In the early hours of Monday this week, a prominent Congress leader got a call from none other than the party president Sonia Gandhi. She was calling him for an urgent meeting where she asked him to try to postpone the joint committee meeting of Parliament which was scheduled for the afternoon that day. The joint committee meeting was to discuss the contentious clauses of the Land Acquisition Bill. Acting on the directive of his party president, the senior leader consulted other members from the opposition and finally got the meeting postponed.
In fact, the government has had to bend on the opposition’s demands on the land acquisition issue and has expected a quid-pro-quo. For this BJP’s emissaries even approached Congress leader Anand Sharma in order to reach at a solution on the Goods and Service Tax Bill. But Sharma, who is known to be close with both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, has been unable to give any assurance to them. According to a party insider, this is because, since some time now, Sonia and Rahul take all major decisions of the congress, even the ones concerning day-to-day parliamentary affairs.
This speaks of significant changes happening in the Congress. After the colossal 2014 defeat in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress was thoroughly embarrassed. To add to this, Rahul Gandhi took a much publicised two-month sabbatical soon after. The party was in disarray, as it did not have a leader to lead them in the crucial 2015 Budget session.
Furthermore, veteran congress leader Kamal Nath’s criticism at the time revealed a rather pathetic state of affairs. Nath had said in an interview, “There are many occasions when Mrs Gandhi thinks that Rahul is doing something while Rahul thinks that Mrs Gandhi is doing something, but it falls between two stools.”
However, after the sabbatical, Rahul surprised all with a strong, rather vocal comeback. He chalked out a plan to revamp the party cadre and organised several padyatras. He visited many areas of conflict drawing national attention on issues like farmer suicides and issues related to minorities. He even visited FTII in Pune and criticised the RSS and its agendas. The media reported Rahul’s new avatar widely and positively. All these were signs that new strategies are being devised by the congress to tackle the formidable BJP. One of these strategies is to form alliances with the Nitish Kumar- led JD ( U) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in the upcoming Bihar polls, something which Rahul was previously reluctant on doing.
After looking at the fate of the recently concluded monsoon session, it can be said that the Congress has played its cards well. It is evident that the Congress went into the monsoon session well equipped. Scams such as Lalitgate and Vyapam were highly credible criticisms. Both Sonia and Rahul have also openly criticised pm Narendra Modi’s position.
The first signs of attack on the ruling party had come in the Budget session when Sonia Gandhi had herself made a pitch to launch an agitation against the government. She started with a protest march of 14 parties, led by her, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest against NDA’s Land Acquisition Bill.
A senior Congress leader, on condition of anonymity, tells Tehelka, “It is Sonia Gandhi who perceived the situation and knew that it was the right time to start the work to regain the confidence of party workers.” He further adds that she wanted to get Rahul accepted by all the leaders irrespective of differences within the Congress and opposition parties.
As he put it, “I think that she has made her mind on elevating Rahul to the position of party president. Perhaps, this is the reason for the aggressiveness she had shown in the monsoon session. She has made sure that Rahul’s intervention in various issues to counter the government will be effective. She feels that it is time for Rahul to take the baton and subsequently become an equal opponent of Narendra Modi,”
The observations made by the senior Congress leader seem to have solid base. Despite having had a somewhat cordial relationship with Sushma Swaraj, Sonia Gandhi was not restrained in her criticism of Sushma on the Lalit Modi controversy. Her remarks on Swaraj’s involvement in the case were followed by fierce criticism from Rahul Gandhi. This shows that the 68-year-old Sonia is preparing Rahul for a much bigger role compared to the one he already has in the party. “Sonia Gandhi has made herself the springboard to launch Rahul Gandhi,” says a party insider.
Most Congress leaders believe that the ‘Sonia camp’ and ‘Rahul Camp’, which existed earlier, have almost dissolved. Now, both the leaders are taking decisions exclusively. For the last few years, the party had depended on Rahul Gandhi and his loyalists in a big way while the old guards, who are the loyalist of Sonia Gandhi, felt sidelined. Now, changes are evident in Parliament as well. In the monsoon session Rajya Sabha party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, deputy leader Anand Sharma and Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor Ahmed Patel, people who were not so vocal earlier, came across as the key decisionmakers. ‘Advocate-turned-leaders’ of the party such as Abhishek Singhvi, Manish Tiwari and Kapil Sibal seem to have taken a back seat for the time being.
However, differences in opinion about the role and capabilities of Rahul Gandhi are still very much present. A party insider known to be close to Sonia Gandhi tells Tehelka, “There is certainly a change in Rahul’s overall attitude. But this does not mean that he will be able to take the baton from Sonia Gandhi now. To take on a leader like Narendra Modi, Rahul has to learn more and his politics has to be further sharpened. So, for the time being, I don’t think Sonia Gandhi will appoint him at the party helm. She is still the popular leader and she can still connect with the people. For Rahul it may take a little more time”.
Some say that Rahul Gandhi is still trying to revamp the Youth Congress and NSUI more effectively, but he has been planning to do that since a long time now. However, it cannot be denied that positive changes are visible. In the recent past, one can see the presence of both the Youth Congress and the NSUI (National Students Union of India). They have been coming out to protest on various issues against the government. One of the office bearers of the Youth Congress said that they have been given instructions by the central leadership and that there should be at least one protest every day to mark the political visibility of the party.
After its crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha and various assembly elections, the Congress is trying to get back its legacy. Also, the party is trying to wrap up its neo-liberal economic image to embrace a more socialist outlook.
Sonia Gandhi is still the leader of the Congress and has a working relationship with various opposition parties. Now, more than ever before, is Rahul Gandhi’s time to prove whether he is really capable of taking charge of the Indian National Congress.