Congress is likely to formally announce Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the post of the party’s president today. He filed his nomination papers for the election to the post of Congress president on 4 December.
Rahul Gandhi has emerged the lone candidate in the fray, and decks have been cleared for him to succeed his mother, who has headed the Congress party for 19 consecutive years. Before Rahul Gandhi, his mother Sonia held the party’s top post for 19 years. After his elevation, Rahul will be the sixth member and fifth generation leader of the Nehru-Gandhi clan to occupy the post.
The other members of his family who held the same post include Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and now Rahul Gandhi.
Some eminent leaders who held the post in the pre-independence era included Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad.
Eminent people like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Annie Besant and Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, the first party president, also led the party in the pre-independence era.
The challenges, which by and large include sweeping changes crucial to take the party out of one of its worst phases, mirror the early days of his mother’s term in 1998 when the party was in power in only four states and was torn by divisions within.
Following are some of the important decisions and problems he will need to deal with to revive the party:
Rahul’s first task will be refurbished of the party. Leaders suggest he will go for an overhaul, completing a generational shift in the 131-year-old party brought about by his elevation.
The important challenge will be to ensure the transition is smooth, a balance is struck between young leaders and the old guard, which in the past had some reservations about his style of functioning.
In his nearly five years as the Congress vice-president, he had tried to open the party to end the heirloom politics but didn’t make much headway.
The party has to mount a strident campaign for state elections in 2018 to begin gathering a momentum that can put it in a better position for the general elections in 2019.
Retaining Karnataka and dethroning the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will be a daunting task, one that cannot be achieved without addressing problems such as infighting and regional leadership gaps.
The party desperately needs to get its house in order in key states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal, where it has ceded political space to rivals.
With the Congress at its weakest in parliament and arch-rival BJP appearing to gain ground nationally, it is crucial for Gandhi to galvanize an otherwise demoralized Congress. Much of the cadre has been struggling to recover after a series of electoral setbacks.
The challenge is difficult but not impossible since outgoing Congress president Sonia Gandhi turned the party around in six years after taking charge, winning the 2004 and 2009 general elections.
With around 16 months left for the next Lok Sabha election, Gandhi will have to decide on alliance partners to prevent a division of the opposition vote that could help the BJP.
Stitching up alliances perhaps is his second biggest challenge after reviving the party.
His mother, who turned 71 on December 9, enjoys a good rapport with other opposition parties. Crediting her with bringing together the United Progressive Alliance, CP-M leader Sitaram Yechury described Sonia as the “glue” that bound the Congress as well as secular allies.
Rahul will have to be the Congress president, the “glue” and more.
Lessons from past
When Sonia Gandhi tentatively entered politics in 1998, few would have stuck their necks out to predict she would go on to become the longest-serving Congress president.
She may not have been able to achieve many of her goals and also failed to ward off the challenge from BJP in time, but she has ensured at least one — a dynastic change of guard. History will pass a verdict if this has been for good or worse. Details of her role in convincing her son, Rahul, to stop being a “reluctant politician” may remain untold but cannot be discounted.
She contested polls for the first time in 1999 and BJP, realizing the impact her entry could have on Congress prospects, crafted a postmidnight strategy to field Sushma Swaraj, replete with her Bharatiya Nari ensemble — bright bindi and sindoor, colorful bangles and mangalsutra.
Swaraj worked hard, learned a smattering of Kannada, somewhat pegged Gandhi to Bellary losing by just 56,000-odd votes. It was Sonia Gandhi’s second harsh lesson in a short span of a few months.
Previously, she had egg on her face when her claim “we have 272 and more are coming” after meeting President K R Narayanan at Rashtrapati Bhavan fell flat and her ambition to become prime minister crash-landed at Vijay Chowk. Till end 1999, Sonia Gandhi remained a political apprentice — to none but herself — and was yet to comprehend intricacies of Indian politics, more importantly, the artfulness of Indian politicians innately skilled in backtracking on words.
Sonia had her failures too, most significantly being the inability to stem the rot in UPA-II and take a firm position against graft. BJP accuses her of willing participation but in the absence of evidence, she cannot be termed complicit. She did not nurture state leaders who could revive the party. Possibly, this was to prevent the emergence of a challenger to Rahul. For 13 years she safeguarded Congress presidency for her son to take charge, much like a Rajmata!
With the ball in his court, Rahul Gandhi must unlearn a few of her tactics while also borrowing from copybooks of his grandmother and even his deceased uncle, Sanjay Gandhi. Both were innately streetsmart, an attribute the new president needs. Sonia left a lot of her past behind. Likewise, to succeed, he too will have to put much behind.