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Sonia Gandhi returns to the daily management of a party that is too sick to be revived by her son

AT 10.30 AM on June 6th, the working committee of the Indian National Congress sat for a crucial meeting after seven long months. The last meeting had been called in November 2016 and Congress President Sonia Gandhi had been absent due to ill health. “The Assembly elections were over in March. The meeting should have happened soon after,” says a senior Congress leader and member of the working committee. “Even this meeting wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Soniaji, who wanted to talk to senior party leaders.” Sonia Gandhi, despite not keeping well, is back in action after a long absence. It would seem that she has been forced to take control of the situation. Despite his best efforts, Rahul Gandhi has failed time and again to provide a vision to party workers and to lead from the front. The series of defeats for the party, right from municipality elections to the Upper House, raise serious doubts about the future, especially with the General Elections just two years away.

Sonia Gandhi acknowledged some of the challenges in her opening speech at the party meeting on June 6th: “The recent Assembly elections hold vital lessons for us, both in UP and in Uttarakhand,” she said. “With an energised cadre and effective leadership, we were able to defeat a sitting NDA government in Punjab, but in Manipur and Goa, we failed to convert our winning numbers and form a government. We cannot let this happen again.” Senior Congress leaders say they see a sea change in her attitude. “The Assembly election results have changed Soniaji,” says Sheila Dikshit, senior Congress leader and former Delhi chief minister. “She was a little cut off after handing over control to Rahulji. But now she is open to ideas that could improve the party’s prospects.”

For the past two years, Sonia Gandhi has kept a distance from active politics. She did make some public appearances but her health didn’t permit her to campaign regularly. Last year, the Congress kicked off its poll campaign in UP on August 2nd with a road show by Sonia Gandhi in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. It was a good start to the campaign, going by the crowd gathered at the event. But she had to call off the show midway because of ill health. She was taken back to Delhi in a special airplane accompanied by doctors. That was her last appearance before the Assembly elections. She was expected to address some rallies in each state that went to the polls but she did not campaign anywhere, not even in her own constituency in UP. On February 17th, it was her daughter Priyanka who accompanied Rahul Gandhi on a day-long campaign tour in Rae Bareli. On February 22nd, she released a personal letter to voters in her constituency and in Amethi, appealing for votes despite her inability to campaign in person. She then left India on March 8th, days before the results of the Assembly elections would be out, to get medical treatment in the US. Before leaving, she briefed the senior leaders of the party and told them that Vice-President Rahul Gandhi would lead in her absence. By the time she returned to New Delhi on March 23rd, looking visibly healthier, the damage was done. “Her campaigning in UP could have made a lot of difference to the party,” says Sheila Dikshit, who was earlier announced as a CM candidate. “It was unfortunate for us that she was not keeping well at a crucial time.”

Sonia is on a meeting spree now, making up for lost time. She has invited Congress leaders as well as leaders of other parties to devise a strategy to beat the BJP in the General Elections. We can also expect big organisational changes within the party, with Sonia helming all strategic decisions. In Haryana, for instance, she intervened to reverse Rahul Gandhi’s decision to appoint former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda as state Congress president in place of Ashok Tanwar. Her political secretary Ahmed Patel had advised that a non-Jat would be a better bet as party president of Haryana. Accordingly, the decision has been withheld for now. On May 10th, Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former chief minister Bhajan Lal, met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi. Bishnoi had merged his party, Haryana Vikas Congress, with the Congress in April last year. Sources reveal that he presented a strong case for appointing him to lead the party in the state.

A major difference between Sonia and Rahul Gandhi is that Sonia takes quick action while Rahul has the habit of sitting on it until it is too late, says a Congress leader

Similar changes are expected in Madhya Pradesh, a state where the Congress has been out of power for a decade and a half. The party could win only two out of 29 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 elections. Later, in 2016, the tally went up to three after it won the Ratlam seat in a by-election. The results had been attributed to the Modi wave but the infighting among state Congress leaders also played a role. All other senior leaders from the state oppose Arun Yadav, the party state president. In a bid to motivate the party cadre, Rahul Gandhi has made up his mind to send his trusted lieutenant Jyotiraditya Scindia as Yadav’s replacement. Scindia also enjoys the support of party general secretary Digvijaya Singh. He drew up a plan to tour the state in the coming months but suddenly, everything was put on hold. The reason: Sonia Gandhi. On May 1st, Congress General Secretary Kamal Nath met Sonia Gandhi. Sources reveal that he threw his name in the ring for state president, claiming that he could win the elections for the party. Upon Sonia’s encouragement, Nath, on May 21st, made a detailed presentation for his plan to revive the party in Madhya Pradesh, discussing strategy and candidates for each Assembly constituency. The nine-time MP from Chhindwara is one of the most popular leaders in the state and his offer to lead may have been hard to resist. Scindia has been put on hold and 70-year-old Kamal Nath looks set to take the reins of the party, though an official announcement is pending.

