The alacrity with which senior Congress aides and leaders have rushed to explain how Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s intervention saved the alliance for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh can barely camouflage the harsh truth that Samajwadi Party leader and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has brought down Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi and his sister a notch or two.
More importantly, it signaled that the Gandhi scion, waiting to be anointed party chief, has been pushed into the number 3 slot in the Gandhi hierarchy insofar as perceptions go vis a vis the fast changing developments relating to the SP-Congress seat sharing talks.
Cast an eye on the recent events.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi has over the months been ceding space to Rahul, allowing him to preside over Congress Working Committee and parliamentary party meetings, take decisions and join/lead delegations of opposition leaders while protesting against the poor implementation of demonetisation. He has been spearheading the party’s election campaigns in the last few years. More recently, he led the party’s charge in UP with a series of agitations and yatras, including his now famous 26 day Deoria to Delhi kisan yatra that attempted to create space for the 131 year old organisation in the state where it has been out of power and even reckoning for almost three decades as well as to signal to the people in general and political colleagues in particular that he is for all practical purposes the Congress boss now.
But when it came to seat-sharing talks with the SP, the Congress leader found himself on the backfoot. Fresh from his victory in the political bout with his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav, a resurgent Akhilesh refused to deal with the Congress emissaries, reading a slight in the fact that instead of meeting him as an equal to finalise the deal, the Congress vice president had sent his deputies which included poll strategist Prashant Kishor who had done the initial spadework as aides are supposed to do. He was equally irked by the Congress’s demand of over 130 seats. Indeed, there were reports that Akhilesh refused to even respond to Priyanka’s SMSes.
The stakes in UP are high both for the SP and the Congress. Akhilesh needs a partner in UP to consolidate the Muslim vote around his Yadav base and ensure that the minority vote does not get divided. It is important for him to win the state if he wants to become a challenger to the throne in Delhi in 2019.
|There were reports that Akhilesh refused to even respond to Priyanka’s SMSes. [Photo: Indiatoday.in]|
With no solid vote base to call its own, the Congress needs an ally to clutch on to in order to stave off the spectre of decimation.
With the alliance tethering on the brink, the Congress panicked.
Once again, it was Sonia Gandhi who saved the day for the party. She stepped into the frame and hurriedly convened a meeting of senior leaders to discuss the issue that threatened to wipe out the party in the state even before the electoral battle had begun.
Her political secretary Ahmed Patel reportedly got into the act. As a long- standing Congress leader, who shares a good equation with colleagues of different hues and parties, he worked the backchannels. Since it would not behove a leader of Sonia’s stature to contact Akhilesh, who is considerably junior in standing and experience, sources indicated that it was during this strategy meeting that it was suggested that Priyanka try and get in touch with the SP leader. But Akhilesh had switched off his phone. Priyanka then contacted Akhilesh’s wife and Lok Sabha MP Dimple Yadav who then passed on the phone to him.
After the deal was hammered out - with the SP leaving 105 of the 403 seats for it - the Congress went in for damage control, tweeting that senior Congress leaders, including UP in charge Ghulam Nabi Azad and Priyanka, had played a key role in thrashing out the alliance. There was no mention of Rahul.
The tweet may have been intended to serve the dual objective of squashing reports that the chief minister had avoided Priyanka’s call and of safeguarding her carefully cultivated image as the party’s trump card who can restore to the Congress its lost glory. But for those trying to read beyond this, there were other signals too.
One, that when it comes to a crisis, it is still the 70-year old Sonia and the old guard that the Congress has to turn to. Two, with age and ill health not on her side, Sonia’s role as party president who also dealt successfully with opposition leaders may be getting split between her son and daughter.
If UP is an example, Priyanka, who had until now been working behind the scenes in building strategies for the party, may be stepping into the role of a mediator and a facilitator of alliances without which the Congress cannot make a presence in states where regional parties hold sway. She had her hiccups but managed to finally work out the deal in UP under Sonia’s stewardship.
Sonia has long been nurturing Rahul for the party president’s post and second rung opposition leaders may accept his leadership in a joint opposition offensive in Parliament, but out there in the field where mass leaders with vote banks hold sway, he is seen as just one among them - and presently lesser so perhaps because of the party’s declining fortunes and its desperation to strike alliances to keep itself afloat.
So, what do we have here?
Sonia stepping in and Priyanka, according to the Congress’s tweets, salvaging the talks. With no mention of Rahul, the Congress vice president has been pushed to being number 3 slot insofar as the perception about the latest turn of events is concerned.