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Can Sonia Gandhi bring the elixir of life to Congress in terminal decline?


Sonia Gandhi suddenly became more actively involved in the management of Congress. But her task is not only cut out, but she also doesn’t have the luxury of having time by her side.

Rahul Gandhi making a political comeback at regular intervals has become routine. But Sonia Gandhi returning to the head of the party and leading it from the front made the news. The initial response from the “high command” of Congress after the crash in five states was typical. Call for a CWC meeting and have a scripted sequence of the family offering to resign, the loyal retainers refusing it, expressing solidarity and resolve to work together to narrow differences, and in return the supremo promising early organizational elections. But since then, with unrest among the old guard represented by the G23 gaining traction, Sonia Gandhi has become more visible and vocal both in Parliament and in the party signaling that she is back in the saddle.

Simultaneously, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, along with their lackeys, seem to have consciously reduced their public profile, save for the odd recreational tweet from Rahul Gandhi’s handful. Clearly, there is much better choreography and calibration at play. Sonia Gandhi’s admission of the need to “revive” Congress was refreshingly candid in contrast to her children’s dismissive denial of the problem. His measured statements restored some of the lost gravitas of the Congressional leadership, which recently spoke mostly through a conceited and condescending group of spokespersons.

So what prompted this SOS intervention by the matriarch? Undoubtedly, she was guided by her instinct for survival – both on the future of the party and the dynasty, which are interdependent. But what really changed or when did the penny finally drop for her to take center stage, shedding her earlier strategy of giving free space to her offspring? Part of the credit goes to the G23 veterans who, knowing the limits of their ability to lead a revolt, preferred wisdom to bravado. The windows of 10 Janpath were opened by honest brokers like Bhupinder Singh Hooda, which allowed Sonia Gandhi to break the ice.

Archive image of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. PTI

However, a bigger threat was probably the performance of the Aam Aadmi party in Punjab. If Punjab was a wake-up call, the AAP’s rapid move into Gujarat before Congress could even recover from the shock of its defeat was a loud wake-up call. For so long, Congress has been basking in self-confidence, believing that no opposition alliance would be viable without Congress as its pivot. The theory cited was that Congress is in a direct contest with the BJP in over 180 seats and still has 19% of the vote and almost 12 million voters behind it. However, the AAP has demonstrated in Punjab that it is able to rid itself of the disenchanted and discouraged main supporters of the Congress – through a new formulation of nationalism and theoretical (good) governance. With sub-national parties like the Samajwadi Party, RJD, Trinamool Congress, YSR Congress, Shiv Sena and NCP taking over the anti-BJP constituency in other states, further reducing the footprint of the Congress.

But how long Sonia can hold the fort is the question that should be on the minds of congressional observers. She had bought 10 years of time to groom Rahul Gandhi by putting Manmohan Singh in the prime minister’s office. She must be disappointed that several false starts and several raises later, Rahul has yet to reach adulthood despite countless media outlets by the party’s PR managers. As an additional strategy, Priyanka was drafted into battle. Although she showed some initial promise, it’s still early days for her to settle into the driver’s seat. Also, it would have implications for Rahul’s ultimate stake that Sonia would have to consider. There is growing impatience in the ranks, especially among ambitious young people, who are exploring prospects in the BJP, AAP or other regional parties. The latest being the son of Ahmed Patel, who has put management on notice. Given this scenario, Sonia Gandhi had little choice but to embark on an act of rescue.

Whatever people say or what the family claims, it is understood that Congress in its current form cannot exist without the Gandhis at the center of power. This is how Indira Gandhi conceived of Congress (I) and Sonia managed to carry on the legacy – even to the detriment of democracy and society as a whole, as she herself admitted, although only indirectly. So whatever arrangements she puts in place should at best be tentative to allow time for one of the siblings to take the reins. One solution would be to find a replacement as president of Congress to facilitate a transition later. But neither Rahul nor Priyanka has Sonia’s maturity and political instincts to handle someone as docile as Manmohan Singh – forget a stronger political figure like PV Narasimha Rao. So Sonia’s task is not only cut out, but she also doesn’t have the luxury of having time by her side.

So, what can Sonia Gandhi’s game plan be? Although there have been indications of organizational elections before September, this may be a risky bet to make. If Rahul Gandhi is elected president and Congress loses Gujarat, it will mean another setback that will be hard to erase even for a hardened loser like Rahul Gandhi. However, if a new president can give the impression of a renewal, he will consolidate his position and his claims in the long term. Thus, Sonia Gandhi’s first task would be to assemble a team of competent party officials to work under her to get the organization back on track.

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Read also

The G-23 lands a punch, now it’s up to Sonia Gandhi to counterattack

Congress returns to the old ways; Sonia Gandhi remains president: throwback to when the party had a non-Gandhi leader

Road ahead for Congress tougher than ever: Sonia Gandhi chairs meeting of parliamentary parties

‘I don’t want Congress to die’: the message from the G23 leaders dinner meeting

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Rahul may not be willing to take on some of the power veterans, however, Sonia must insist on replacing some of the rootless wonders around her with people of substance. Priyanka will have to manage the back office with panache by keeping her own impulses under control. This could pave the way for a better partnership between Rahul and Priyanka while preparing a new set of generals to fight the next war.

Above all, Congress needs a taste of electoral success to live another day. If anyone, only Sonia can provide this elixir of life to an institution in terminal decline.

The author is a news commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. The opinions expressed are personal.

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