Ever since she took control of the party as president in 1998, Sonia Gandhi has maintained a fine balance between the old guard and the new generation. In September 2007, Rahul Gandhi became party general secretary with charge of the Youth Congress and the NSUI. This is where he started his push for young leadership at the top. He gave tickets to many of his young supporters and a few even won and went on to represent the party in state Assemblies and in the Parliament. The old guard has no problem with the new faces and it looked like a smooth transition. After 2013, however, when Rahul Gandhi became the vice-president, older leaders were gradually being nudged to the corners. With Sonia taking a backseat, there was no one left to convince Rahul of their relevance. He even sidelined Ahmed Patel, Sonia’s political adviser and a man who once wielded immense power. Now Patel is back and so is his clout, reveal insiders. He is seen as a key influencer in the recent decisions taken by the party. The old guard is once again getting its due, especially after the election victory in Punjab under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh.

The new strategy under Sonia Gandhi is to let the states be managed by local leaders rather than by the high command. The effect is already visible. On April 20th, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh met Sonia in Delhi a day after he appeared before the ED in a money laundering case. Singh does not get along with Rahul Gandhi and rarely calls on him. In his meeting with Sonia, he raised questions on the efficacy of Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as state party president. Sonia lent an ear but also advised him to meet Rahul the next day. Ahmed Patel was present as Sonia’s emissary in the meeting. “It is not that Rahulji has taken a backseat. He is more active than ever,” says Ajay Maken, Delhi Congress president, who is part of Rahul’s inner circle. “Any decision is taken by both Soniaji and Rahulji.” In effect, Rahul seems to be merely seconding his mother’s decisions.

The Assembly election results have changed Soniaji. She was a little cut off after handing over control to Rahulji. But now she is open to ideas to improve the party’s prospects

“A MAJOR DIFFERENCE between Sonia and Rahul is that Sonia takes quick action while Rahul has the habit of sitting on it until it is too late,” says a leader. In the last week of May, during a meeting between Sam Pitroda met Sonia Gandhi, the idea of an overseas wing of the party came up. Pitroda suggested that like BJP and AAP, Congress should have an overseas unit to attract Indians living abroad. Days later, on June 1st, the Congress announced the formation of the Overseas Congress Department, with Pitroda as chairman. “Overseas Indians could help spread Congress’ thoughts,” says Pitroda. “In the next few days we will outline a plan for overseas Indians to join the movement.”

Another reason Sonia may have felt compelled to return, say party leaders, is Rahul Gandhi’s unsociability. Barring a few young leaders like Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul does not seem to interact with Opposition leaders. “If the PM or Soniaji crosses you in Parliament, they don’t forget to greet you,” says a senior Samajwadi Party MP. “This fellow (Rahul Gandhi) tries to ignore whoever he comes across. How can he play a role in uniting the Opposition?” RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav has a special dislike for Rahul Gandhi. He is organising a rally in Patna on August 27th to which he has invited all Opposition parties to come together against the BJP. On the morning of May 17th, Yadav spoke to Sonia over the phone and requested her to attend the rally. When Sonia pleaded ill health, Yadav was quick to reply: “Aap nahi toh Priyanka ko bhejiye , Rahul ko nahi (If not you, then send Priyanka, but not Rahul).”

Political Analyst Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies says Rahul Gandhi’s failure as a leader has pushed the Congress to a corner, forcing it to rely on the states rather than fight it out at the Centre. “When he competes with Modi, he gets exposed. They have to fight in the states with strong and decisive state leadership in place.” Sonia Gandhi understands this and is working on both fronts—strengthening the leadership in states where the party has a chance, and leading the Opposition unity drive against the BJP. On April 26th, she invited NCP leader Sharad Pawar to her residence and requested him to become the president candidate for a joint opposition. Pawar refused but Sonia has far from given up. In May, Ahmed Patel rang up all the Opposition leaders and Sonia spoke to them personally, inviting them to lunch on May 26th to discuss a joint presidential candidate for the Opposition. “You can gauge the success of the event from the fact that for the first time, we managed to bring Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav on one stage,” says Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. “The Congress will always take initiatives in the fight against the BJP.”

Political experts see this as an attempt to establish Rahul Gandhi as the party leader. “Sonia always relied heavily on state leaders as she did not stand a chance against Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” says Sanjay Kumar. “Congress made a comeback through the states and won the Centre in 2004. She is trying to repeat the same formula for Rahul’s future.” Not a day goes by in the party without Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as president being discussed. Those who owe their political career to Rahul support him wholeheartedly; others are left with no choice. For now, though, the message is clear: Rahul will focus on the organisation and make occasional appearances at protests. Sonia will lead the anti-BJP drive. “She can’t do it forever, but she is working very hard now, more than I have ever seen her work,” says a Congress leader. Elsewhere, as the eternal heir apparent of Indian politics struggles with the Upanishads and the Gita as a preparation for his war on the RSS, it is for the mother to revive a party that looks sicker than herself.