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Sonia Gandhi evades the BJP trap

Last updated on: January 17, 2014 12:21 IST

Image: Congress President Sonia Gandhi considered party leaders's views and decided against it.

By choosing not to declare her son Rahul Gandhi as the party's prime ministerial candidate, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has averted a Modi versus Rahul battle and effectively insulated her family against a backlash over a possible defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.'s Sheela Bhatt reports.

Whether or not Rahul Gandhi must be made the Congress party's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha election was one of the most difficult decisions for party President Sonia Gandhi to make.

She considered all the party leaders's views and finally decided against it.

Sources, abreast of the deliberations within the party, told that the issue was delicate and Sonia had a tough time taking her decision.

Young Congress leaders and the coterie around Rahul were keen to see that he was declared the party's prime ministerial candidate.

They briefed the media, and posted on social media that if Rahul was not made the prime ministerial candidate it would be seen as 'political timidity.'

But Sonia did not fall in the trap laid by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

She opted to play safe.

She took the decision where both her party and her family will cut their losses in the short term and gain in the long term, the Congress source said.

If Rahul was not made the Congress candidate for prime minister, critics, especially the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and his vocal supporters, would say that Gandhi did not lead from the front to take on the Gujarat strongman's challenge.

It will be argued that even the Congress party finds Rahul a weak leader. He will be blamed for shirking responsibility.

Against these convincing negative arguments there will be many advantages soon after the election.

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Sonia Gandhi evades the BJP trap

Sheela Bhatt

Rahul will thus not be solely blamed in the event of a debacle in this summer's general election.

That will be a huge advantage when the Congress party's first family struggles to keep the party intact in the not-so-sunny days ahead.

If Rahul is not declared the Candidate there will also not be questions directed at the family's capacity to win votes for the party -- the most essential quality to keep a grip over the Congress.

Secondly, the 128-year-old party can proclaim that it chose not to violate tradition even for the heir of the Gandhi dynasty.

Except in 2009, when Dr Manmohan Singh was declared its prime ministerial candidate ahead of the general election, the Congress has depended on elected MPs to select their prime minister after an election, whenever it had an opportunity to form the government.

The Congress can now claim it believes in parliamentary democracy and is giving its elected MPs the option to select their leader if the situation arises to form a government.

Another advantage of Rahul's remaining one rung below the coveted prime ministerial candidate position is that the party's old guard will still have its say in running the Congress and in shaping vital political policies.

The end of the Sonia Gandhi era will thus be a little less troublesome.

The transition of power from Sonia's office at 10, Janpath to Rahul's office at Tughlaq Lane will be less jerky.

Also, likely allies like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar will not have issues to remain in the Congress-led alliance before or after the election. Pawar, it is known, has deep reservations about working under Rahul.

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Sonia Gandhi evades the BJP trap

Image: Sonia Gandhi was briefed about what the old guard in the Congress and the party's allies felt about Rahul not be made the party's prime ministerial candidate.
Sheela Bhatt

Sonia Gandhi was briefed about what the old guard in the Congress and the party's allies felt about Rahul not be made the party's prime ministerial candidate.

Their opinions were framed not only by Rahul becoming too powerful even before winning the election, but also because they did not find any dramatic advantage in positioning the Congress vice-president as the party's Candidate.

Of course, if Rahul himself had wanted to be the prime ministerial candidate, then the senior Congressmen and allies's opinions would not have mattered.

Sonia would have likely then taken the decision to pit her son against Narendra Modi.

But Rahul, it seems, is open to internal debate and its final outcome.

When asked how not making Rahul the Candidate would help the party, a well-informed source in the Congress told, "There is no challenge to Rahul Gandhi even without being declared the PM candidate. He is the candidate in every Congressman's mind and even our core voters think so."

"Then why invite loud debates between Modi and him till the first vote is cast?" the Congressman asked.

Most of the Congress's old guard felt if the party won enough seats to form the government nobody would challenge Rahul for the prime minister's post.

This cannot be said so in Narendra Modi's case.

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Sonia Gandhi evades the BJP trap

Image: It won't be easy for Narendra Modi to become prime minister.
Sheela Bhatt

Only if, under his leadership, the BJP and its allies win enough seats to form the government can Narendra Modi stake a claim to the prime minister's post.

Without being declared the PM candidate, there is no way Modi can push his way to become PM after the election even if the BJP-led NDA gets enough seats.

The political party does not run on the basis of its detractors's perceptions of it, says the Congressman who is part of the party's team of young researchers.

"When we know we may not do well in the election, then why raise the stakes high on our leader just because the media and Opposition parties are playing mind games?";

The Congress is aware about the real condition of the economy, he said. In such times, no party would nominate its future leader to be in the line of fire.

Almost seven months after Modi was appointed head of the BJP's election campaign committee, did the Congress Working Committee nominate Rahul as its poll campaign committee chief.

Rajnath Singh has since replaced Modi as the BJP's election campaign committee chief.

Three months before the election, the Congress has averted a Modi versus Rahul battle.

Congress cadres who arrived in New Delhi on Thursday from across India to attend the All India Congress Committee session at the Talkatora stadium from Friday will be upset.

Congress leaders from all over India had gathered at the party headquarters on Thursday.

"Rahulji ko bina vilamb PM padh ke ummeedwaar ghoshit karo (declare Rahul as the prime ministerial candidate) was the demand from almost everyone present.

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Sonia Gandhi evades the BJP trap

Image: In the event of a surprise election win, is there any doubt that the party will give full credit to Rahul?
Sheela Bhatt

Knowing fully well the cadres's demand and the need for their enthusiasm to fight the election, Sonia Gandhi has maintained a balance between the party's interest and the first family's political well-being.

A leader from Uttar Pradesh, whom Rahul Gandhi is not particularly fond of, told that if the party vice-president had been made the Candidate, it would have thrown the dynasty's legacy into the fire.

The Congress has calculated that Modi's biggest weakness is that even if he helps the BJP win 180+ Lok Sabha seats, he will find it difficult to find allies.

In coalition- era politics, regional parties play the maximalist card and get away with a bigger pie than they deserve.

The Congress can claim now that it has not imposed a prime ministerial candidate on current or future coalition partners.

In a limited way, democracy within the Congress has worked in its favour -- helping the party to not declare the leader-in-the-making as its prime ministerial candidate.

By doing so, the first family will not bear the blame for a possible debacle in the 2014 election. Both the party and the first family have helped each other well.

The party has in a way told the first family that the Congress is in no hurry and a well-intentioned Rahul requires some more experience to lead the country.

The first family knows that a loyal party is helping it in a big way in the post-election scenario where the burden of a likely defeat will be owned up by the party and Rahul Gandhi will be protected in such an eventuality.

The first family is thus better insured against possible rebellion after an election defeat.

In the event of a surprise win, is there any doubt that the party will give full credit to Rahul?

Meanwhile, Thursday's development opens up many options on the allies the Congress will take on board.

Before and after the election, the party and its first family will have many opportunities to review the situation. It has already started to internalise the results of the 2014 election.