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End of the Sonia era in the Congress?

By Saroj Nagi
May 09, 2014 09:57 IST
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In the coming days, the Congress may be run by a trimurti of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, with Rahul holding the primary position both in Parliament and in the party and Sonia and Priyanka helping him out as and when required, says Saroj Nagi.

Will Narendra Modi's victory in the Lok Sabha election and the Congress's abject defeat mark the end of the Sonia Gandhi era in the Congress or will it add to the pressure on her to take a more proactive role in the party that is virtually being led by her son Rahul Gandhi?

There is little doubt that there will be a lot of churning in the party whose lowest tally so far has been 114 seats in the 1999 general election. The Bharatiya Janata Party is pitching for 272 plus seats and the Congress is working overtime to ensure that it does not set a dubious record of less than 114 seats. It wants to prove wrong pollsters who predict a minus 100 slide because of the strong anti-Congress sentiment sweeping across the country.

In an interview to The Times of India, Modi noted that, 'Their (the Nehru family) target is to somehow cross the hundred seat mark so that their leadership of the Congress party is not challenged. However, I see all possibility of the Congress falling below the 100-seat mark and if that happens, there will be serious churning within the Congress over the issue of leadership.'

Indeed, it is this crisis over leadership that Sonia would seek to avoid. To that extent her role in the party will remain significant with the coming days a testing time for the party as it gropes for a way out of a dark tunnel.

The turnaround could take years and would require a reinvention and makeover of the party. It would need the charisma of Jawaharlal Nehru, the fighting spirit of Indira Gandhi, the charm and voter connect of Rajiv Gandhi and the resilience and determination of the Sonia Gandhi of the early part of the 21st century when she emulated her mother-in-law by jettisoning old ideas and experimenting with the new to bring the Congress to power in 2004 and 2009.

Does Rahul have it in him? His track record so far does him no credit.

Does Sonia have it in her to rework the party's fortunes again like she did in 2004 and 2009? It does not seem so at the moment.

And it is not because of her undisclosed illness that sometimes catches up with her or her advancing years -- she will be 68 this December -- or for lack of initiative, but for reasons that have more to do with her blind and matronly instincts.

In the United Progressive Alliance-2 she has been focusing all her energies on passing on her mantle to Rahul, notwithstanding his serial failures while leading from the front in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh or his failure to use the parliamentary platform to package himself or his party.

Each time he fumbled and faltered, he was rewarded as evidenced in his anointment as vice-president at the January 2013 party conclave in Jaipur despite the defeats in UP or Gujarat in 2012. He was even allowed to call a meeting of Congress chief ministers to work out the Lok Sabha strategy in the shadow of the assembly elections defeat in December 2013.

So, is another reward due now?

If the Congress president maintains that trend, it would indeed mark the end of the Sonia era in the Congress, with Rahul by and large allowed to take all decisions, including on appointments so that he can establish his complete control over the party.

Unlike the BJP, where the L K Advani era was capped by an aggressive Modi, the decision to walk onto the sidelines has been and will be Sonia's who will step into the ring only when a crisis warrants it.

This could happen immediately after the election. More so, if Rahul loses Amethi or scrapes past with a vastly reduced margin than the 371,000 margin that he won the seat in 2009.

The Congress president, who provides a protective shield to Rahul by owning up the responsibilities of defeats whenever they happen, is likely to do the same again this time so that he is insulated from any incipient rebellion. Once that crisis is tided over, she is likely to step into the shadows again.

The ultimate objective: To safeguard the dynasty, prevent a Modi-like assault on the Gandhi brand and prevent party workers from changing their mindset of linking their fate to the Nehrus through its ups and downs.

In short, it is to entrench the thinking that the Nehrus are the cementing force holding disparate Congressmen together and even at its worst moments, any member of the family is better than none of them at the helm.

It is for this reason that party leaders and Congress workers upset with Rahul's style of functioning, talk about the need for a drastic overhaul in the organisation, but maintain a stoic silence when it comes to commenting on Sonia and her future.

Even before the Lok Sabha election, a battle has been brewing between the old guard -- which had rallied behind Sonia when she joined active politics more than 15 years ago -- and the new team who Rahul is promoting to bring a freshness to the jaded party. This battle is expected to gain momentum in the days after the results. It is here that Sonia's role as party matriarch would be important.

To prevent a rebellion from starting and reaching Rahul, Sonia is expected to put the party into an overdrive by kick-starting discussions which she had allow to lapse during the 10 years the UPA was in power.

There will be a committee to go into the reasons for the defeat, a chintan shivir for brainstorming, frequent Congress Working Committee meetings to deliberate on issues and organising conclaves of Congress chief ministers whose numbers are rapidly dwindling.

Despondent and despairing Congressmen looking for a sliver of hope would not be satisfied with this. Immediately after the results are out, voices would go up calling for a greater and meaningful role for Priyanka Vadra who has until now confined herself only to her mother and brother's constituencies in Rae Bareli and Amethi. Even there, her role was limited. Since both seats have been considered winnable, her basic task was to ensure an impressive winning margin in the polls.

This election, Rahul and she sweated it out in Amethi where the BJP's Smriti Irani and the Aam Aadmi Party's Kumar Vishwas Sharma pose a formidable challenge to him notwithstanding the Samajwadi Party not fielding a candidate in the constituency.

Priyanka could not deliver more than two assembly seats out of the 10 in Amethi and Rae Bareli in the 2012 assembly election, casting a shadow on her ability to convince voters to cast their lot with the Congress.

Congressmen desperate for redemption see in her shades of Indira Gandhi that goes beyond her hairstyle or aquiline nose: They see hope for themselves in her aptitude to establish a rapport with people and her ability to launch a frontal attack on her adversaries, including Modi who has rubbished the Nehrus and her husband Robert Vadra in the course of his marauding campaign.

In the coming days, the Congress may be run by a trimurti of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, with Rahul holding the primary position both in Parliament and in the party and Sonia and Priyanka helping him out as and when required.

Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

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