In the winter of 2005, while addressing a public meeting for the young Randeep Singh Surjewala at Narwana in Haryana — where he was pitted against chief minister Om Prakash Chautala that election — Sonia Gandhi, then Congress president, declared that he would play an important role in the future set-up of the state. Surjewala’s supporters took it as a hint that he would be the next chief minister. He was then the working president and had ended up defeating Chautala, while veteran Bhajan Lal was the president of the Haryana Congress and a strong contender for the top post. But both of them lost out in the chief ministerial sweepstakes days later as the ‘Delhi coterie’ in the Congress managed to install Lok Sabha MP Bhupinder Singh Hooda as the chief minister despite an open revolt by Lal.
Harish Rawat would know better. Or for that matter, Jagan Mohan Reddy.
In 2012, majority of the MLAs had supported Rawat, then a Union minister, for the top post after the Assembly elections, but Sonia chose Vijay Bahuguna instead, prompting Rawat to wage an unsuccessful rebellion. In Reddy’s case, his expression of unhappiness led to his exit from the Congress altogether.
The infamous ‘Delhi coterie’ – veterans who are said to have the leadership’s ear – and the wheels within wheels in the Congress high command structure can be quite exasperating. After he moved to national politics following the party’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Digvijaya Singh once famously said that he was not scared of the “lions” of Madhya Pradesh (the likes of Arjun Singh, Shyama Charan Shukla, Prakash Chand Sethi and Madhavrao Scindia) but is afraid of the “rats” in Delhi.
So, has Rahul Gandhi, whose leadership skills were put to test last week for the first time after he took over as Congress president a year ago, managed to navigate the minefield? In the full glare of television cameras and for close to three days following the Congress’s victory in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Gandhi heard out the CM claimants – first Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia and then Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot – before leaning on the side of experience and naming Nath and Gehlot for the CM post. But unlike in the past, there was no open sulking; instead, after the announcement, Gandhi posted pictures on Twitter with the contenders.
With the Congress’s comeback in the three Hindi heartland states putting the party back in the game ahead of the 2019 elections, Gandhi will have to do this more often – strike a balance between an increasingly restless young leadership and an old guard unwilling to cede space. Will he be able to do that as successfully as he did this time round, while at the same time balancing factional and caste equations? And how will he tackle the all-important task of building alliances before and after the general elections?
Sources in the party say Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka were keen to install Pilot as CM. After all, Gandhi would have to build his own network of loyalists and reward them with positions. How long, they ask, can he depend on his father’s friends – most of them elected to Lok Sabha for the first time in the late 1970s and early 1980.
Again, the Delhi coterie was at work. Sources say they cautioned Sonia Gandhi about the perils of appointing a fresh face (Pilot) just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. While Gandhi and Priyanka were said to be keen to usher in a generational change at least in one state, Sonia went with the counsel that inexperienced leaders should not be given the reins ahead of the general elections. The possibility of alienating Meenas and other communities in Rajasthan was also a concern (Pilot belongs to the Gujjar community).
Gandhi conceded. But unlike in the case of Surjewala, Rawat, Reddy and many others in the past, this time there was a marked difference. While he named Gehlot as CM, Gandhi unambiguously spelt out the line of succession for the Congress in Rajasthan, making Pilot the Deputy Chief Minister. The same formula would have applied in Madhya Pradesh as well, but Scindia was not keen to play second fiddle to Kamal Nath.
“It was more than a balancing act. The media may see it as a compromise formula. For me, it was a clear pronouncement that as far as Rajasthan is concerned, Sachin is the heir apparent. It is a message not just for Gehlot and the veterans in Rajasthan, but to those in Delhi too,” says a leader considered close to Gandhi. He also showed the willingness to accept upfront the fault lines in the party.
The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 13, 2018
The photograph Gandhi tweeted – of himself flanked by Kamal Nath and Scindia, with a quote from Leo Tolstoy: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time” – also sent out the message that while Scindia is the future, he will have to show forbearance. Senior leaders Digvijaya Singh, Ajay Singh, Arun Yadav and Suresh Pachauri were not even called to Delhi for consultations. Also missing in action was C P Joshi.
“I think he handled it superbly. With 2019 being the objective, there is a need to keep everybody together and I think the manner in which it has been handled was extremely mature and well thought out,” says senior Congress leader Manish Tewari.
“The Congress is a party in which people across generations work together for achieving common goals, objectives and a common ideal. Therefore, it is always a question of balancing experience and seniority with the vigour and enthusiasm of the youth. Both in case of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, a fine equilibrium has been struck,” he adds.
At least one leader, who is considered close to Gandhi, says the Congress president has a “much bigger role in mind” for Scindia and Pilot in the near future. “He (Pilot) can become chief minister after a year or two. Gehlot can be called back… Isn’t that a bigger role?” he says, while adding that much will depend on the outcome of the Lok Sabha election.
