Now that Rahul Gandhi is all set to be anointed Congress president – the announcement is expected to be made on Monday – the discourse in the party has already shifted from “when will he take over” to “what next”.
Ever since he was appointed party vice-president in 2013, the Congress rank and file have not stopped speculating about the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s elevation as party chief. The Congress’ crushing defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the unexplained delay in Rahul Gandhi’s appointment to the party president’s post and the perception that he was not keen on taking on this responsibility created confusion among the cadre. Everything else took a backseat in the Congress as this became the primary subject of conversation among the party rank and file. There was genuine concern that the party could be rendered leaderless since Sonia Gandhi was not keeping well and Rahul Gandhi appeared reluctant to take on the mantle.
The Congress has undoubtedly heaved a collective sigh of relief now that the leadership issue has been resolved. But, at the same time, the party’s worries have taken on a fresh trajectory. These centre around Rahul Gandhi’s style of functioning, his plans for the Congress and his ability to reinvent the party and take it in a new direction.
CHALLENGES: GUJARAT AND BEYOND
But, above all, the conversations in the party invariably veer around to Rahul Gandhi’s team and whether he will go in for a purge or settle for a mix of experienced and young faces. Though there is apprehension on this score, there is also hope that Rahul Gandhi will get down to the task of revitalising the moribund Congress organisation so that it is battle-ready to meet the 2019 Lok Sabha challenge. After the Gujarat Assembly elections, the second and final phase of which will be held on Thursday, Rahul Gandhi will be put to the test in the Karnataka polls early next year, followed by elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. He will also have to focus on building the party in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where the Congress is virtually non-existent, having ceded space to regional parties and now the Bharatiya Janata Party. He will also have to provide greater ideological clarity to the party to end its present existentialist crisis.
For the present, all eyes are on the Gujarat polls where the Congress has surprised everyone by putting up a spirited fight and running a well-planned and organised campaign. It is an obvious fact that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership credentials will be truly established if the Congress is able to pull off a victory in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backyard.
In fact, even a marginal improvement in the party’s tally will strengthen Rahul Gandhi personally and energise Congress cadre as 2019 will no longer appear as insurmountable as it did in 2014, when the party touched an all-time low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. In that case, Rahul Gandhi will be able to usher in changes in the party unhindered and with greater confidence.
On the flip side, if the status quo in Gujarat continues, it could slow him down as the new party president will perforce have to tread with caution so that he does not alienate or antagonise anybody. Though his personal position as the Congress party’s new chief commandant will remain unchanged and unchallenged, Rahul Gandhi will have to ensure that a defeat does not lead to migrations from its ranks to rival political parties.
RAHUL GANDHI’S TEAM
The most obvious question doing the rounds is: who will be Rahul Gandhi’s Ahmed Patel? Patel served as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary and was easily the most powerful functionary in the Congress. As the party president’s closest confidant, the low-profile Patel played a critical role in internal appointments, troubleshooting for Sonia Gandhi, putting down dissension and handling prickly alliance partners. It is highly unlikely that Patel will hold the same job in Rahul Gandhi’s office as the new president is expected to put together a team of his own choice. At the same time, it is also unlikely that Patel will be retired, given his connect with Congress workers, his skills in “conflict management” and his deep understanding of the organisation’s internal systems. For instance, it was Patel who managed to persuade Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jigneesh Mevani, leaders of the Patidar, Other Backward Classes and Dalit communities in Gujarat, to extend support to the Congress in the ongoing elections.
This has naturally led to speculation about Patel’s role in the new dispensation. Meanwhile, the names of Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken, the party’s Scheduled Castes department head K Raju, and Congress communications department chief Randeep Surjewal are being mentioned as possible contenders for the job of Rahul Gandhi’s political secretary.
Since there is all-round agreement that none can match up to Patel, it is being suggested that instead of depending on one person, Rahul Gandhi should have a panel of advisors who can act as the new party president’s think tank. But they are quick to stress that these advisors must have a political background as opposed to the non-political team that has been running Rahul Gandhi’s office. Among the young leaders known to be close to Rahul Gandhi are Jyoitraditya Scinida, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Deepender Hooda, Rajeev Satav, Shashi Tharoor, Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev.
Pilot is heading the Rajasthan Congress while Sushmita Dev has been given charge of the Mahila Congress and Tharoor of the party’s newly created professionals group, which is aimed at integrating the country’s professional tax payers into a political system. The others are also expected to find a place in Rahul Gandhi’s team. One of Rahul Gandhi’s priorities is to appoint a new president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress. The matter has been pending for over a year now as a result of intense infighting in the state unit and the leadership’s inability to chose between Scindia and Kamal Nath, even as veteran leader Digvijaya Singh is waiting in the wings to create trouble.
“It does not matter if the Congress wins or loses Gujarat… it is imperative that Rahul Gandhi introduces widespread changes in the party organisation,” said a former Congress minister, who did not wish to be identified. “The changes should be at all levels, right down to the district and block level. More importantly, we need qualitative changes… he should not appoint new persons merely for the sake of change.”
But from all accounts, it would appear that Rahul Gandhi will not find it easy to cast aside old timers like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Kamal Nath, AK Antony, P Chidambaram and Anand Sharma. While some are needed to hold the fort in Parliament, there are others whose experience can come in handy in managing the party organisation. Though there is a clamour for Rahul Gandhi to undertake drastic changes, he finds himself at a disadvantage as the younger leaders are yet to measure up to the older lot because they are neither mass leaders, nor have they acquired a talent for backroom political machinations. Sonia Gandhi inherited a far more politically-savvy group of leaders who had been groomed and nurtured by Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
As he gets down to the task of managing the party, Rahul Gandhi will soon learn that being elected Congress president was easy but the road ahead is far tougher.