New Delhi: Under pressure from the so-called G-23 group of senior leaders to step aside or reform following defeats in the assembly elections in five states that concluded earlier this month, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has taken on a more active role, leading the party within and outside Parliament.
In the past two years, Sonia has not been as visible as she was when she took charge of the Congress in 1998 and led the United Progressive Alliance to victory in 2004 and 2009. She addressed just one, virtual, rally during the poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh. But she’s now playing a more prominent role, holding parleys with G-23 leaders and taking charge of the party’s post-mortem on the poll debacle.
She has also been more active in the Lok Sabha, leading the opposition’s charge against fuel price hikes and raising the issue of nutritional needs of children hit by the Covid pandemic.
This comes after criticism from the G-23, which has called for “collective and inclusive leadership”. One member of the group, former Union minister Kapil Sibal, had called on the Gandhi family to “voluntarily move away” after the election defeats, and decried Rahul Gandhi’s de facto leadership of the party despite not holding any official leadership position.
Rahul had stepped down as Congress president after the party’s defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, after which Sonia took up the position once again on an interim basis.
In a meeting convened earlier this month after the assembly poll results were announced, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — the party’s top decision-making body, whose members were nominated by Sonia — decided to have her continue as interim president until the long-pending election to the party president’s post is held in September 2022.
The CWC resolution reads: “The CWC unanimously reaffirms its faith in the leadership of Smt. Sonia Gandhi and requests the Congress president to lead from the front, address the organisational weaknesses, effect necessary and comprehensive organisational changes in order to take on the political challenges.”
Reports about the CWC meeting also state that while it had been Priyanka Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh and Rahul Gandhi in the four other states who had led the Congress campaign, at the meeting it was Sonia who spoke for the family. She told the CWC members that if they thought that she and her children were to blame for the poll results, they were willing to step back.
‘Sonia of 2022 not the same as Sonia of 1998 or 2004’
While the 75-year-old Sonia seems to have resumed her engagements with renewed vigour, there are concerns within the party about whether she is still fit for the role.
Speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, a senior party leader said, “Within the party, she has acceptability across all generations of leaders. She is also the most credible Congress face when the Congress talks to other opposition parties.”
However, the leader added, “The problem is that the Sonia Gandhi of 2022 is not the same as the Sonia Gandhi of 2004 or 1998. But people expect her to be that. I do not know if she can play the same role now, whether her political instincts are as sharp as they once were.”
Others said that while questions about leadership will have to be asked and the family’s dominance will have to be questioned, it’s really the party’s decision-making process that is causing its problems.
“We are this behemoth that takes at least two days to make even the smallest of decisions, still functioning the way we did a few decades ago. And we are up against people way more nimble than us, people who are full-time politicians,” said another party leader.
“Unless we change that about ourselves ,there may be little, really, that will change in terms of election results. There can never be a vacuum. If we don’t change, somebody else will take our space, like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has done in Punjab,” added the leader.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)