The Congress seems to be moving back to the old guard, which had been sidelined after Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as vice-president of the party in 2013. With a new communications team in place this week, it is clear that both Sonia Gandhi and the old guard are firmly controlling the party. Leaders who had been apprehensive about their future under Rahul are now heaving sighs of relief after they got clear signals from Sonia that she still depends on them.
The new strategy team includes senior leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, P Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Jairam Ramesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Dev. For the first time the leader and deputy leader of both houses of Parliament have been given a say in the party’s communications strategy and its day-to-day functioning. A team of 20 young leaders has been appointed as secretaries.
While there has been speculation about the elevation of Rahul as Congress president, the fact that a new team has taken over now suggests that even if he becomes the party chief, he will be stuck with the old guard.
The new team signals that Sonia is once again falling back on loyalists with whom she had been comfortable. This might be the team that strategises for the Assembly polls to eight states next year and also take it forward to the Lok Sabha polls. This will be the team to decide the strategy in Parliament and how to be an effective opposition.
It is clear that Rahul’s flop shows on several fronts must have ensured the return of the old guard. The party was stunned when Rahul was missing at the peak of the farmers’ agitation last month in Madhya Pradesh when it had planned a nationwide agitation on the issue before the monsoon session of Parliament.
The announcement of the new team comes on the heels of some embarrassing statements made by the Congress in recent times. Rahul’s style of functioning was like the left hand not knowing what the right hand had done. Only last week the Congress denied news that Rahul met the Chinese and Bhutanese envoys at a time when there is confrontation at the India-ChinaBhutan borders. It was left to Rahul to say through a tweet that he had indeed met the envoys as well as former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon. Sonia Gandhi was said to have expressed her displeasure at the party leaders trying to hide news of the meetings. Even on Jammu and Kashmir there has been some confusion about the party's stand.
Sonia, who had taken a back seat leaving the floor open for her son, has been active in the past few months, trying to do some damage control realising that he was not up to the mark. It was she who took the lead in calling other opposition leaders and also arriving at a consensus presidential candidate in Meira Kumar and also vice presidential candidate Gopal Krishna Gandhi despite knowing that it is only a token contest as the NDA has adequate numbers to get its candidates elected.
Secondly, the party (read the old guard) still prefers Sonia Gandhi, as Rahul has not shown his leadership qualities nor has his team delivered. Sonia had brought the party to power twice - in 2004 and 2009. More importantly, her clout with opposition leaders is intact and they are willing to accept her leadership. Senior opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad Yadav were not willing to acceptRahul’s leadership. Sharad Pawar has gone on record to say he won’t be able to do business with Rahul. Neither Mayawati (BSP) nor Mulayam Singh Yadav(SP) nor Mamata Banerjee ( Trinamool Congress) would respond to Rahul’s overtures. It is Sonia who has been trying to save the Grand Alliance in Bihar. She is still the uniting face of the opposition.
Thirdly, the party is not sure whether Rahul could give a fight to Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 polls as he is no match in terms of communication skills or leadership qualities. In comparison, Sonia is a much better bet to take on Modi.
Fourthly, the Congress needs Sonia to enthuse cadres and leaders at the state level. It was she who stepped in recently to persuade senior Gujarat leader Shankar Sinh Vaghela not to join the BJP when there were rumours that he was on the point of leaving the Congress. It was she who stopped the war between the two Maharashtra leaders Gurudas Kamat and Sanjay Nirupam and persuaded Kamat not to leave. With elections to eight states, most of which will see a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, on the cards it is indeed necessary for the Congress to remain united.
The question is whether the old guard will be able to succeed in persuading Sonia Gandhi to be the face of the Congress in the next Lok Sabha polls. There are many in the party who believe that the return of the old guard signals this. However, her failing health is a matter of concern. In politics one week is said to be long and two years are indeed really long. The truth is that at least for the time being the old guard is back. But the ding-dong battle is not over.