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Once the turbulent Monsoon session of Parliament ends in the second week of August, the Congress will get down to addressing an issue it can no longer ignore – electing a new president. An emotional, divisive, and sensitive issue but a crucial elephant in the AICC room.
The grand old party had been straddling the fence long enough. Between August 21 and September 20 — the timeline drawn up and announced by the party last year — the Congress will finally have to elect a new president to replace Sonia Gandhi, who returned to the helm in August 2019, three months after Rahul Gandhi quit as party chief in the wake of the Lok Sabha election rout. Sonia’s appointment was supposed to be an interim arrangement but continued for three years.
With a little under two years before the next general elections, the challenges the Congress faces in the August of 2022 are more or less the same as in August 2019.
Rahul, if some leaders are to be believed, has still not made up his mind. An ailing Sonia Gandhi wants to step back after putting him in charge and the party leadership frankly doesn’t have the appetite to experiment with a non-Gandhi ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There is no consensus on any other name. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as an alternative has not gained much traction.
In his open letter after resigning as party chief in July 2019, Rahul said he had suggested to his colleagues in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that the way forward “would be to entrust a group of people with the task of beginning the search for a new president”. He added, “I have empowered them to do so and committed my full support to this process and a smooth transition.”
The Rahul conundrum
The easiest way out is for Rahul to return, aided by the time-worn argument that a Gandhi needs to be at the helm to keep the moribund party united and alive.
But he, for one, is still said to be reluctant to return to the helm although an overwhelming majority in the party wants him to. After all, he is the face of the party, its de facto head.
However, some leaders say, Rahul doesn’t want to be encumbered by the cumbersome and time-consuming day-to-day organisational tasks such as the appointment of state-unit heads and office-bearers down to the district level, and playing the role of the final arbiter in feuds – and there is no dearth of that in states where the party is in power.
In his open letter, he said, “It is a habit in India that the powerful cling to power, no one sacrifices power. But we will not defeat our opponents without sacrificing the desire for power and fighting a deeper ideological battle.” Will he stick to that?
But then the question the party is confronted with is, “If not Rahul, then who?”
Continuing with status quo
While the party more or less wants Rahul to return and lead from the front, some of the leaders believe in continuing with the present arrangement. This section within the party — those who want Sonia to continue till the Lok Sabha elections — includes both Rahul baiters and his well-wishers. His well-wishers say he should travel across the country and rejuvenate the party and that he should not be tied down to the post.
His in-house critics, on the other hand, believe the Congress cannot stage a comeback with him at the helm. They argue he cannot match up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi if pitted as his counter. His supporters say he is anyway seen as the challenger to Modi and it does not matter whether he holds the post of Congress president or not. It is immaterial whether he is the president or not — he is still the challenger.
While most of the leaders rule out a split if Rahul returns to the helm, some argue that if the party continues its losing streak. Over a dozen states go to the polls before 2024 (among them Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat by the end of this year and Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Telangana next year) and the exodus from the party cannot be stemmed.
Moreover, Sonia, 75, hasn’t been in good health and is keen that Rahul take charge. More than once, in meetings of the CWC, she has expressed her reluctance to continue as the interim president. Some of the leaders, in private, talk about the possibility of Priyanka taking over but the idea has gained no traction. It is not known whether Sonia will be open to such an idea. Moreover, many believe the Sonia-Rahul-Sonia-Priyanka option will be poor optics.
At the meeting of the CWC held in May 2019, days after the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul reportedly suggested that a non-Gandhi should succeed him. The proposal was, of course, turned down and the party apparatchiks managed to convince Sonia to return.
Three years down the line, that is an idea that the party leadership is unwilling to even explore. But what if Rahul insists and backs a leader — young or old — to take over? But the idea of a twin power centre is something that party leaders dread. As things stand today, party leaders hope to persuade Rahul to file his nomination for the post of president. His aides have been arguing that returning as Congress president through an election process — where his in-house critics have the opportunity to field a challenger if they want — is the best-case scenario.
For the Congress, the more things change, the more they remain the same. So back to the old question: Will Rahul Gandhi come back as party president?