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Setting the stage for Rahul Gandhi to take charge of the party, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) on Monday announced the schedule for the election of its next president. While Sonia Gandhi has led the party for 19 years, there is no word on her role after Rahul’s elevation. The 19-day election process, timed with the Gujarat elections, will begin on December 1. However, the picture will become clear on December 4 itself, when the window for filing nominations gets over.
If there is no other candidate in the fray — the party expects no such challenge — Rahul’s election is likely to be announced either on December 5, after the scrutiny of papers, or on December 11, the last date for withdrawal of nominations. Either way, his elevation as Congress president is likely to be announced before the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly results on December 18.
If there is more than one candidate in the fray, voting will take place on December 16 and counting on December 19. In brief remarks at the CWC meeting on Monday, Rahul spoke on the Rafale fighter aircraft deal and the need to fight the BJP more aggressively. He said every party worker should “aim for the bull’s eye” in Gujarat.
So what does the generational change entail for the Congress? While there are different opinions in the party, the predominant view is that there will be no purge of the “old guard”. Or, for that matter, any immediate radical changes. But there will be an infusion of fresh blood, not necessarily young, and more aggression vis-a-vis the BJP.
“Firstly, it will bring clarity about who will lead the Congress into the 2019 elections. Secondly, there will be a shake-up in the top echelons that will combine continuity with change. Thirdly, there will be fresh focus on issues that will be raised between now and 2019. Issues of a basic nature, covering political, economic, social and international affairs, with special emphasis on grassroot democracy and grassroot development,” Congress veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar told The Indian Express. He said it would also provide an impetus to democratisation of the party.
A senior leader said Rahul “is very clear that once he becomes party president, he will change his working style also.” Rahul has often faced criticism for his style of functioning, especially the restricted access to him. “He will have to meet more people. He will have to be more available than he is now… not to leaders but to workers. Like Sonia was in her initial days… she was meeting people every day. Unless he gets feedback from people on the ground, it will be very difficult to meet the challenge of taking on the NDA government,” said Anil Shastri, permanent invitee to the CWC.
He added that Rahul faces many challenges. “His major challenge would be to revamp the party, restructure the organisation, to bring in new faces and a set-up,” said Shastri. Former union minister Milind Deora, a close aide of Rahul, said his elevation would “streamline the decision-making process” and bring in “fresh new blood” and “a new approach”.
His remarks are significant given the fact that many senior leaders have often argued that the dual centres of power create confusion in the party. AICC general secretary Kamal Nath had once said that “there are many occasions when Mrs Sonia Gandhi thinks Rahul is doing something, and Rahul thinks that Mrs Sonia Gandhi is doing something, and it falls between two stools.”
Many party leaders stressed on the decision-making aspect. “For a long time, he and his mother jointly took decisions. And because of that (there was) no ownership and clear accountability… now there will be more accountability and ownership on him,” a senior leader said.
“A gradual change is already being brought about in the party. People, both young and old, are being given positions of responsibility,” said Jitin Prasada. “Rahul presidency is the symbol of change in the Congress, when it has emerged at the forefront of the fight against the politics of hate and forces which are out to destroy the very idea of India… The idea of India is under threat from a government which wants to divide on religious and communal lines and govern like a police state,” he said.
The party, however, was not forthcoming on Sonia’s future role. “Sonia Gandhi is our leader and mentor. She has always guided the Congress party and we cannot conceive that her guidance, her able leadership will not be available. Her able leadership and guidance will always be available, not only to Rahul Gandhi, but also to crores and crores of Congress men and women always,” said Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala.