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Why a section of the Congress thinks Rahul Gandhi’s absence is good for the party even as Sonia Gandhi prepares for a transfer of power

Less than 10 months after the resounding loss of his party in the General Election of 2014 and less than a week after its washout in the Delhi Assembly polls, Congress vice-president and campaign spearhead Rahul Gandhi decided to leave the capital for ‘introspection’. Having secured the approval of his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the 44-year-old left for Bangkok by a 3 am Thai Airways flight on 16 February. He was seated in the front row in business class and was heard talking loudly while others tried to catch up on sleep. He spoke without inhibitions, which is typical when he faces the cameras, but he was not audible enough for a person seated two rows behind. All that curious passenger could hear as the Congress leader chatted vigor- ously with a co-passenger were words and phrases used repeatedly such as ‘decentralisation’ and ‘systemic change’. By the time the plane touched down at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand’s national capital, the Nehru- Gandhi scion had shifted to a window seat and fallen asleep. He woke up immediately after the flight landed, removed his sweat shirt, stuffed it casually into his bag, and was the first passenger to step out of the plane, dragging his cabin bag which swivelled along. But he kept walking.

Unmindful of the criticism that he has taken a break from politics at a wrong time, especially when the Grand Old Party has been battling numerous odds inside and outside Parliament, he was spotted last week in Cambodia with a group of friends, according to a diplomat. “Visiting countries like Thailand and Cambodia is more of a holiday than an effort at introspection,” a former Cabinet member tells Open, adding that he is surprised at the insensitivity of Rahul to challenges that his party faces ever since Narendra Modi took power at the Centre with an absolute majority, reducing the Congress to its lowest tally ever, 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. “The saddest part is that this comes at a time when his mother wants him to take over the reins; there is more responsibility on her. She is more needed in the Congress than ever before,” says this Congress veteran known to be close to the party’s first family. He hastens to emphasise the role she played in ‘revitalising’ the party and leading it to poll gains since taking over as Congress president from Sitaram Kesri in 1998 —at a time when the BJP had emerged as a formidable electoral force on the national scene. “It is too early to expect her to hang up her boots,” says another Delhi-based Congress leader, referring to the party’s organisational elections that are scheduled over the next few months. Intra- party polls will be held in two phases, the first one covering 18 states and Union territories, and the second, the rest. By plan, party elections will be over by 31 July in 18 states, including Gujarat, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and many in the Northeast as part of the first phase. The second phase will cover Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Telangana. The Congress chief is to be elected by 30 September. Currently, Sonia Gandhi holds a record of being at the helm of the country’s oldest political party for the longest time—on 14 March, she completed 17 years as Congress chief.

Quite a few senior leaders are worried about Rahul Gandhi’s ‘absence’. In private, they even acknowledge the trauma of Sonia Gandhi, who cannot step down as ‘the leader’ even though she wants to. Says Princeton University Professor Atul Kohli: “The Congress has to learn to be more dependent on strong, state-level leaders, instead of the family.” The party record on this is abysmal. Strong state-level leaders have invariably been sidelined to reassert the supremacy of the High Command since the days of Indira Gandhi. “Which is why it is not easy for the Congress to go about a large- scale restructuring in a short time. The damage to the organisation has been inflicted over a long time,” confides a woman Congress leader based in Delhi. “Again, that gives Sonia more power than you might imagine she has in these bad times. Bad times are not weakening her position. On the other hand, it is strengthening her, especially with the majority of Congress cadres not entirely pleased with the next generation of leaders within the family,” she says.

Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit has been bolder. His recent statement that Sonia Gandhi is the leader for 99 per cent of partymen, and that she is required to be at the party’s helm at this time, comes just before Rahul Gandhi is expected to take over as Congress president at the end of the internal elections. Dikshit’s contention is that it is still the 63-year- old Sonia who continues to bring non- BJP parties on one platform and successfully fight the NDA’s Land Bill, besides campaigning for the party across states to meet farmers hurt by unseasonal rains. “Sonia Gandhi can transfer presidentship of the party to anyone, she can bequeath the [post] to anyone she wants, but she cannot bequeath her leadership to anybody she wants,” said the two-time MP and son of Sheila Dikshit.

Sonia has led the Congress to successive General Election victories. Rahul, who has now been groomed for over a decade for the party’s top leadership, has consistently failed to pull in votes or set the house in order in states rocked by infighting. “In fact, things are worse in states where he had handpicked people on the basis of ‘merit’ to head Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs). The most obvious example is that of Kerala, where Rahul’s apparent choice, KPCC president VM Sudheeran, fought against the ruling Congress government to tweak its liquor policy, resulting in a massive slide in government revenues,” says a Congress leader from Kerala.

“It is a tragedy,” according to a Bhopal- based Congress stalwart, that yet another no-holds-barred effort to project Rahul as a leader to reckon has boomeranged. “He led the Uttar Pradesh campaign pathetically in the 2012 state election, which saw the Samajwadi Party record a sweeping victory. Look at the state elections of 2013, the General Election of last year, and the elections that followed. He has been a complete failure, and consistently so,” this leader rues, adding that “atmos- pherics alone will not do the trick”. Acknowledges a Delhi-based Congress leader, “We are in a bad spot.” In last year’s Lok Sabha polls, the party lost its candidates’ deposits in all seven seats of Delhi, and in the recent state election, 63 of 70 Congress candidates had to forfeit their deposits as the Aam Aadmi Party posted a landslide victory. Many Congress leaders and workers Open has spoken to are of the view that nothing could have been a worse advertisement of an embattled party than its heir-apparent shying away from work at a time when the leadership must inspire workers by leading from the front and holding the flock together.

