WHO WILL BE THE CHOSEN ONE?
On June 17, while the newly elected members of the 17th Lok Sabha were being administered the oath of office, MP and Republican Party of India chief Ramdas Athawale asked where Congress president Rahul Gandhi was. The mocking question caused much hilarity all round, not counting the Congress MPs present in the house in their vanishingly small numbers.
Rahul did show up later in the day—as the Congress MPs had said he would—back from a trip to London. They may even have seen a flicker of hope that he’ll put them out of their misery and embarrassment and assume charge of the party. Rahul has not shown any signs so far that he might relent. Giving senior leaders a month to find a new president, he had apparently said: “I cannot work with people who couldn’t cooperate with me when it was most needed. If there has to be a shake-up in the party, it must start with me.” For those who want Rahul back in, what complicates the plot, says a senior party leader who enjoys the confidence of the Gandhis but prefers anonymity, is that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi won’t work on him to change his mind. And Priyanka Gandhi has apparently tried but failed.
Even amid this uncertainty, some Congress veterans believe the “new arrangement” will maintain the pre-eminence of the Gandhis in the decision-making process. The successor must, then, be loyal to the Gandhis and enjoy their trust. And, on top of that, be ready to take on a thankless job. This most demanding criterion will slam the doors on several probables such as Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan and former finance minister P. Chidambaram.
Of the names doing the rounds, the front-runner is Mallikarjun Kharge, who is a trusted aide of the Gandhis and is known to keep a low profile. He was Sonia Gandhi’s chosen one to lead the Congress in the 16th Lok Sabha. When some veterans raised objections saying he had lost the Lok Sabha election, a young woman leader apparently piped up: “... and who didn’t in that Modi tsunami?”
Former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan’s name has also been mentioned among other pliable probables. He was in Manmohan Singh’s PMO, has no financial taint and can work with the Congress old-guard to boot. But he apparently nurtures chief ministerial ambitions and the Maharashtra assembly election is slated for later this year.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, who was the party’s organisational general secretary till he took charge of the state government in December 2018, might have had Rahul’s vote, but not only is Gehlot himself unwilling, there are senior Congressmen who do not want Sachin Pilot in the saddle in Rajasthan. Another inspired theory doing the rounds is that Sonia might be wary of Pilot’s ambitions and abilities to emerge as a leader of stature on the national stage. Similar reasons might disqualify the articulate Jyotiraditya Scindia. Another name being bandied about in this context is Shashi Tharoor, who did withstand the Modi wave twice but is no darling of Congress veterans and has been known to sometimes put his foot in his mouth. Not a likely candidate.
Sonia Gandhi had also hinted at giving the charge to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh but he has made it clear that he is not interested. Two other Gandhi family favourites—Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony—are out of contention because of age and poor health. Party treasurer Ahmed Patel and general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad—two Muslim leaders of standing in the party but no real mass base— have not even been considered. Hardly surprising, given the current polarised socio-political environment; it might only have proffered a stick to a belligerent BJP to beat the Congress with.
A dark horse in the race to the top of this lumbering, one-time-grand, old party could be its communication incharge Randeep Singh Surjewala, who has Rahul’s unflinching support. He was one of the few to question the Congress data department’s estimate that the party would win more than 160 seats. Surjewala’s prospects may be hampered by strong opposition from the Haryana state leadership and his own rout in the Jind assembly bypoll in January.
With no clear big-name alternative in sight, it’s possible, party insiders say, that the Congress will form a working council with a president and several vicepresidents. In that scenario, there might be a clear division of work among these near-equals and a Gandhi might take on a mentoring role. What of Rahul, then, given that he wants no party position, for at least a year? “He will freelance and make India tours,” said a long-term Gandhi family aide.
Officially in or out, the Gandhis will remain pivotal to the party’s decision-making apparatus
CONG = GANDHI? Rahul, the one who won’t be king