, after informing – and sometimes consulting – Sonia and Priyanka.
Congress members frustrated with the machinations that have been at play within the party for the past three years claim that this is, in fact, not far from the arrangement that has been in place even with Sonia as interim party chief. Rahul is believed to have a veto on important organisational matters such as appointments within the organisation or allotment of tickets for Rajya Sabha or even some assembly polls.
Besides, Rahul seems to have no problem with his party continuing to treat him as the Congress chief despite his recurring assertion of being “just an ordinary Congress member”. Nothing makes this more evident than the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra for which Rahul, despite insisting that he isn’t leading but only participating in the march, has been projected by his colleagues as the mascot. Has it escaped Rahul that by the time the new party president is elected, the Yatra will still have four months to conclude? If Rahul is the mascot of the party’s biggest public outreach and mass mobilisation effort since his father, Rajiv Gandhi’s Bharat Yatra of 1990, what will the new Congress chief’s role be in it – to welcome the Wayanad MP with the customary mala, shawl aur shriphal (garland, shawl and coconut) when he reaches Srinagar around February 2023?
To those who are familiar with the varying degrees of loyalty of different Congress functionaries towards the troika of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, it clear that a large chunk of the current AICC office bearers, leaders bestowed with Rajya Sabha berths in recent years and others who have been assigned important organisational responsibilities across different states, have been handpicked by Rahul. Many of these leaders, the likes of Venugopal, Randeep Surjewala, Jitendra Singh, Ajay Maken, Avinash Pande, Mohan Prakash, Dinesh Gundu Rao, Harish Chaudhary, among others, have been rewarded with plum organisational responsibilities despite repeatedly failing in the tasks assigned to them.
Even in terms of optics, Rahul’s resignation from the presidency three years ago and the steadily diminishing returns he has given to the party in poll campaigns across various states hasn’t lessened in any way the position of privilege he continues to enjoy among his colleagues. When he addresses the media, he is almost always flanked by senior party colleagues who seem perfectly content playing moderators for him. When he decides to attend Lok Sabha proceedings, his colleagues scurry to escort him in and out of the Parliament complex. On the even rarer occasions when he actually speaks in the Lok Sabha, party leaders and the Congress social media team go on an overdrive to promote videos of his speech as if it was the Sermon on the Mount.
Officially, Rahul holds no post in the party except that of being a member of the CWC and some intra-party panels set up by his mother. Yet, it is often at Rahul’s residence where party colleagues, including chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, senior MPs and PCC chiefs, are summoned to discuss Congress’s affairs.
Their personal motivations and agendas aside, it was this sense of entitlement in Rahul – the luxury of enjoying power over the party without any accountability to it – that had triggered the G-23 rebellion in August 2020. Even beyond the 23 signatories, many Congress members hold the view that Rahul resigned the presidency but never stopped acting as the party chief. A commonly held belief among a majority of the party members is that this scenario is unlikely to change if the October 17 election indeed sees a non-Gandhi assuming the Congress presidency.
All of this makes Rahul’s insistence for a non-Gandhi party president seem rather a faux pitch. In fact, it makes Rahul look like the biggest hurdle to his avowed goal of democratisation of his party as he appears perfectly at ease with being treated as the party’s once and future king, his lack of success in the role notwithstanding.
It does not require any great political understanding to prophesise that a non-Gandhi Congress chief won’t be able to make any real difference to the doddering Grand Old Party if Rahul continues to puppeteer the organisation. Predictably, whoever takes over the presidency from Sonia next month will immediately be subjected by the BJP and other Congress critics of being a rubber stamp of the Gandhis – much as Dr Manmohan Singh was taunted during the UPA era for being a prime minister puppeteered by Sonia. It is for Rahul to decide whether he wants to deflate such criticism or give fodder to it.