Sonia Gandhi is back at the helm of Congress affairs to be precise as its president though an interim one this time. No surprises at all but definitely an opportunity lost to usher the party into a new but not entirely new ethos of looking beyond Nehru-Gandhi clan for leadership. Although it was a very difficult call to take but it needed to be looked into in accordance with the wishes of outgoing chief, Rahul Gandhi that neither he would be a party to exercise on finding his successor nor any member of the family would be the next president.
Rahul has kept his promise on two counts but reneged on the third ostensibly it might not have been in his hands. He spurred all last minute attempts and warded off pressure that he continue in the hot seat and secondly stayed away from the process of selecting interim president. His third and most important commitment that a non-Gandhi family person would be his successor did not mature.
All those who rooted for a Gandhi family member as the new president must be an elated lot. This crowd is mostly of durbaris whose route to success and USP had been cosiness to the Congress’ first family. So, it must be difficult for them to think otherwise as most of these are in the twilight of their political careers nevertheless clinging hard to their ambitions.
Those who backed Rahul’s idea of setting-in in a new ethos would certainly be little dismayed but not entirely dejected. Their dismay had a strong counter in Sonia’s matriarchic standing and having stirred the party through difficult times and ultimately bringing it to power, for 19 long years.
To be fair to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) the highest decision making body of the Congress, they had very limited choice but to fall back upon tried and trusted Sonia Gandhi for more than one reasons. Firstly and foremost the party had very little to offer as hardly anyone fitted the bill that is to lead the organisation through the most difficult times. Some might have decades of standing and experience both as ministers and in the organisations but hardly the stature both to lead the party and take on the most formidable political rival in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Congressmen have heaved a sigh of relief after CWC’s decision on Sonia and so have vast majority of the party supporters across the country. There are no rumblings and no dissenting voices which is one good measure of the correctness of the decision though it is neither ultimate nor a lasting solution to the party’s problems.
Sonia as an interim president has definitely given BJP a handle to further sharpen its anti- Congress and particularly anti-Gandhi family tirade which the saffron party has successfully unleashed since the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party definitely, for the time being, succeeded in branding Rahul as they wanted and his decision to side-step is BJP’s success though inner party (read Congress) conflicts were also a strong reason.
It was really horrifying for Congress rank and file and workers alike to hear names such as Mukul Wasnik, Kumari Selja, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Moti Lal Vora etc as the probable candidates to lead the party at such a crucial juncture. Nothing offensive against them as Vora though an old warhorse is touching nineties, Shinde despite very rich experience lacked stature to be the all India president and for the rest, it was an injustice to even mention their names for Congress presidentship.
Sonia as an interim president and in her second innings has a more daunting task this time than earlier. When reluctantly she agreed to lead the party nineteen years back, she faced serious challenges from some established leaders and a gradual strength gaining BJP-led opposition. There still are inner-party problems with many senior leaders having already quit the party whereas some others threatening to do so, and a thoroughly weakened organisational network after the 2019 Lok Sabha election drubbing with Amethi loss strongly haunting her. The more fierce challenge would be from an aggressive BJP and Modi- Amit Shah duo, buoyed by series of resounding electoral successes at the Congress’ cost and equally successful in having created wedges within the Congress by engineering defections at all levels.
The 72- year old Sonia has a very difficult job at hand. The challenge for her would be three-fold as was during the UPA era- to galvanise and prepare Congress for generational shift, to effectively face the might of the BJP and thirdly act as a binding force for the opposition. It is a fact that Rahul was not acceptable to the non-BJP opposition party and it is also a fact and as proven in the past that Sonia through her actions became widely acceptable and would again prove handy in forging opposition unity.
An advantage Sonia has as compared to her earlier innings is that she would not be a loner and wagging a battle on her own. In Rahul and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra she would have a strong support and cushion to help her take decisions despite reports of her ill-health.
One thing is clear status quoi approach would not help her tide over the organisational crisis nor would it facilitate countering and matching the BJP’s aggressive political approach. It is almost clear that she would not root for calling election to the president’s post anytime soon. Sonia should use this opportunity to convince the old guard to help her strengthen the organisation and in turn prepare for a much needed generational change that has got a set back with the exit of Rahul.
The generational shift is inevitable and more so with Rahul, Priyanka and a line-up of younger leadership waiting in the wings at various levels to take over the responsibility. Sonia will have to spread her old charm not only to appease the old guard but to also convey a strong message to them to see reason and become facilitators to the process of generational change rather than be seen as roadblocks as witnessed recently.