The buck will have to stop with Rahul Gandhi once he is anointed president of the 130-year-old Congress party, in keeping with the Congress Working Committee’s unanimous proposal on November 7 that he take charge of the organisation.
The recommendation was forwarded to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had long wanted to pass on the mantle to her son who became an MP in 2004, general secretary in 2007 and vice-president in 2013.
Once be becomes party chief, the 46-year old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family will have to take the bouquets as well as the brickbats that come his way. He will have to take it on the chin: no looking at mama for redemption, support or protection and no disappearing for an extended sabbatical to think things out.
Can Rahul manage this?
Take a look back at 2014 when the party was thrashed in the Lok Sabha elections by the BJP-NDA that had Narendra Modi as its calling card with the voters. The national party drew a blank in over 15 states and Union Territories and could muster only 44 seats - a number that was barely ahead of the 37 that J Jayalalithaa got for the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, or 34 that Mamata Banerjee won for the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, a number that fell far short of the 55 requried to claim the status of Leader of Opposition and a number that made the party’s previous lowest tally of 114 parliamentary seats in 1999 seem fairly respectable.
Shocked by the magnitude of the defeat, angry and anguished Congressmen immediately pulled out their knives against Rahul who had led the 2014 campaign - and some others before it as well - after Sonia was diagnosed with an illness for which she had to go abroad for surgery in August 2011 and later for post-operative check-ups and treatment.
As it is, he had rubbed a number of senior leaders the wrong way with his style of functioning, his inaccessibility and absence from the scene on crucial times, including when anguished youngsters mobbed the streets to protest against the brutal gangrape of a young paramedic in Delhi in December 2012.
When the 2014 results came out, Sonia promptly took the blame for the debacle. "I am the party’s chief and I accept responsibility for the defeat," she said, sober and measured in her tone. Rahul, almost on cue, repeated "I hold myself responsible for this defeat". But the image that stayed on most minds was that of a person who stood next to his mother with a transfixed smile that was quite out of place in the circumstances.
|The Congress hopes the picture would improve when a total of 15 states vote in 2017-18 and set the stage for the 2019 general elections. (Photo: Reuters)|
Sonia shields her son
By owning responsibility, Sonia was also trying to shield her son from direct attack. At the post-debacle CWC meet, she offered to step down - and so did Rahul. Not surprisingly, both offers were rejected, with the leaders and party workers aware that their future was tied to the Gandhis even if Rahul was not quite the leader they would like to be led by.
Seen as a learner and a shirker of responsibilities (specially as he refused to join the Manmohan Singh government or assume responsibility of the parliamentary party in the new Lok Sabha), the workers expressed their lack of confidence in Rahul in the only way they could think of: raising loud demands for his sister Priyanka Vadra to enter politics and save the party.
On her part, Sonia tried to channel the anguish and anger of workers and leaders. She opened the doors of 10, Janpath, interacted with the workers and leaders, wrote to the defeated candidates not to get disheartened but focus on rebuilding the party, assured all that she remained at the helm and tasked senior leader AK Antony with identifying the reasons behind the defeat.
And when Antony gave his report, he named every possible factor except Rahul as the cause for the debacle, raising questions on whether the mother in Sonia had eclipsed her role as organisation head.
The story was repeated each time the party lost an election and there were more than a dozen such situations between 2013 and 2016, when the party had to bite the dust, including in Odisha, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, J&K, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam.
While every victory was routinely credited to the high command, the blame for every defeat was put on organisational failures. Indeed, Rahul attributed the party’s defeat in the 2007 and 2012 UP assembly polls to "organisational weaknesses" and "weak organisation"; likewise, when the party was thrashed in Delhi in 2013, he indirectly blamed the outfit by pledging to "transform" the organisation "in ways you can’t imagine", when all that his workers yearned for was that he transform himself.
It seemed Rahul had sensed their mood. He vanished for 56 days in April 2015 and when he returned in his new avatar, he was more visible, more audible and a little more available to the old guard which had stood solidly behind Sonia since she came into politics in 1998.
But this group had its reservations about Rahul’s leadership qualities and style of functioning ever since the ailing and ageing Sonia began to step back to let her son run the show.
As the move coincided with the party’s losses, it led to a nuanced shift in response: the earlier trend of hailing the leadership for any success became a little tempered. Barring a stray victory here and there, as in Puducherry where it had tied up with the DMK or in Bihar where the party piggybacked on the JD-U and the RJD as part of a grand alliance, it has been a litany of woes for the organisation that dominated the political landscape for a major part of post-Independence India.
Of the last 2,226 seats, including 543 for the Lok Sabha, which went to the polls, the Congress could win just 261, the only consolation coming from the fact that it managed to increase its vote-share in some states. It is currently in power on its own in just seven states - Himachal, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram and Karnataka, which is the biggest of the lot.
The Congress hopes the picture would improve when a total of 15 states vote in 2017-18 and set the stage for the 2019 general elections. In 2017, it will have to battle incumbency in Congress-ruled Manipur, Uttarakhand and Himachal but hopes to tap the anti-incumbency sentiment in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Gujarat, which has been in a state of flux ever since Narendra Modi quit as chief minister to lead the government at the Centre.
Likewise, of the eight states slated to go to the polls in 2018, only Mizoram and Karnataka are Congress-ruled, the others on the list being Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which the party hopes to capture.
If the party manages to reverse the trend of continual losses, the Congress would be back to its old habit of hailing the leadership - in this case Rahul who would have been at the helm by this time.
But if he fails yet again, there would be no Sonia at the top to bail him out. He would have to take it on the chin.