It was late in the evening on August 11 when Sonia Gandhi was named Congress president for a second time. She apparently asked a long-time Congress leader not known to be close to her: “Are you ready for the battle ahead? It’s going to be a long haul.” The question was an indicator of how she has planned her second innings, one she had to take up following the resignation of son Rahul Gandhi from the post. Her first run lasted two decades and the Congress ruled at the Centre for half that period.
With trusted lieutenant Ahmed Patel by her side, Sonia has once again embarked on the task of rebuilding the party. It’ll be a herculean effort- the party has been wiped out in much of India. The Congress rules just five states in the country now and in two of them- Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh- they survive with a thin majority. After two consecutive, humiliating defeats in the general elections, infighting and dissent are brewing in almost all state units. Several influential leaders have deserted the Congress since the May 23 results and others are bickering in public, more so in the two poll-bound states- Maharashtra and Haryana.
The emergence of three different teams within the Congress, at times working at cross-purposes, is also leading to speculation about the party’s long-term survival. The first team consists of those leaders who worked closely with Sonia in her first term. The professionals with non-political backgrounds working in Rahul Gandhi’s office form the second. Other prominent leaders, those who are not in either camp or have fallen out of favour with the Gandhis, make up the third. And this team is growing in numbers.
Ever since Sonia returned to power, her stamp and the influence of her old team have been evident in every party decision. For instance, in Maharashtra, which goes to the polls on October 21, the relatively low-profile Balasaheb Thorat was made president of the state Congress- the same faction-ridden unit that has seen the exit of nearly a dozen leaders since May, including ex-ministers Kripashankar Singh and Harshvardhan Patil and MLA Nitesh Rane. His selection had the backing of both Rahul and Sonia, which ensured there was little resistance from high-profile leaders such as former Maharashtra chief ministers Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan. But the central leadership was ruthless with Milind Deora, who had openly demanded a young, efficient leader as Congress president in the 90-day interim between Rahul’s resignation and Sonia’s return. Congress insiders claim that Deora, who had resigned as Mumbai Congress president following the Lok Sabha poll debacle, is now persona non grata in the party.
In fact, if Congress sources are to be believed, the clamour for a younger party president, first raised by Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, alarmed Sonia the most. While the initial strategy was to instal a low-profile Gandhi family loyalist as party president- presumably to warm the seat till Rahul changes his mind and returns- the call for an election by leaders such as Shashi Tharoor made Sonia do a re-think. “She was never reluctant, she wants the reins to stay in the hands of a Gandhi,” says a member of the Congress Working Committee. “If elections were held and no Gandhi contested, the power could have slipped away to someone young and possibly more efficient. And while the long-term chances of such a Congress president are slim when three Gandhis are active in politics, she didn’t want to take the risk. She became increasingly suspicious of the ambitions of Tharoor, Deora, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot.”
That opened the door for the Sonia loyalists. With her back as party chief, those who drew power from Rahul in the top post also had to withdraw. Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, the sole voice of introspection and self-criticism at the CWC meeting held on May 25, is now facing an uncertain future. Scindia once seemed destined for the top post of Madhya Pradesh Congress president, currently occupied by Chief Minister Kamal Nath. But when his supporters tried to raise the heat on Nath and the other stalwart from the state, Digvijaya Singh, Scindia could not back them as he had little support from Delhi. The fact that he had also lost the Lok Sabha poll did not help his cause. Former Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam (who enjoyed Rahul’s confidence till March when another of his favourites, Deora, replaced him), has openly revolted against the old guard alleging that he has been ignored in the ticket distribution for the Maharashtra assembly election. “I agree that Scindia has some genuine grievances, but why is Nirupam targeting senior leaders? He was removed by Rahul,” asks a leader of the old guard.
In Rajasthan, there is speculation that Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot may soon appoint some more deputy chief ministers. Gehlot’s rival, Sachin Pilot, is currently the only one holding the post. While some Congressmen argue that this may be a move to woo the influential castes in the state, many see this as an attempt to cut Pilot to size. The 42-year-old Rajasthan Congress president, who led the party to victory in the 2018 assembly poll, lost out to Gehlot in the race to be chief minister as the Gandhi family plumped for the old loyalist. “Instead of aspiring for the CM’s chair, he should focus on saving his position as Rajasthan Congress president,” says a senior party leader.
While Scindia and Nirupam have still not lost faith in the party, some others have called it quits. In the Northeast, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma, another royal head connected to the Scindia family, has quit as president of the Tripura Congress. Debbarma was upset with the ‘interference’ by then general secretary in-charge Luizinho Faleiro, who asked him to change his stand on the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC). Debbarma, who represents the indigenous population of Tripura, has been fighting a case in the Supreme Court demanding an NRC in his home state. “The Congress has several leaders who take their brief from the BJP and are working to destroy the party,” he says. Weeks after Debbarma’s resignation, Faleiro was sacked on October 7. The influence of the old guard was evident when he was reinstated within 24 hours.
