Goodbye, Rahul Gandhi? | India Today InsightWill his resignation as party president be the final nail in the Congress coffin? Or a new beginning where the party will learn to exist without a Gandhi at the helm? It will all depend on whether the family can refrain from exerting influence by proxy.advertisement Next Kaushik Deka New DelhiJuly 8, 2019UPDATED: July 8, 2019 12:22 IST Rahul Gandhi’s resignation has flung the already beleaguered Congress into a fresh crisis. (Getty Images) On May 25, two days after the disastrous performance of the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, when Rahul Gandhi offered to resign as party president at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) session, many Congress insiders and almost everyone outside the party saw it as nothing but drama. It was expected to proceed along predictable lines: Rahul will offer to resign but CWC members will persuade him to stay on, he will take back his resignation and the party will continue to conduct its affairs as usual. Though Rahul kept reiterating that his intent was serious, the party veterans were unwilling to accept his decision and kept requesting him to reconsider.Young and mid-level office-bearers offered their resignations; there was even a farcical suicide attempt outside the Congress headquarters. However, nothing could shake Rahul’s determination and, on July 3, the Congress scion posted a letter on Twitter, stating unequivocally that his decision was irreversible. Placing the party in an unprecedented position, this development has precipitated three major challenges before it: find a non-Gandhi leader who can keep the Congress united; urgently rebuild its organisational structure and strengthen its presence across the country and, finally, create an acceptable, alternative narrative to electorally counter the unbeatable duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his deputy and home minister, Amit Shah.What next?The first challenge before the Congress is to find a president or, at least a provisional president, as a CWC member puts it, till the name is ratified in a Congress plenary. Though the Congress constitution provides for election of a president, it’s unlikely to happen under the current circumstances. There have been only two occasions when the party has elected its president, and though Rahul in 2017 opted for an election, no one stood against him and he was elected unopposed.advertisementThe Congress in its current avatar was formed in 1969 when Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi led a successful coup against the then leadership of the party to form the Congress (R). These leaders had blamed her for the disastrous performance of the Congress in 1967 in the assembly elections to several Hindi heartland states and wanted to dethrone her as the prime minister. The Congress (R) became the Congress (I) in 1978 and, finally, the Indian National Congress, in 1996. The original Congress, meanwhile, died a silent death.Between 1970 and 1977, Indira Gandhi appointed three loyal lieutenants as presidents. Kasu Brahmanand Reddy, another choice of hers, was elected in 1977 but by 1978, Indira Gandhi officially took charge of the party. Since then, it was only between 1992 and 1996 that a Gandhi has not been at the helm of the Congress. This was in the interim between Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 and Sonia’s reluctance to join politics.In 1991, the CWC had chosen P V Narasimha Rao, a retired politician who had packed his bags to head home to Hyderabad. The idea was that a leader in his fading years would remain submissive to the veterans who would control the party till a member of the Gandhi family was ready to take charge. But Rao turned out to have a mind of his own, taking firm control of the party and government and sidelining several veterans. His tenure saw multiple splits in the party and the departure of several heavyweights, such as Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh and Narayan Dutta Tiwari, who went on to form their own parties. Following the defeat of the Congress in the 1996 general election, the party chose its treasurer Sitaram Kesri, to replace Rao. Kesri, only the second Congress president to have been elected after 1969, was unceremoniously removed from the post once Sonia Gandhi decided to join politics and took charge of the party in 1998.Ever since, the presidency stayed with the Gandhi family, with Rahul taking over as recently as in December 2017. His resignation has flung the already beleaguered party into a fresh crisis. With the FamilySonia, Rahul and Priyankaitself reluctant to get involved in the process of choosing the next president, the CWC will have to accomplish this challenging job. Like in 1991, Gandhi family loyalist and Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor, Ahmed Patel, will have to lead this process of selection of the new president.The CWC members will do well to remember the lessons from the Rao and Kesri stints and be extremely cautious in selecting Rahul’s successor. There is one big difference, though, between 1991 and 2019. In 1991, the Congress had returned to power and Rao wielded the official authority to extend his grip over the party. Whoever is chosen Congress president now will not have that luxury. Rao was also dealing with a BJP that was just beginning to emerge as a force, on the back of the Rath Yatra wave and the Ram temple movement. The new Congress president will have to fight a now firmly entrenched BJP, armed with a formidable electoral machinery and in an India where the Hindu nationalist sentiment is running high. He or she will also have to preside over a party electorally devastated and organisationally hollowed out.advertisementFormula for a new president?On July 6, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh posted a sensational tweet asking for the leadership of the party to be vested with someone young. Many assumed he was indirectly hinting at giving the charge to Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, who is close to the Punjab veteran. After all, Pilot spent five years working on the ground and, in December 2018, led the party to a victory in Rajasthan, earning huge political capital in the process. Pilot’s elevation to the top post will also bring an end to his power tussle with Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot. However, a senior CWC member, who spoke to Singh after the tweet, claimed that the Punjab chief minister was talking of someone in his 60s. Irrespective of the age bracket that Singh chooses to define as young, his tweet is an explicit reminder to the CWC members that the party must make a statement of intent by choosing a young and energetic president instead of finding a stopgap arrangement in someone who will be a puppet in the hands of the Gandhis. The new India needs a face they can bank on, not a low-profile consensus candidate.Under these circumstances, the party is gradually evolving a formula to retain a balance between the wisdom of the veterans and the energy of the young generation. A veteran will be chosen as the provisional president of the party and several young vice-presidents will be appointed under him. Every vice-president will be given