WHO WILL BE THE CHO­SEN ONE?

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Kaushik Deka

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

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