Congress may defeat Vaghela’s bid for Chief Ministerial face of the grand old party but for hand to pluck lotus, they need ‘Bapu’ in coming Gujarat Assembly Polls with full strength
Rahul Gandhi will take over as Congress President in October from his mother Sonia Gandhi, who has been the party’s longest-serving president after taking over in 1998.
So will Rahul Gandhi prove to be an asset for India’s oldest political party? While Rahul Gandhi, 46, has been a singularly dismal leader for the party with his curriculum vitae a blank space sans a 2009 Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha win credited to him, he will take over at a time when the party is on the verge of a split in Gujarat, which will go to the polls in six months. The prospects in Himachal Pradesh and other states also headed for elections are not particularly rosy for the Congress.
Shankersinh Vaghela, Gujarat state chief who defected from the BJP, and MLAs close to him, are all set for Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) to the BJP with reports of party president Amit Shah in direct contact with them. Vaghela is sore as Gandhi did not accede to his demand to be projected as Chief Minister and has made no secret of his ire. In fact, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel is planning to shift from New Delhi to Gandhinagar and there are chances of Patel being named CM candidate in coming Gujarat assembly polls. While all Congress insiders are busy cornering Shankershingh Vaghela, Congress would be president Rahul Gandhi must realize that Congress can trump Vaghela but to win Gujarat, Congress needs Vaghela.
BJP president Amit Shah, who has a gargantuan appetite for electoral success, has been on a winning streak after losing Bihar and has told cadre to move from “Congress-mukt Bharat” to “Opposition-mukt Bharat” after his spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh.
Gujarat, where the BJP has ruled for two decades, is a prestige issue for him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and he has promised Vaghela and his son, Mahendrasinh Vaghela, who is also an MLA, big rewards if they break the Congress party.
So what is Gandhi’s response to the existential threat confronting the party in a poll-bound state? “What strategy? We have not even got near a drawing board yet. This despite Patidar leader Hardik Patel making overtures to us. We have totally ignored him,” complained a Congress leader who asked not to be named.
Sonia Gandhi has been extremely keen for Rahul to take over and repeatedly expressed her desire privately to retire to a cottage in the hills, and she will continue in the party in a sort of mentor/patron role as senior leaders who have worked with her remain wary of Gandhi Junior and are yet to build a working equation with him.
Senior opposition leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee have made no bones about the fact that they have a comfort factor with Sonia Gandhi. So the much-anticipated and heralded generation switchover will effectively be more of the same.
While Gujarat will be a huge challenge for Rahul Gandhi with Shah already in campaign mode, other states are equally challenging. Himachal Pradesh, which is one of the seven states where the Congress has a government, is formidable with the Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh, and his wife Pratibha Singh embroiled in a series of CBI cases; both are currently out on bail in a disproportionate assets case of ₹ 10 crore. The Himachal state unit is bedeviled with chronic infighting now assiduously encouraged by Shah and the BJP.
Also a major challenge will be maintaining the Congress’ hold on Karnataka, the only big state the party governs. The election is next year and the BJP has already shown that its battle ready by anointing its permanent disruptor, 74-year-old BS Yeddyurappa, as its Chief Ministerial face and getting SM Krishna to defect from the Congress. Shah recently said that Yeddyurappa will be the Chief Ministerial candidate despite the fact that he will be 75 at the time of voting and hence, by the BJP’s own standards, ineligible for electoral politics.
While Rahul Gandhi has to contend with this aggressive, organised BJP, he must also try to lose the perception of the Congress as party of dynasty and usher in the complex rearrangement of younger leaders who will replace party stalwarts. Like the tricky issue of Madhya Pradesh which, if the party unites, it has a realistic chance of wresting away from the BJP. Nine-term MP Kamal Nath is likely to be sent as state chief and his main rival, Jyotiraditya Scindia, will be the party’s leader in the house. The changes are likely to be announced soon as rumours did the round that Kamal Nath was going to break the state unit and join the BJP. Kamal Nath significantly did not scotch the rumours publicly till he was given a private assurance by Sonia Gandhi about being the state president.
The Gandhi name is not quite the asset it used to be. Nor is Rahul Gandhi a natural politician, and while he may be well-meaning, he is up against the most formidable politician of our times: Narendra Modi. Congress leaders who are not part of his charmed circle find him aloof and inaccessible. Senior leaders confirm that the party simply is not attracting new members and the old battle-ready booth-level structure which was not nurtured for the past two decades has withered away. The party is also facing a financial crunch.
It’s a huge ask from Rahul Gandhi. Will he deliver?