In the 1990s, the joke among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders was that the presidentship of the opposition party was a relay race from Advani to Advani. Though several leaders did make to the top post, Advani would invariably return to be the head of the party after a brief hiatus.
The relay race ended in 2005 after the stalwart fell out of favour with the party’s ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh (RSS), over his remarks on Jinnah. It signalled the emergence of a generation of young leaders, all of whom were groomed by Advani.
With the BJP now the predominant political force, the relay race seems to have shifted to the principal opposition, the Congress party. Dismissed by critics as a family enterprise for the better part of the last 50 years, the party seems unwilling to reinvent itself to the new India that is no longer enamoured of family’s contributions in the better part of the 20th century.
Rahul Gandhi submitted his resignation on May 25 this year soon after party’s second successive defeat in the general elections became known. Rahul became the party president in December 2017 after his mother Sonia Gandhi stepped down. He asked the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to elect a new leader from outside the family, thereby ruling out his ailing mother, Sonia, and sister, Priyanka, from the top job.
After months of deliberations and two CWC meeting on Saturday, the party finally decided to fall back on old and tested Sonia Gandhi. The party’s highest body after marathon confabulations demonstrated its loyalty to the family.
The interim arrangement is aimed at blunting criticism that Rahul Gandhi failed to match the political sagacity and street-smart operations of the BJP and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will also enable the Congress to reach out to potential allies, who had for long reluctant to discuss issues with Rahul Gandhi.
The soft Hindutva approach followed by Rahul Gandhi by visiting temples and showing the scared thread failed to cut much ice with the new voters who continue to throng the BJP.
Though the Congress may not return to its hardline secular moorings to avoid reaction from the majority community, the appointment of Sonia Gandhi as interim president is largely aimed at preparing for the eventual takeover of the party by daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The family loyalists believe that Priyanka has more sharp political response and could revive the fortunes of the grand old party. With elections to Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand and Delhi due in next couple of months and polls due nearly every year till 2024, the interim arrangement of Sonia Gandhi as party president is likely to continue till she decides to make way for Priyanka.
The past weeks have revealed that many of Rahul Gandhi camp followers like Jyotiraditya Sacindia, Deependra Hooda and Murli Deora, broke ranks to support the government on scrapping of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State into two separate Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
All the intrigues and manoeuvres that resulted in the appointment of Sonia Gandhi, however, does not address the issue of disconnect with the voters. The Congress leadership has not participated in mass agitation programme since Indira Gandhi in 1977-80. Most of its current leaders—Anand Sharma, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot and Amrinder Singh—are products of the mass contact politics pursued by Indira Gandhi when she was out of office.
The takeover of the party by Sonia Gandhi or her future installation of Priyanka does not address the basic issue that Congress has lost touch with the masses. But then who will bell the cat in a family enterprise.