Only this time, the Cong matriarch will find it difficult to tame the fierce tug-of-war within as bloodlessly
The Congress is a grand old party indeed, so set in its ways that it sticks by them as it fears anything that’s new wave. In the process, India changed and slipped out of its hands. Still the altered reality that has clearly denounced all that the Congress has so far been known for — chief among them dynastic entitlement, minority politics, coterie culture and social welfarism — has failed to shake it up from inside. There was a chance this time to turn the poison of electoral irrelevance of a decade into a real cure with revival but the battered ship has left the harbour to sail in choppy waters again. Not that there weren’t winds of change within. Rahul Gandhi’s leadership may not have delivered results that matter but under his stewardship, a sizeable rank of Young Turks has emerged. Chastened by political wisdom and most importantly, seeking personal legacies with their voluntary performance than gifted family posts, some of them have not only made a difference on the ground but also challenged old world cliquism by showing that they, too, could chart a new course that could work despite the BJP juggernaut. Nobody understood this better than Rahul himself, who was at the receiving end of the worst kind of assaults on his lineage, and was, therefore, willing to break through by disowning party positions that came courtesy it and work like an ordinary partyman. And though there was no open revolt, the divide became more and more apparent, particularly when the young brigade approved the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Many feel that the gradual divergence, besides Rahul’s aversion to continuing as chief or letting any family member continue at the helm, was to force the inevitable, a new order. One which even gathered some encouragement from practical minded old-timers like Amarinder Singh and Karan Singh. But the rigid old guard, which has built its political legitimacy by virtue of the party’s top positions, cosying up to the leadership and becoming its filter and sieve for the grassroots, scuttled the chances of Young Turks by bringing back Sonia Gandhi as the interim president. The only shift that the new leaders could effect was to get state units have a say in electoral committees of those headed for new Assemblies and a promise of organisational elections. While the Rahul camp sincerely threw names like Jyotiraditya Scindia for Congress presidentship, the old guard threw around decoys when they were actually working on his mother, convincing her the situation was desperate enough for herself to be more voluble.
Sonia Gandhi has always been a reluctant leader, even after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. And though she has overseen two UPA governments as Congress chief, she is not in a position to make any dramatic difference now. But she has always given in to persuasion and interpretation of the old guard, some of whom have convinced her that the party would split or wither away if it didn’t have the family seal. And given the traumatic existence of the Gandhis’ political life or the burden of legacy that was thrust upon her, she surely doesn’t want to be seen as driving the party to extinction. Her loyalists know this and except senior leader AK Antony, who said Sonia should not be saddled with party affairs again because of her health, everybody else welcomed the status quo. Sonia Gandhi has been the face of compromise for much of her political life, holding all UPA constituents and allies together at one time with her personal intervention and gravitas. Not only that, she can bind the Opposition. This was one of the reasons why alliances with regional partners failed during the Rahul regime and no UPA 3 could emerge before the Lok Sabha election. Though that’s lost, as interim Congress president she can unite both the old and new in the party. Even Rahul wouldn’t have an objection to that. On the face of it, there has been a smooth transition of power within the cocoon of family warmth that the Congress is scared to part with. Politically, the reformist young lot, who are in their middling years now, may not like to fight senior hawks and lose again. They may retreat or chase new horizons rather than being “alone.” The Congress matriarch may not be able to assuage her son and his vision, saying they would have their time, but may be compelled to give something to loyalists given Assembly polls are around the corner. While the BJP may gleefully scream “I told you so”, Sonia’s biggest worry is the raging emotions despite her calm visage. Her party needs to buck up now.