Under Sonia Gandhi, Congress harps on old tunes

The Congress is having a 'back to the future' moment, with the return of Sonia Gandhi as party president. Her pragmatic style of functioning and dependence on veterans is in contrast to Rahul Gandhi's self-confessed 'idealism' and preference for younger faces.

The change of guard is most obvious in Haryana, where Team Hooda, marginalized during the Rahul regime, is once again front and centre. The Former Congress president's pointman in the state, Ashok Tanwar, has been supplanted as Haryana PCC chief by Sonia loyalist Kumari Selja. But it is controversial former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda who will be the face of the Congress campaign in Haryana.

The doughty veteran is now the leader of the Congress legislative party and head of its campaign management committee, with maximum say in ticket distribution. Randeep Singh Surjewala, urbane spokesperson and Rahul acolyte, who was a contender for the post of state party chief, is on the sidelines. Just as well; he needs to focus on winning his own seat after his abject defeat in the Jind assembly bypoll earlier this year.

It may be argued that Sonia's hand was forced. Hooda, taking a leaf from Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh's playbook, made it amply clear last month that he would float his own outfit unless he was accommodated. He openly backed the abrogation of article 370, as did other Congress leaders like Janardhan Dwivedi and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Hooda went a step further, in saying the Congress “has lost its way”. He seemed all set to follow the erstwhile Congress chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, Bhubaneswar Kalita, out of the party.

Sonia preferred not to lose him; letting him go would have been a reprise of Andhra, where the Congress refused to accommodate Jaganmohan Reddy in 2010 and ended up losing the state virtually overnight. She knows that the Jat leader has a solid mass base in Haryana. It is expedient, therefore, to overlook the baggage he carries, in terms of corruption charges. His creative use–or abuse–of land acquisition norms to dispossess farmers of high-value land in the National Capital Region provoked scathing observations from the Supreme Court; he is currently on bail in one land scam and under investigation in other.

It was under Hooda's watch that the infamous Robert Vadra case was exposed by Arvind Kejriwal, leading to a cascade of investigations and a hefty notice from the Income Tax department. His proximity to the Gandhis and vast capacity to bankroll and organize public events invested him with a power out of proportion to the size of his state. Subsequently, he lost his sheen, not merely because of electoral defeats–many Congress leaders vanquished at the hustings have continued to wield clout in the party–but because Rahul Gandhi's faith in him had waned.

Sonia Gandhi is practical enough to realize that she does not have the luxury of choosing leaders who conform to idealised norms of probity, erudition and so on. Hooda is as good as it gets. Unless she is willing to write off Haryana, she will have to work with him. After all, she has worked with convicted RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav in the past.

In Jharkhand, Sonia has opted for a former cop and tribal leader, Rameshwar Oraon, who is close to the party “old guard”. His predecessor, high-profile former IPS officer Ajoy Kumar, who had been handpicked by Rahul Gandhi in 2017, quit his post after the Lok Sabha debacle, levelling allegations against Oraon and other party veterans.

Sonia Gandhi has always been more comfortable with alliances than the party veterans. With her usual common sense, she knows that the Congress cannot go alone in Jharkhand. So much so, that the party seems willing to give the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha an upper hand in an alliance. The NDA, meanwhile, is divided, with the JD(U) choosing to contest all the seats in the assembly.

Faced with an exodus of leaders in Maharashtra, she appears to have almost outsourced the campaign strategy to NCP leader Sharad Pawar. Thus far, the Congress has been the senior partner in the alliance, but this time, the two parties have a 50-50 arrangement.

Rahul Gandhi had hoped to remake the Congress into a dynamic, youthful organisation, driven by ideology rather than an urge to power. He experimented for years, trying one thing and then other: free and fair party elections, transparency in ticket distribution, recruiting and harnessing talent. The conventional view, that he was stymied by the Congress old guard, gives them rather too much credit. The fact is that his team failed to deliver, in election after election. It remains to be seen whether the veterans can turn the party's fortunes around in the upcoming assembly polls.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.