Suspense deepens over who will helm the grand old party

The debate over whether a Gandhi or a non-Gandhi should lead the Congress has once again kicked off in the party. While a Gandhi is seen as a glue which can bind the party together, a non-Gandhi can help the party ward off the criticism of being dynasti, reports Amit Agnihotri

The ill-health of interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s reported reluctance to head the grand old party again has thrown up several questions, not only in the minds of millions of workers but members of the public as well.

The leadership issue in the Congress was about to be settled by September 21, the scheduled date by when the election for the post of party president was to be completed, with general consensus evolving around a second term for Rahul Gandhi.

However, a fresh controversy has surfaced over the reported reluctance of Gandhi family scion to take charge again.

As a result, the party had to announce a revised schedule, which was approved by the Congress Working Committee on August 28.

The Congress will now elect its next president on October 17, if needed, and will declare the result on October 19. The Congress Working Committee under the chairmanship of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, considered and approved the following final schedule for election to the post of party president. The meeting was held virtually as Sonia was under treatment abroad.

According to Madhusudan Mistry, head of the Congress Election Authority, the date of notification is September 22, date of filing nomination is from September 24 to September 30, date of scrutiny is October 1 and last date of withdrawal is October 8. The date of election, if there are more than one candidate, is October 17 and the date of counting and declaration of result is October 19, he said.

The polls had to be postponed due to the inauspicious period in between as per Hindu calendar. Around 9000 delegates will take part in the polls for Congress president. They will vote in the state unit headquarters, said Mistry.

The issue of internal polls had been earlier raised by the G23, a group of senior dissenters, led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who resigned on August 26 and slammed Rahul in his resignation letter. Later, the party attacked Azad for ditching it and defended Rahul. On August 28, former Rajya Sabha member and Telangana leader MA Khan resigned and questioned Rahul’s leadership style. There is speculation that more leaders may leave the party in the coming days, indicating an unease within the grand old party.

The resignations have come when the party is preparing for assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat to be held later this year. Infighting could affect the party’s chances in the coming polls, said insiders.

In a hint to the dissenters, Congress communications in charge Jairam Ramesh said, “The Congress is the only party where internal polls take place.” “Anyone who wants to be Congress president will have to file a nomination,” said AICC general secretary in charge of organization KC Venugopal, in a challenge to the dissenters.

Party insiders said they were trying to convince Rahul, who owned up responsibility for the party’s defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and resigned as Congress chief, to head the grand old party again but he has not given his assent and instead wants the seniors to choose a non-Gandhi as the new party president.

According to sources, though a section of Congress leaders wants Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to step up and become the party chief, neither Sonia nor Rahul is keen on that proposal.

That leaves the party managers with limited choice, either to elect Sonia Gandhi again as full-time party president or bring in a senior leader from outside the Gandhi family to steer the organization.

As it is, the Congress faces several challenges, the most prominent one being to revive the party nationally ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and to win more state elections that will take place before that.

The Congress lost power to the BJP in 2014 and again in 2019 and has lost several state polls since then, which had left the organization demoralized.

To counter that negative sentiment, the party had organized a mega-conclave, the Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan’s Udaipur from May 13-15 to prepare a broad strategy for the 2024 national elections.

Around 400 senior leaders from across states deliberated on the various challenges facing the Congress for three days and then adopted the Udaipur Declaration, which highlighted the need to revamp the organization and launch mass movements to establish the lost connect with the voters.

While a process to revamp the party units in states is on, the Congress is set to launch the proposed nationwide Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari in the south to Kashmir in the north against the BJP’s allegedly divisive politics.

From all indications available, Rahul will lead the yatra, which will start from Kanyakumari on Sep 7 and cover around 3,500 km over 150 days and crisscross through 12 states and 2 UTs, for most parts.

Other senior leaders too will take part in the yatra, being described by the party as one of the major mass movements launched by the Congress in the past years.

Rahul’s lead role in the nationwide foot march was to coincide with his speculated promotion as the new Congress president in September but now the leadership issue is once again being hotly debated within the party circles and would be settled in October.

Leadership issue

The leadership debate is not new in the Congress. The party faced it in 2014 when then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi offered to resign after the party reached its lowest-ever Lok Sabha tally of 44/543 seats.

When Sonia was full time president from 1998-2017, her leadership style was acknowledged as consultative and going by consensus. She is still regarded both by the old timers and the youngsters for this trait and is believed to be a cementing force in the Congress. But she has health issues and the Congress needs someone who can steer the party over the next decades.

Rahul taking over the reins of Congress in 2017 had marked a generational change in the grand old party. Rahul’s presidency in 2017 was followed by three significant wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly elections in 2018 and had given much hope to the party strategists of regaining lost ground.

However, five years later, the party again faced the crisis in May 2019 when then Congress chief Rahul Gandhi resigned owing responsibility for the Lok Sabha poll results in which the party could only get 52/543 seats.

Then, the names of Ashok Gehlot, Sushil Shinde, Mukul Wasnik and Mallikarjun Kharge had surfaced as potential non-Gandhi party president and the same names with the addition of Ambika Soni, Kumari Sailja, and KC Venugopal are again doing the rounds now.

Though each one of these veterans had an important place in the party system and are regarded by the leaders and workers alike, there was no consensus on any one name.

The choice then fell on Sonia Gandhi, who agreed to be back as party interim chief after running the Congress for 19 years.

Over the next 12 months, there was no clarity if the party was prepared to take a call on having a full-time president though a buzz around Rahul’s comeback started building up in the Congress circles.

The realization that things were perhaps going downhill triggered panic among the 23 veterans who wrote to Sonia in 2020 demanding a full-time party president and organization overhaul to arrest the drift.

The organizational revamp is on and the internal election process has been completed in states.

Gandhi vs non-Gandhi

Among the non-Gandhi names, Gehlot is Rajasthan chief minister, a veteran and knows the organization inside out. Ambika Soni is a former union minister and has been in charge of several states. Recently she hoisted the national flag at a party event as Sonia Gandhi could not attend the gathering due to ill-health.

KC Venugopal is also a party veteran and has been taking care of the party organization as in charge for several years now. Kharge is the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and is trusted by all the senior party leaders across the country. Sailja and Shinde belong to the Dalit community, are party veterans and have been former union ministers.

The debate whether a Gandhi or a non-Gandhi should lead the Congress has once again started in the party. While a Gandhi is seen as a glue which can bind the party together, the party often faces criticism of being dynastic from the BJP, which too has several such cases. A non-Gandhi can help the party deal with such criticism but may also open more cracks in the opposition party due to the presence of a large number of strong regional leaders in the party.

After taking over as party chief in 1998, Sonia galvanized the Congress, forged alliances with the other like-minded parties and finally defeated then PM AB Vajpayee in the 2004 national elections when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power. Putting huge speculation in the country over her becoming the prime minister, Sonia nominated her confidante Manmohan Singh for the top executive job.

During the 10 years of UPA, from 2004-2014, Sonia steered the UPA and fully backed Manmohan Singh though there were some noises in the party against the then prime minister.

Those who bat for Rahul, point out he has single-handedly taken on PM Modi and his policies. Also, his managers have been working constantly at an image makeover and cited his interactions with international experts on economy and politics as signs of a leader with deep understanding of policy issues.

Rahul led the party in the Parliament and recently, when he was being questioned by the ED, the entire Congress came out on the streets to protest against the targeting of the leader. Later, he along with Priyanka, led the party protests when Sonia was being questioned by the ED.