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Congress revival requires end of Gandhi dynasty in Congress, Sonia-Rahul won’t let it happen

Sunday's CWC meet was a perfect forum for Rahul Gandhi to end speculation about his ‘renunciation’ and declare he won't contest the presidential election. But he didn’t say a word.

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Quiet, sedate meeting of the Congress Working Committee on Sunday came as a surprise. Coming two days after Ghulam Nabi Azad quit the party, calling out Rahul Gandhi and his coterie, one was expecting fireworks. After all, Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh had given enough food for thought: “GNA’s DNA has been Modi-fied.” CWC was the forum for the coterie and family loyalists to do one better.

Instead, the mood at Sunday’s meeting was rather sombre, with the three Gandhis attending it online from abroad. They just postponed the presidential election by about a month. Official reasons about incomplete electoral college aside, it gives the Gandhis more time to plan Rahul Gandhi’s future while the dust raised by Azad settles down.

Congress leaders love melodrama, especially when it concerns the Gandhis. Remember 2004 when Sonia Gandhi had refused to become the Prime Minister? A tearful Renuka Choudhary gave veteran actor Govinda a run for his money. Govinda beseeched “mother” Sonia not to do it while Choudhary implored her not to make them “orphans”.

Cut to 2013 AICC session in Jaipur in which Rahul Gandhi was appointed the party vice-president. When he made the power-is-poison speech, disclosing how his mother came to see him the previous evening and cried, sounds of sobs and cries of Congress leaders drowned the Birla auditorium. Then-Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit borrowed Rahul’s handkerchief to wipe her tears. Janardan Dwivedi got up to speak and called Rahul ‘Eklavya’ before breaking down. Ashok Gehlot frequently wiped his tears.

Nine years later, Sunday’s CWC meeting was a dampener of a show. Ghulam Nabi Azad must have felt relieved to see his former party colleagues sparing him even when they had the chance to score brownies before the Gandhis. By the way, two words in his five-page resignation letter summarised his angst: “inexperienced sycophants” who ran the party affairs. Experienced ones with an enviable track record in the Gandhi durbar didn’t take it well, obviously. The issues raised by Azad are all very relevant. The only thing he left unexplained in his letter was how the Congress became virtually irrelevant in Jammu and Kashmir when a son of the soil held such high positions in the party and party-led governments at the Centre for decades. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must now expect Azad’s new party to splinter Muslim votes of non-BJP parties on his home turf, the Chenab Valley that sends eight members to the Assembly. Whether Azad can swing votes even in these many constituencies is anybody’s guess. His performance will be key to the BJP’s ambition to emerge as the single largest party in the next elections—and, possibly, as the ruling party in J&K.

Anyway, coming back to the CWC meeting, the Congress party’s top decision-making body was assembling amid speculation about Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to become the Congress president once again. At least, that’s what his spin doctors would have us believe. Given the breathless reportage on his likely ‘renunciation’, the CWC meeting was a perfect forum for Rahul Gandhi to declare his intent not to contest the presidential election. He didn’t utter a word about it. Congress leaders would have us believe that Sonia Gandhi wants Ashok Gehlot to take over the reins of the party. That would please Sachin Pilot who has been waiting to replace Ashok Gehlot as the CM. It’s another thing that a dynamic, young face like Pilot as the Congress’s national president would serve the party’s cause better. But the Gandhis may probably feel more secure with a 71-year-old Gehlot as a stop-gap arrangement. These are all in the domain of speculation though. At the CWC meeting, the Gandhis kept mum. It’s good to let people speculate about Rahul Gandhi’s intended ‘renunciation’ but saying it formally may have unintended consequences. On Sunday, if the Gandhis expected CWC members to do the familiar chorus to beseech Rahul to return as the Congress president, that was not to be.

Everybody seems to be buying time. And, therefore, deferment of presidential election, ostensibly because of delays in making the electoral college in some states, suited everyone.

So, what are the Gandhis up to? Why are they keeping everyone in suspense? If Rahul Gandhi is not up to it, he should say it and let someone else step up. Or is it that the Gandhis want him to accept the poison of power again under tremendous pressure from party cadres and leaders? Well, apart from a handful of his coterie members, they have been rather quiet.