Gandhi’s balancing act was visible during the campaign too. While he had told workers at public meetings that he would not let those who enter the party on the eve of elections get tickets, he allowed the state leaders to field “parachute entrants”. That it proved to be the party’s undoing in the Vindhya Pradesh region of Madhya Pradesh is another matter.
He was stern too. Months before the elections were announced, he got to know that chief ministerial aspirants in Chhattisgarh were projecting themselves in the media as CM candidates. Sources in the party said he called all of them to Delhi and told them bluntly that if he comes across “any more newspaper clippings”, he will ensure that the person who has made the remarks will not become chief minister.
No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.
– Reid Hoffman pic.twitter.com/TL5rPwiCDX
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 15, 2018
Though Gandhi will have to grapple with the young-versus-old debate in the years to come, sources close to him say he is now increasingly comfortable with the elders. “Gone are the days of suspicion. He is now very comfortable with them. They have also accepted him as their leader… Remember the ‘Kamal, will you have ice cream’ video,” says a leader, referring to Gandhi addressing Kamal Nath by his first name at an ice cream parlour in Indore during the campaign.
Yet, many of the younger leaders in the party are clear that it’s “our time now”.
“This is a turning point. The win (in these three states) has established Rahul Gandhi’s hold over the party and the people….it has shut every mouth that had criticised him. Henceforth, you see Rahul’s stamp on appointments in favour of the young,” says a youth leader.
With elections round the corner, Gandhi is now likely to focus on appointing new leadership in state units such as Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. He has in the past seized such opportunities to make changes and push youth leaders to the forefront.
The Gujarat verdict gave him such an opportunity. With all the four seniors – Arjun Modhwadia, Shaktisinh Gohil, Sidharth Patel and Tushar Chaudhary – losing their seats, he handed over the baton of the party to 42-year-old Amit Chavda, replacing Bharatsinh Solanki, and made another youngster, Paresh Dhanani, the leader of the Congress Legislative Party in the state.
Similarly, the defeat in Karnataka gave him the opportunity to bring in Dinesh Gundu Rao as Pradesh Congress Committee chief and in Goa, Girish Chodankar. He has continued with Ashok Tanwar in Haryana and Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu in Himachal Pradesh despite intense lobbying by Hooda and Virbhadra Singh.
He has already brought in several youngsters into the AICC secretariat – the likes of Gauruv Gogoi, R P N Singh, Jitendra Singh and Rajeev Satav.
But he has displayed pragmatism too. For instance, despite much lobbying, he did not give the reins of Odisha to Bhakta Charan Das and instead chose veteran Niranjan Patnaik, who has deep pockets to run the party in a state where the Congress has been out of power for nearly two decades.
One youth leader argued that in Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi will have to appoint a person not with 2019 in mind but with an eye on the 2022 Assembly elections. “He will have to build new leaders. That is the only possible way forward,” he says.
With 2019 looming, Gandhi will find himself walking another tightrope as he deals with non-BJP parties in the Opposition.
Mamata Banerjee, for instance, has not congratulated the Congress or Gandhi after the recent victories. With Banerjee herself nursing prime ministerial ambition, there is a visible reluctance on her part to accept Gandhi as the pivot for a possible Opposition alliance.
Similarly, the CPM, in an editorial in its mouthpiece People’s Democracy two days after the recent results, said the Congress had won by default and that it still faces an uphill task is indicated by the rout it suffered in Telangana and the loss of its government in Mizoram.
Gandhi understands the complexities. On July 23, after a meeting of the Congress Working Committee, Surjewala said that while the Congress was open to state-specific alliances, the Congress, given its pan-Indian footprint, could emerge as the single largest party in 2019, in which case Gandhi would be the prime ministerial face. Gandhi nuanced the position soon. On several occasions thereafter, he has made it clear that the prime ministerial question can be dealt with after the elections as the priority was to defeat the BJP.
He has managed to establish a working relationship with Sharad Pawar and many of the leaders in the Opposition, among them CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury.
Banerjee, he knows, is a difficult customer and prefers to deal with Sonia or Ahmed Patel. Similar is the case in UP. While he has a comfortable relation with Akhilesh Yadav, Gandhi does not engage with Mayawati, leaving it to the veterans in the party. For instance, Kamal Nath directly reached out to the BSP after the election results came in to seek her support.
The balancing act was visible in Karnataka as well, where he asked senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad to reach out to the JD(S) even before the results came in and decided to leave the CM’s post to H D Kumaraswamy, much to the chagrin of Congress leaders Siddaramaiah and D K Shiva Kumar.
While Gandhi has had to contend with the young-versus-old debate ever since he joined the party, senior leader Anand Sharma believes it’s an irrelevant debate that will only serve to hurt the Congress. “In political parties, you cannot have a situation of exclusion. The Congress party has always infused fresh blood, but not by eliminating seniors and experienced. That would be detrimental to the party. What is the definition of young? A large number of people, almost all the main leaders, have been through youth and student movements. A large number of people are above the age of 55… between 55 and 70. Those are the productive years. It has to be a harmonious blend of experience of age and energy of the youth,” he says.