independent charge of a particular region or organisational department and will be held accountable for deliverance. Another alternative is to appoint a provisional president who will remain accountable to a core committee chosen by the CWC. But that will need some tinkering of the party constitution. Whichever formula the party adopts, the big question remainswill this be a workable solution? The party certainly needs more than a workable solution as it’s in a desperate need to jump-start the organisational structure. This delay in filling up the leadership vacuum will certainly have a disastrous effect on the electoral outcome in three states going to polls later this yearMaharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Not only is there no clarity on who will lead the party in these states, there’s nothing like a coherent strategy either to fight the electoral battle, right from choosing winnable candidates to finding a narrative that could convince voters.What happens to the Gandhi family?The departures of Rao and Kesri made it evident that were two sets of rules for Congress presidentsone for those from the Gandhi family and another for non-Gandhi presidents. Rao and Kesri were blamed for the party’s poor performance in 1996 and 1998 but Rajiv Gandhi had escaped such allegations even when the party’s tally in the Lok Sabha plummeted from 414 in 1984 to 197 five years later. Under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the party won lesser seats in 1999 than it had won under Kesri a year ago, but there was no demand for her resignation. She was the Congress president in 2014, too, when the party touched the historical nadir of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.advertisementIn this context, Rahul Gandhi’s offer to resign is a first in the history of the party. However, more than that, his departure could lead to the irrelevance of the Gandhi family in Indian politics. One of them has always controlled the central government or the party or, at times, both. Indira Gandhi always had loyalists as presidents of the party when she was prime minister; Sonia Gandhi relinquished the post only to have her son installed on it. Neither does Rahul have a loyalist to succeed him nor is the party in power at the Centre.Even as he is stepping down as party president, Rahul has already stated emphatically that none of his family membersmother Sonia or sister Priyankawill take up the top post. Does that mean that the Gandhi family will fade into oblivion? The answer is a categorical no. As he makes it clear in his letter on Twitter, he will continue to be a member of the party. And if his actions in the past one month and especially in the past week are any indicator, he is certainly going to be more vocal and visible in the future. He delayed his trip abroadto see his brother-in-law Robert Vadra who had a surgeryto appear personally in two defamation cases. Outside the court, he reiterated that he will continue to fight the RSS and BJP idea of Indiaan RSS sympathiser had filed the first case in Maharashtra and Bihar deputy chief minister Sushilkumar Modi had filed the other in Bihar. This was his way of sending out the message that he outlines in his letter as wellhe will continue his battle against the BJP-RSS in a new avatar–as an ordinary Congressman.In doing so, Rahul is hoping to achieve two goalsto nullify the campaign that Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have built around him, and tell his party leaders to focus more on performance than on posts. Unhappy with how top Congress leaders sought tickets for their children, he openly admonished two chief ministersKamal Nath and Ashok Gehlotand former Union finance minister P. Chidambaram. And by giving up his post, he hopes to lead by example in eliminating nepotism in the party. Emphasising twice in his letter that the Congress needs radical changes, he has begun the process right at the top. Much to his dismay, however, the top leaders have not followed suit. He resigned to set an example. And he expected those who were in key positions to do likewise if they had failed to deliver results, and to make way for new leaders, says a CWC member who lost the Lok Sabha election.But the larger goal has been achievedof nullifying the Modi-BJP charge of him enjoying the privilege of being a dynast. From calling him shehzada and naamdaar, Modi has not spared any occasion to highlight that Rahul owes his political ascendancy solely to his lineage. The prime minister will not have this line of attack against the Congress the next time he goes out to campaign. Rahul’s associates see his resignation and the family’s determined decision to stay away from the top post as a throwback to the sacrifice his mother made in 2004 when she declined the prime minister’s job. His decision to step down is possibly also influenced by the realisation that in the changing shape of the Indian democracy, which seems to be listing toward a presidential style of election, Rahul will need to reinvent himself to counter the personality cult of Modi. And the first step towards doing that is to present himself as a commonerfrom appearing in a lower court to watching films like an ordinary man.Whether Rahul manages to achieve this or not, the Gandhis will never be commoners within the party. Their influence cannot be wished away in the top organisational structure and political narrative of the party. As a CWC member puts it, their approval will most likely be sought while finalising the name of the new president. While Rahul will now just a member of the party, Priyanka has not quit as general secretary. In fact, in the past one month, not only has she held a review meeting in Uttar Pradesh, admonishing workers for not working hard enough, but also been very active on Twitter, responding to developments in different fieldsfrom politics to sports. The unusual influence that a Gandhi family member wields in the party has resulted in multiple power centres in the past and it could well happen again. When Sonia had not even joined politics, several veterans had woven their political web around her to counter the authority of Rao and Kesri, reiterating the sloganSonia lao, Congress bachao. Between 2014 and 2017, there was a cold war between the old guard, who expressed loyalty to Sonia, and the young turks, who preferred Rahul. If the new president is not given enough space and the Gandhi family continues to indirectly call the shots, there will soon be a clamour to bring back a Gandhi to the top post.The challenge for the Congress and the Gandhis, therefore, is not just to find a new president but also create a healthy working environment where roles and domains are clearly demarcated. Rahul has till now walked an unconventional path. For the party to have a smooth journey ahead, he will have to chart out a safe path for his successor too.READ | Small is beautifulWATCH | Will fight 10 times harder than I did in past 5 years, says Rahul GandhiGet real-time alerts and all the news on your phone with the all-new India Today app. Download from Post your comment Do You Like This Story? Awesome! Now share the story Too bad. Tell us what you didn’t like in the comments Posted bySumeda
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