In the shadow of old guard
Two months after Rahul Gandhi took over the presidentship of Congress, Sonia Gandhi is ready to make a re-entry into the politics of alliances

In 1998, when Sonia Gandhi returned to active politics and took over the presidentship of the Congress party in dramatic fashion, effectively overthrowing Sitaram Kesri, the apparent reason was that the political challenges were too tough for the existing party organisation to handle. The years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule under Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed that the assessment was not wide of the mark. Twenty years later, and about two months after her son Rahul took over the presidentship of the party, she is ready to make a re-entry in a crucial area – the politics of alliances.

It was an innocent-sounding statement during her speech at the Congress Parliamentary Party meet on February 8. “I will work with the Congress president and other colleagues in discussions with like-minded parties to ensure that in the next election the BJP is defeated and India is restored to a democratic, inclusive, secular, tolerant and economically progressive path,” she said, as she indicated that earlier speculation that she would move into the shadows after relinquishing the top party post were unfounded.

However, the subtext carried two significant messages: first, that she is stepping in as a buffer between her son and the party’s old guard to continue with the difficult task of making a fight of the elections ahead, and, second, that there are questions of legitimacy facing Rahul Gandhi when it comes to his ability to bring all on board across parties on a single platform to fight the BJP in its all-conquering mood.

It has been two months to the day since Rahul Gandhi was elected president of the Congress party – propped up, according to the BJP – and this could be interpreted to mean that the new Congress president needs help with time running out as the party expects early general elections, which Sonia Gandhi referred to in her speech to the CPP.

Rahul, who has not effected the major changes in the party organisation that he was expected to do after December 16, could not have missed the point that his mother’s role implies: that the party old guard still has a foot in the door. Privately, Congress veterans have described her statement on reaching out to allies and “other colleagues” in the Congress as “encouraging”. For him, it would be naïve to see this as anything less than worrisome because it was this very old guard that delayed his anointment as party president.

Sonia Gandhi’s exit as Congress president was inevitable against the backdrop of the party being reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2014 under her watch – an abject humiliation for a party that had just been in power – and then losing a series of state assembly elections. But, with only five states in its kitty, it does not look like a rosy scenario for the new party president and his supporters either.

The party old guard have always pointed to the fact that Rahul is looking at the wrong priorities for winning elections. The reference is to Uttar Pradesh, a state it is necessary to do well in for a shot at power in the centre. The belief is that Sonia Gandhi’s remarks at the CPP meet come against the backdrop of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections elections of 2017 when the Comgress party, under Rahul’s watch made a hash of the alliance and its electoral prospects – first by staying with an alliance partner who was disintegrating and then not pulling out in time to give his party a semblance of a chance in the elections. The end result: seven seats in the elections with the BJP winning a landslide victory taking 315 seats.

In the Congress scheme of things, three states are crucial to do well in the next general elections – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. The general wisdom is that without alliance partners the Congress party has no chance of a creditable performance in the polls. However, even as each passing day brings on more pressure on the party to find partners, it still appears to be in a mood to experiment. In Uttar Pradesh, the state party unit wants to go it alone in the elections, not asking how a party that could muster only seven out of 403 assembly seats can turn things around without any obvious effort -- as there has been none to show since March 2017 -- to galvanise party workers and mobilise public opinion in its favour.

Alliances involve smart thinking and persuasive politics. There are doubts whether the new Congress is up for this. If it is going to be tough to find an alliance partner in Bihar, it will be tougher in West Bengal, not merely because of the Trinamool Congress but because the CPI (M) too is unlikely to join hands with it. Party insiders say that only Maharashtra has shown positive signs, with Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party extending the hand of friendship.

Clearly, this is not enough to make a match of the big fight in 2019. Out of power for two terms, it is unlikely that the party veterans will merely watch from the sidelines. If they cannot do something to change course, it is likely that the dirty tricks department they had rigged up will be set in motion to weaken the new party president. With her decision to step in and asking for everyone's allegiance to Rahul Gandhi, that is what Sonia has done to avoid. Read her words a second time: she says she will work with Rahul and "other colleagues". She is evidently buying time and insurance for her son, and simultaneously holding out an olive branch to the old guard.

Ananda Majumdar