Three years ago, the Congress had vehemently denied reports that party president Sonia Gandhi intended to retire from politics when she turns 70 in 2016.
Sonia had reportedly sounded out some senior leaders on her birthday in 2012 about her plan to retire. Shaken by the news, the leaders had suggested a "bigger role" for her son Rahul Gandhi, who was accordingly elevated as party vice-president in January 2013 towards his eventual takeover of the organisation.
The party must be quietly eating its words as 2013 reports - quoting from an updated version of journalist author Rasheed Kidwai’s book 24 Akbar Road - are now being played out to the prepared script.
Sonia turns 70 on December 9. But almost a month before her upcoming birthday, she set the stage for Rahul’s elevation when the Congress Working Committee on November 7 unanimously proposed that the Amethi MP helm the 130-year-old organisation. In an orchestrated move, Sonia kept away from the meeting.
The Gandhi scion, who had refused to join former PM Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet when the Congress-led UPA was in power or become the parliamentary party leader after the party’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, concurred, and the CWC forwarded its recommendation to Sonia.
The Congress president now has to convene a CWC to formally endorse the proposal.
Although it has been a truth universally acknowledged that Sonia would hand over her baton to Rahul, this is expected to happen, as the 2013 reports had said, after Sonia turns 70.
The big question is what role will she play as she steps into the shadows to let Rahul grow into and fill the space being vacated and ensure that the spotlight remains on him once he is anointed party chief? Will she withdraw from all political activity or step out from time to time to guide, advise, supervise and mentor?
For those willing to wager, the second option appears more likely. This is because of five main reasons: one, no politician ever really retires; two, even if it was a given fact that Rahul will head the party one day, most Congresswallas would like Sonia to be available for consultation on important political and organisational matters; three, they would like her to continue to lead the parliamentary party so that she is accessible for consultations; four, other opposition leaders who are senior to Rahul in age and experience would be much more comfortable in dealing with Sonia than her son; and finally, while ensuring that Rahul has a free hand, Sonia would like to signal that she is there to back Rahul in case of any eventuality.
Many would recall how she shielded Rahul by taking the blame for the party’s electoral debacle, including the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when it won a measly 44 seats. She offered to quit - an offer that heightened the anxiety of despondent workers already facing a bleak future and made them close ranks. Indeed, for a generation of Congressmen, life without Sonia is unimaginable unless the alternative is Priyanka.
|For a generation of Congressmen, life without Sonia is unimaginable unless the alternative is Priyanka Gandhi. (Photo: India Today)|
Fighting the odds
Slammed for her foreign origin and dismissed as a reader rather than a leader, Sonia surprised her critics, within and outside the party, with her steely resolve to fight the odds and win.
Three things in particular mark her tenure. One, she turned the party’s fortunes around with a series of radical steps. She emulated her mother- in-law and former PM Indira Gandhi by giving a pro-poor and pro-people image to the party with the slogan of "Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath". Two, she jettisoned the party’s "ekla chalo policy" to stitch up alliances which hoisted the Congress to power in 2004 and in 2009; and three, in a rare gesture from a politician that put her on a pedestal, she renounced the post of PM in 2004.
The widow of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, she began her political innings in 1997 to stem the Congress’s rapid decline. In 1997, she attended a rally at Sriperumbudur where Rajiv was killed and participated in the Congress plenary meeting in Kolkata.
She became party chief in 1998 and has notched up the record of being the longest-serving Congress president. In 1999, she became a Lok Sabha MP and Leader of the Opposition and after the 2004 victory, the chairperson of the UPA.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for the Italy-born bahu of the Gandhi family who at 70 would like to hand the baton to her son - among the major blind spots of her political career.
Sonia began passing her responsibilities to Rahul during UPA-II (2009-2014), particularly after she had to go abroad for an operation in 2011, so much so that he was virtually running the show after becoming vice-president in January 2013. He led the campaign for the 2014 general election and a series of state elections both before and after the Lok Sabha polls.
Indeed, Sonia has been trying to groom Rahul for politics in general and the top position in particular for some years now.
Congress leaders recall how before the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, they would urge Sonia to bring her daughter Priyanka into politics but she would counter them with a one-line poser: "Why not Rahul?" It is another matter that their plea for Priyanka stemmed from their scepticism about Sonia’s ability to steer the party to power. But she proved herself by bringing a Congress-led coalition to power at the Centre twice.
The same cannot be said of Rahul whose report card, barring an exception or two, is marked by red lines. While his adversaries ridiculed him as "baba" (kid), "pappu" (dumb kid) or "shehzada’’ (prince), the serial electoral failures under his leadership, including the 2014 debacle, saw several Congressmen lashing out at him.
A senior party leader in Kerala even slammed him as a "joker", demanding his removal from all party posts and urged Sonia to bring Priyanka into politics. Even the party’s old guard had their reservations about him.
Attacked from all sides, Rahul vanished for almost two months to think things out for himself and the party. And when he returned in April 2015, he seemed quite transformed: he was visible in Parliament and outside, audible on issues and a little more accessible to his leaders and workers.
He went on yatras, addressed rallies, staged dharnas and led protest marches to flag issues and paint PM Narendra Modi as pro-rich and anti-poor with his stinging jibes of "suit boot ki sarkar" and "arhar Modi".
Over the months, it has been Sonia’s effort to make Rahul the face of the Congress.
As part of this exercise, it was Rahul, and not Sonia, who presided over the November 7 Congress Working Committee meeting and the December 2 Congress parliamentary party conference. He led the Opposition protest against the poor implementation of the demonetisation drive, first near the Gandhi statue in Parliament House and later in submitting a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee.
With Sonia turning 70 on December 9, the process of preparing Rahul for his anointment as party chief will gather momentum. But the real challenge would lie in whether he can emulate her in tackling the multiple challenges that lie ahead: galvanising grassroots workers, rebranding the party, restructuring the organisation and reworking the socio-economic and political strategies so that it can win back the confidence of the people.