Also read: Could Congress see a new president in October? CWC announces revised party poll schedule

Eerie sound of silence

The Gandhis can also hear the eerie sound of silence. In the old days, if a Congress leader had said even a fraction of what Azad said about a Gandhi, there would be a storm. The rank and file have, however, reacted to Azad’s resignation letter with studied silence. One doesn’t hear a rustle. Where are those 5.6 crore new members that the party enlisted in the latest membership drive? Sonia has been heading the party for about 22 years, almost as long as the total presidential tenures of all other Nehru-Gandhi family members put together—Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Add to it Rahul Gandhi’s tenure of one-and-a-half years. About two-and-a-half decades of continuous reign and no Congress functionary is rushing to the party headquarters in the national or a state capital—or even to a district or block Congress committee office—when the Gandhis are under attack and are reportedly planning to step away.

The Gandhis could also have got a measure of their standing among party cadres last month when Congress-organised protests against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s questioning by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) received lukewarm response. There were no spontaneous agitations. And the mobilisation of Congress leaders and workers in Delhi led to the blockade of just one road while traffic movement remained smooth throughout the capital city.

Gandhi’s Hamletian dilemma

In ordinary circumstances, the Gandhis’ next move would be a no-brainer. Given how the odds are stacked in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, they could hand over the party’s reins to someone else and have fun from the sidelines. Let them run the Congress and fail. That would make Rahul Gandhi’s ‘renunciation’ worthwhile. If there is no change in the Congress’ fortune even under a non-Gandhi, Rahul can proudly come back to helm the Congress and hope to prove his mettle, especially when Narendra Modi would probably be serving his last term in the Prime Minister’s office. No Congressperson would then hold a grudge against the Gandhis. From then on, they can run the Congress forever and ever.

There is a catch though. The Gandhis would like a ‘puppet president’, as Ghulam Nabi Azad and Prithviraj Chavan believe. That’s a given but the problem here is: Who should the Gandhis trust to keep the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi? After all, P.V. Narasimha Rao had also stood with Indira Gandhi in her fight against the Syndicate in 1969 and during the Emergency. Remember the St. Kitts case in which Rao along with others had allegedly forged documents to implicate Ajeya Singh, son of Rajiv Gandhi’s bete noir V.P. Singh? Rao was discharged by a court but this scandal was seen as another testimony of his loyalty to the Gandhi family. Barely two years later, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and Rao became the Prime Minister. The rest is history.

There is no dearth of loyalists even today but Rao and Sitaram Kesri haven’t left many sweet memories for the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi has seen worse. Could she imagine P.A. Sangma joining Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar to rebel against her? Could she foresee Jyotiraditya Scindia defecting to the BJP? Therefore, even if Rahul Gandhi is disinclined to become the Congress president again as his spin doctors would have us believe, the Gandhis would be circumspect about the succession plan. They must dread the prospects of another family loyalist going the Rao way after becoming Congress president. And what if there is a miracle and the Congress starts winning elections under the non-Gandhi president? That would make Rahul’s return to the helm very difficult. What would the Gandhis do then? Would they be reconciled to the end of the Nehru-Gandhi era in the Congress? The Gandhis must be factoring in these questions. They may want to opt out of the presidential race only if they are convinced of the party’s continuous downslide during their absence from the helm.

Another option for the Gandhis is to brazen it out. Leaving control of the party is risky. When Sonia Gandhi decided to stay away from politics after her husband’s assassination, Congress leaders kept coming to her as they needed her to fix Narasimha Rao, Kesri and other rivals—and also to keep the party together. They thought they wouldn’t win without a Gandhi being the party’s face. Well, things have changed over the past decade. The Gandhis can’t win elections. They can’t run the party. The surname inspires little confidence among voters. In fact, Modi and other BJP leaders have made it an albatross around the Congress’ neck. So, if Rahul Gandhi declares his intention to quit, Congress’ rank and file may feel rather relieved.

The Gandhis must, therefore, stay put and retain possession of the family jewel, the Congress. At least, this is what Sonia has been trying to do since Rahul resigned in 2019. Because leaving the party even with a regent is very risky.

Nobody can stop Rahul Gandhi from becoming the Congress president again if he so wishes. But this option has other pitfalls. Of 50 assembly elections held since 2014, the Congress has won only 7. During the same period, the party could retain power in only 1 out of the 13 states that it ruled. Rahul Gandhi must be convinced of reversing this losing streak if he returns to the helm. Because if it continues, there will be many Ghulam Nabi Azads raising their heads in rebellion every now and then, especially after every electoral defeat. And the Congress’ footprints would be shrinking further and further.

It’s either the Gandhis or the Congress. The CWC has given them one more month to fix their priority. If they fail to resolve this either-or dilemma, it may soon turn into a neither-nor situation.

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