But the biggest casualty has been former Haryana Congress president Ashok Tanwar. Despite ex-chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s strong opposition, Tanwar remained at the helm for more than five years because he had Rahul’s backing. In September, Sonia loyalist Kumari Selja replaced Tanwar while Hooda became chairperson of the election management committee. A month later, unhappy with the ticket distribution for the assembly election, Tanwar resigned from the party. Without naming anyone, he said some well-established people in the Congress felt they were gods but behaved like demons to destroy people.
Though they have refrained from saying anything against Rahul and Sonia, what has hurt the rebels most is the Gandhi scion’s indifference to their plight. Rahul has done little to ‘protect’ them when they were targeted by the new regime. In fact, since he demitted office on May 25, Rahul has not interfered in any of the political decisions concerning his people, limiting his activities to visiting his constituency, Wayanad, and targeting the Modi government on social media platforms. His sudden trip abroad, with less than two weeks to go for the election in Haryana and Maharashtra, has also given currency to whispers about his indifference to party affairs.
However, his non-political appointments have been insulated from any punitive action. For instance, Sonia approved the proposal to reorganise the party’s data analytics department as the ‘Technology & Data Cell’ and made Praveen Chakravarty head of the cell. The old guard had especially targeted Chakravarty after the Lok Sabha election, alleging that he had misled Rahul with fake data. The other loyalist to survive the purge is K.C. Venugopal, organisation secretary of the party (though some insiders claim it’s only the “official designation” that keeps him relevant, and that his role is now limited to releasing statements on appointments within the party).
Not all young leaders have faced the brunt either. Family legacies of loyalty to the Gandhis are still a most valued asset and two young turks from Assam- Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev- prove that. Two-time MP Gaurav is the son of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Though the senior Gogoi is not a favourite of the old guard, he has the enviable backing of all three Gandhis. After Sonia took charge, Gaurav was given additional charge of two more states- Sikkim and Manipur- besides his current assignment of handling West Bengal and Andaman & Nicobar. Sushmita is the daughter of the late Union minister Santosh Mohan Dev, who was very close to Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia. Though Sushmita lost in May, she continues to head the Mahila Congress and enjoys access to all three Gandhis. “There is no particular agenda against the young leaders,” says a Congress Rajya Sabha leader. “The problem is several of them got too much from the party too early. Count the number of young ministers in UPA governments. It made them too ambitious.”
Another senior leader points to a recent viral video of a conversation between three Congress leaders- Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Hooda- to drive home the point that the veterans don’t control everything. In the video, shot in the Parliament complex on October 2, Hooda is heard complaining to Patel that tickets were not given to candidates recommended by him. In this battle between the two sides, several non-aligned leaders have become increasingly marginalised. Two glaring examples are Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari. The former Union ministers were ignored for any leadership position of the party in the Lok Sabha. Tharoor lamented that despite winning three consecutive Lok Sabha elections, he has not been involved in any deliberations on finding the causes of the party’s recent electoral debacles. Another former Union minister Salman Khurshid admitted that there was a leadership vacuum in the party. “We haven’t really got together to analyse why we lost. Our biggest problem is our leader has walked away. It has left a sort of vacuum,” says Khurshid.
The vacuum is also the consequence of the Congress leadership’s reluctance to groom second-generation non-dynast leaders in the states. The long-haul battle that Sonia seems to be preparing for will require a cohesive unit at every level- from the CWC to the districts to the poll booth. What’s adding to the confusion is the fact that, for the first time in its history, three members of the Gandhi family are active participants in party affairs at the same time. Though Priyanka Gandhi has been calling the shots in Uttar Pradesh-related issues, many within the party already see her as the inheritor of Sonia’s legacy. Many leaders are making desperate attempts to gain proximity to her, in the hope of creating another power structure.
This has made Sonia’s current job more complicated. Though she is supportive of Priyanka, the mother in her also doesn’t want Rahul to fade away as a failure. Unlike in 1998, when she was just 52, an ailing Sonia now needs to not only get her house in order quickly but build a battle-ready team to fight the Modi machine. “Modern elections are fought on what I call the 3M framework- messenger, message and machine,” says Chakravarty. “In previous eras, the Congress party won elections with just messenger and message. That is no longer enough. It now needs to build the machine to amplify its message and messenger. Building the machine requires vast resources. But first, an earnest intent for it is needed.” The Congress has yet to reveal any clear intent.