A senior Delhi-based Congress leader says that “Sonia’s men” are still in charge and are far more effective than “the fictitious leadership” that Rahul tries to parade before the country. He goes to the extent of suggesting that it was the vice-president’s “lack of experience” that came to the fore when he failed to mediate between warring factions in various states, including Karnataka (where the Congress seems like a B-team of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal Secular), Kerala, Tamil Nadu and significantly Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress won 33 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 and only two in 2014. In Tamil Nadu, internecine wranglings are rampant. The bickering between former Union Minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram and Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president EVKS Elangovan took a turn for the worse a few months ago. The quarrel intensified after Elangovan said that the “Congress would get salvation if a leader quits the party with his heir apparent”. In Bihar, though the Congress has been reduced to a five-member team in its 243-member state Assembly, there is no end to the bitter infighting. Many leaders who lost their party posts in a recent rejig took to the streets accusing PCC chief Ashok Choudhary of flouting ‘democratic traditions’. Across the country, the party, which is dwindling fast as an electoral entity, continues to face defections, even of senior leaders, to other political camps. “Party workers are a demoralised lot all across the country, especially because they don’t believe so far that Rahul is a leader who can fill in the shoes of his mother,” says the Delhi- based Congress leader.

After the debacle of May 2014, Rahul had come under sharp attack from various state leaders. Rajasthan Congress leader Bhanwar Lal Sharma had said that it was time for the party to think beyond Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra. Sharma had said, “Rahul Gandhi is enjoying authority as he belongs to the Gandhi family. He has not come through a democratic process. Democratic systems should be there and nobody should be imposed [on the party].” In Kerala, the Congress had to suspend its leader TH Mustafa for calling Rahul a ‘joker’ following Modi’s thumping victory last year.

It was in January 2013, at the party’s Jaipur Chintan Shivir, that Rahul Gandhi assumed charge as Congress vice-president (and heir apparent), and Congress President Sonia Gandhi had been in withdrawal mode over the past year or so, making way for her son to succeed her. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case. She is actively involved in all party activities all the time,” says a former Union minister close to her. Recently, at her behest, the party diluted Rahul’s ‘quota proposal’ within the party to reserve 20 per cent of posts for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and religious minorities; 30 per cent of seats in party panels committees will be reserved for women. Rahul Gandhi had favoured a 50 per cent reservation plan for SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities, apart from 33 per cent for women in party committees, taking the total reservation in party posts up to 83 per cent. “Sonia Gandhi thought that would be impractical,” says a party leader.

Many senior leaders of the Congress are also worried that Rahul’s ‘reluctance’ has become contagious, especially with the party out of power. Though activist-politicians like Jairam Ramesh are happy hitting the road protesting against the Land Bill, many former treasury benchers—notably the party’s lawyer-politicians—are returning to their original career. “They are all in the business of making money. Good for them. But whoever is in politics when the party is in power must spend more time for party work even when it is out of power. Rahul must lead by example, rather than take long breaks,” says a Delhi-based Congress leader.

The Congress has also often been at the receiving end in Parliament over its opposition to the Land Bill. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, for example, attacked former Cabinet minister Anand Sharma for his “double standards”, saying that Sharma had written a letter in 2012 to Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister at the time, that the need to take the consent of farmers for land acquisition would seriously hamper infrastructure projects and slow down urbanisation. ‘Insistence [on the] consent of 80 per cent affected families will seriously delay land acquisition... and in many cases halt essential infrastructure projects,’ wrote Sharma in his letter dated 25 May 2012. Faced with charges of hypocrisy, Sharma said he stood by his letter but added that he was trying to protect the interests of national industrial corridors, not private projects. “Nobody expects Rahul to engage in debates in full swing and come to the rescue of the Congress, but he is missing out on a lot of experience that would help him when he is numero uno. Sonia Gandhi overcame her shortfalls by meticu- lously attending parliamentary proceedings, by keeping a close watch of day- to-day politics across the country and by leading nationwide agitations,” says a Bangalore-based Congress leader. A former close associate of Rajiv Gandhi is of the view that the Congress vice-president doesn’t seem to be aware of the ‘nuances’ of being in politics. “When you are in Parliament where your Finance Minister is presenting the Budget of the year, you can’t walk out midway and expect to comprehend the ways of politics. A lot of patience is required in politics. You can’t just drift and still be a leader. Rajiv Gandhi had that kind of bent of mind to go through the rigorous processes of politics,” he adds.

To add a comic twist to the severest leadership crisis of the Congress, posters declaring a reward for any information on the missing Amethi MP have come up in his Lok Sabha constituency. Such posters have also been spotted in Allahabad and Bulandshahr districts. According to reports, some of these posters also carry a list of problems being faced by the voters of his constituency. Some others have accused him of lacking in any vision for India.

Even as Rahul is away, the Congress’ Central Election Authority has set the process of organisational elections rolling. A section of the Congress leadership, however, insists that he will be back in action later this month to join an agitation against the Land Acquisition ordinance and spread awareness about environmental issues—and to prepare for his coronation. Hasn’t this prince already stopped seeing any glory in the crown?