Rahul’s priority would be the coming round of assembly elections in early 2017—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur.
When members of the Congress Working Committee, the highest decision-making body of the party, arrived for its meeting on the morning of November 7, the arrangements at the AICC headquarters were as per routine. Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s name card was placed at the centre of the dais, where senior leaders of the CWC were to be seated.
However, party vice president Rahul Gandhi arrived with the news that Sonia would not be able to attend the meeting as she was indisposed. The seating arrangement was immediately altered, the chair meant for the Congress president was removed and the name tag taken off the table. Rahul adjusted his chair to narrow the gap with his neighbours—former prime minister Manmohan Singh and senior leader A.K. Antony—and ended up occupying centre stage.
A lot of symbolism was involved in this rearrangement of furniture, as the events that unfolded in the meeting reaffirmed. Rahul opened the meeting with his speech, something that Sonia does as chair of the CWC. And, there was another first. “In the working committee meeting, members unanimously expressed their strong sentiment that respecting the wishes of crores of Congress workers and our well-wishers, Rahul Gandhiji must take over the presidentship of the Congress party,” Antony said.
In an effort to distinguish this from demands that have been made by Congress leaders at regular intervals, Antony said, “Speculation was there. However, it is for the first time that the entire CWC has unanimously expressed the strong view.”
This, Antony said, would be the CWC’s recommendation to the Congress president, and it would be for her to follow up. “We hope that it will get proper treatment,” he said, indicating that Rahul’s promotion is a mere formality.
After the CWC recommendation is conveyed to Sonia, the next step is expected to be her stepping down as party president and convening a CWC meeting for Rahul’s nomination as president.
“The CWC is empowered to do it at any juncture. It can happen even tomorrow. It can meet anytime and take that decision,” said AICC communications department in-charge Randeep Surjewala, when asked if there was a need for an AICC session to meet and put its stamp of approval on Rahul’s elevation.
The developments in the CWC, in fact, seemed to be following a script, with Antony, a known family loyalist, speaking after Rahul in the meeting and suggesting that it was high time he took charge, and for good effect adding that Sonia also was keen that it should happen at the earliest.
Taking the cue from Antony, leader after leader in their presentations before the meeting demanded the same. Manmohan Singh, who wrapped up the discussion, said it would be proper if CWC members conveyed the strong sentiment to Sonia with a request to start the process.
Reportedly, Rahul told the meeting that he was ready for whatever responsibility was decided for him by the party president and by the CWC. A senior leader said Rahul told the meeting that his fight was to protect the idea of India, which was under threat.
A leader close to Rahul said that he was likely to be appointed party president by the end of this year, and definitely before the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul, who made his Lok Sabha debut in 2004 and was appointed vice president of the party in 2013, has been under pressure to take over as Congress president, especially since the debacle of the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The biggest challenge, according to a senior leader, is that he would have to fill in very big shoes, which have in the past been occupied by his grandmother Indira Gandhi and his father, Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia, too, despite the initial hurdles on account of her foreign origins, was highly respected and had wide acceptability in the political sphere. “He has to find acceptability both within and outside the party,” he said.
Inside, he has the big challenge of inspiring confidence in the leaders and workers in the Congress and building a bond of respect and sentiment with them. Outside, he has to make himself acceptable as a leader of the so-called anti-Modi, secular forces, where leaders like Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav are vying for pole position.
Rahul is expected by the Congress to look for ways to enhance the party’s shrinking base and recover some of the lost space. It has just 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha, its lowest ever strength in the lower house. The party is in power in only a handful of states, and Karnataka is the only big state it rules.
His priority would be the coming round of assembly elections in early 2017—UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. UP and Punjab are said to be the two high stake states for the Congress. While it would want to win Punjab, where the Akali-BJP combine is in power, it would somehow want to have a role in government formation in Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul has faced criticism that he has not addressed faction-ridden Congress units in states such as Uttarakhand, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh; rebels complained that they did not get a chance to air their grievances before him. Intense factionalism has cost the party dear in the northeast, where it used to hold sway. Factionalism is rife in the Congress unit in Madhya Pradesh, and factional fights have resulted in senior leader Ajit Jogi leaving the party in Chhattisgarh. The two states going to the polls in 2018 are crucial for the Congress, as the BJP has been in power in both the states for three terms.
It is expected that when Rahul takes charge, he would want leaders hand-picked by him to be in place at the AICC and in the state units. The AICC reshuffle has been long pending, and could happen now. “He is expected to get new ideas and new energy into the organisation. However, he is expected to balance the young faces with experience,” said the party’s Rajasthan president Sachin Pilot.
On what kind of a leader he will be, Pilot said, “He will lead from the front, taking up issues of the farmers, the dalits, the jawans, the youth and the marginalised.”
Structural changes are also expected to take place that would provide for decentralisation of power and greater say of district units in decision making. Rahul has also spoken for greater accountability for leaders, and it is likely that he will put in place a formal system to make office-bearers accountable for the tasks designated to them.
Rahul certainly has his task cut out.