Congressmen are fond of history, especially their party’s role in it. So, when in doubt or confusion about their actions, look back in history. To understand why Sonia Gandhi became interim Congress president in place of her son Rahul Gandhi, who had replaced her barely 20 months back, let’s go back in time — by 21 years and five months, to be precise.
On 14 March 1998, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) had passed a resolution asking Sonia Gandhi to take over the party from Sitaram Kesri, ousting him unceremoniously. She had been reluctant to join politics after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. But Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel kept pleading with her, saying she could not escape her responsibilities as a member of the great family, writes journalist Rasheed Kidwai in her biography, Sonia. “How can you allow the collapse of the Congress before your eyes,” the book quoted Ashok Gehlot, now Rajasthan chief minister, as saying while pointing to large-scale desertions from the party.
Finally, in December 1997, when then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh called on her, she broke her silence: she would campaign for the party in the ensuing elections.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who was then in Congress, recalls in his autobiography, On My Terms, how P.C. Alexander, former principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, had sought to persuade him: “I know you feel strongly that the Congress must survive the present crisis. But it is obvious you have some reservations about the Gandhi family….You will need some more time to muster adequate support for yourself….You must bring in Sonia Gandhi at this juncture. Only then can the Congress be saved.” Days later, Pawar, A.K. Antony and Ghulam Nabi Azad were walking from 24 Akbar Road, the party headquarters, to her adjoining 10 Janpath residence to “request her to assume the party’s reins”.
History repeats itself
Cut to 10 August 2019. History repeats itself, as they say. The cast of characters was no different—Patel, Azad, Manmohan Singh, Antony, et al. Gehlot and Digvijaya Singh weren’t part of it though; they aren’t CWC members. Pawar had parted ways with Congress in 1999, a year after bringing Sonia Gandhi to the helm.
Saturday evening, after 21 years, Congress leaders were making the same pleas to Sonia Gandhi: “Look at the desertions from the party…. It will disintegrate without you…. Only you can save it.” She obliged them, again. The Congress was saved, again— for the night, at least.
It’s ironic. How time stays frozen in the Congress when it concerns The Family. It’s not the same for others. Ghulam Nabi Azad moaned at the CWC meeting: “It’s with great pain that I have to say this. Why should only Azad speak on [the nullification of] Article 370? Am I not a nationalist?” Sonia and Rahul Gandhi sat silently, just as they did when the issue was discussed in the Lok Sabha. So did youngsters such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Deepender Hooda who had found the government’s move on Article 370 in the national interest.
Coming to the original question: Why did Sonia Gandhi decide to take over the reins of the party again, having relinquished them just 20 months ago? No one can doubt her commitment to the Congress. She must have the party’s best interests in mind. No one can also dispute the fact that the Nehru-Gandhi family is the only glue that binds the Congress together. The appointment of a Wasnik or a Kharge even as interim president was no option because it would precipitate an exodus from the Congress.
It was virtually impossible for anyone outside the family to meet the requirements.
Also read: The Congress doesn’t need a president
Rahul’s moral compass
Congress insiders would tell you that Rahul Gandhi might have queered the pitch by demanding a non-Gandhi as his successor at the CWC meeting in May, but his mother regained control of the situation soon. The inexplicable delay, the so-called consultation process, the clamour for Rahul Gandhi to stay on, and almost everything else were designed to suit an objective. Congress leaders generously started telling the media how they were yet to decide whether a Dalit or a non-Dalit should replace Gandhi.
Sonia Gandhi’s loyalists know how to manufacture consent or clamour. It was no coincidence that a meeting of all state Congress chiefs, leaders of legislature parties, and in-charges of states was suddenly convened Friday, ostensibly to clear confusion on the party’s stand on Article 370.
It was followed by another coincidence: Rahul suddenly decided Friday that all these state leaders would be part of the broader consultation process to appoint his successor.
Those who were part of the so-called broader process ahead of the CWC meeting can’t stop smiling now. Here is a summary from one of the participants: “The discussion started with a senior leader proposing that we should demand the withdrawal of Rahul Gandhi’s resignation. Everyone naturally jumped in. What was left to discuss after that?”
Obviously, the entire process was designed to show the party’s consolidation behind Rahul Gandhi. The CWC passed a resolution, appreciating his “instinctive moral compass” as was evident from his decision to step down by taking “personal responsibility” for the party’s loss in 2019 general elections. It was to be followed by a chorus for Sonia Gandhi to take over, which she did, graciously.
Warming the seat
So, what next? She is supposed to hold the party’s reins until the party elects a full-fledged president at an indeterminate time in future — “pending the election of a regular President by the AICC”, as the CWC resolution stated. If you read between the lines, it means “pending Rahul Gandhi’s or Priyanka Vadra’s willingness to take over”. I would place my bet on Rahul Gandhi’s return at the helm next year or whenever he reckons his ‘moral compass’ has run the desired course.
A CWC member told me Sunday morning: “Your criticism about dynastic rule may be true, to some extent. I know [Narendra] Modi will make it a big issue in the [coming] assembly elections again. But that’s how it is. Leadership by the Gandhi family is ingrained in our hearts and minds and we can’t look beyond them, especially at a time when we are facing such a big crisis.”
A Gandhi family member at the helm is certainly a comforting feeling for Congresspersons, notwithstanding the opinion of voters.