The Political Fix: Is the Congress gearing up to relaunch Rahul Gandhi – once again?

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The Big Story: Once more, with feeling

This is one election that the Congress, at least technically, cannot lose.

By the end of this year or in early 2021, the party is expected to elect a new full-time president. Last week, Madhusudan Mistry, who heads the party’s election team, sent a note to state units saying, “This is to inform you that the [All India Congress Committee] intends to convene its meeting as soon as possible, and you will be intimated as soon as dates and venue are finalised.”

As is often the case with the Congress, there is a script for how things should proceed and it is quite straightforward: Rahul Gandhi, who was president when the party received its second consecutive drubbing in the 2019 general election and even lost from a constituency that had been a party stronghold for decades, is expected to return to the post after a brief period of voluntary exile.

If that were to happen, Rahul Gandhi would be once again taking over from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who was named interim president when her son resigned following the 2019 debacle.

The list of recent Congress presidents over the last quarter-century would then read:

  • Sonia Gandhi (1998-2017)

  • Rahul Gandhi (2017-2019)

  • Sonia Gandhi, interim (2019-2020)

  • Rahul Gandhi (2021-?)

And it would be the umpteenth attempt at a “relaunch of Rahul”, a storyline that I remember being tired of when I was 24 and he was being sold and resold as a youth leader ahead of the 2014 elections.

Not everything has gone according to script for the Congress this year.

That isn’t a reference to the recent results in Bihar, where it was accused of dragging down the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led grand alliance – and promptly blamed Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen for cutting its votes instead. Or its poor performance in other states in the recent by-elections, including Madhya Pradesh, where politicians who had defected to the BJP from the Congress ensuring a change in government were not punished.

Troubling as those developments may have been for the party, they cannot have been called unexpected.

(Rahul Gandhi takes part in a tractor rally against the farm laws in Punjab | Photo: Congress/Twitter)

Less predictable has been the party’s surprising resilience in some quarters, surviving a bruising factional fight in Rajasthan that could have seen the Congress-led government fall and withstanding the constant attacks on the unwieldy alliance with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.

And most surprising of all was the open dissent from 23 leaders, now referred to as the G23, who in a letter in August criticised the party’s functioning and the lack of a “full time” leader – which is hard to read as anything but a jab at Rahul Gandhi – while also calling for decentralisation of power and elections to organisational positions at all levels.

As Rasheed Kidwai explained at the time, one of the surprising things about the “G23” was that the criticism couldn’t be explained away through simple factionalism:

“It wasn’t a rebellion of the old versus young or regional such as North vs South. This rebellion of 23 people was a curious mix of elected people, some to the Lok Sabha and some others to the Rajya Sabha… These leaders have some kind of political standing; it is not a fight between the haves and have-nots. For example, Ghulam Nabi Azad – he continues to be Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and that has given him a Cabinet rank position.”

Rahul and Sonia Gandhi did not take kindly to the dissent, using a subsequent Congress Working Committee meeting and certain personnel decisions to drive home the message to the 23. With many others backing the Gandhis, the dissent amounted to little, other than getting a committment that the party will conduct elections for the president’s post within six months.

Following the Bihar results, Kapil Sibal – who had been a vocal member of the “G23” – spoke up again. “People of the country, not just in Bihar but wherever by-elections were held, obviously don’t consider the Congress to be an effective alternative,” he noted. He called again for the party to be “brave and willing” to recognise the answers to its political drift, including holding actual elections rather than nominating leaders.

Madhusudan Mistry’s note about preparing for an AICC meeting seemed to come soon after, and Sonia Gandhi also named four of the 23 to several top policy panels this week, though that is as much as most expect from the Gandhis on the details of the dissent, with other leaders continuing to attack Sibal for speaking out in public.

Kidwai argues that some of the current round of questioning is a consequence of Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s right-hand man and one of the most important Congress leaders, battling Covid-19 in an ICU in Gurgaon.

“The ramblings of P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Vivek Tankha and others is about the vacuum of an effective party manager and their bid to position themselves for that crucial role… everyone is eyeing a slot that is just below the Gandhis in the Congress hierarchy,” he writes.

(Congress leader Kapil Sibal | Photo: PTI)

But even if you put this aside and take the demands of the 23 at face-value, it seems unlikely to matter in the short-term. Bringing in elections at every level may make the party more robust over a longer period, but it still has to decide who will be the next “full-time president” will be in the next few weeks.

The party does have a set of leaders who have done remarkably well despite the BJP onslaught of the last few years – “Captain” Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Bhupesh Bhagel in Chhattisgarh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan – and a few national leaders with significant clout, but none that are seen as having sufficient support across the party that they would be able to challenge the Gandhis in an internal election.

Rahul Gandhi could throw everyone a curveball by refusing to contest or return to the post as he did in the aftermath of the 2019 results, but his insistence on remaining in the spotlight and speaking on behalf of the party – despite having resigned as president last year – are clear indications of the role he sees for himself. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, has occasionally been floated but few seriously expect her to leapfrog Rahul.

Elections are due in a number of states in the first half of 2021, including Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where larger regional parties will have to take a call on whether to work with the Congress and how many seats to allot them, which Sruthisagar Yamunan wrote about here. After that comes the more direct battles with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and so on, before General Elections in 2024.

Whether it will be another “relaunch of Rahul” or a non-Gandhi in the role for the first time since 1998, however, resolving the leadership question will only be step one for the party that has struggled to present a concise narrative at the national level. The bigger question for whoever is president next will be whether the Congress can create a political narrative and a demographic coalition that counters the BJP’s electoral behemoth at the national level.

Further reading:

Flotsam and Jetsam

  • Amid all the various crises India is currently struggling with, five BJP-led states have decided one of their top priorities is to pass laws based on a Hindutva conspiracy theory, called “love jihad” that imagines a vast, country-wide plot by Muslim men to dupe unsuspecting Hindu women into marriage with the aim of converting them to Islam. I wrote about these disturbing moves here.

  • Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whom we wrote about last week, has not had a great start to his new term. Kumar’s new education minister, Mewalal Choudharyresigned from the post just hours after taking charge, after the Opposition pointed out that the is an accused in a recruitment scam.

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set up monitoring group, headed by two Union Ministers, to analyse “the progress achieved so far with respect to the list of bills on which rules are yet to be framed, 141 announcements made by Modi on various occasions since May 2014 on which action has not been completed yet, foundation stones of various projects laid by the central government, and the budget announcements from 2014-’15 to 2019-’20.”

  • Despite more friction on display between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the two will remain alliance partners ahead of the Tamil Nadu elections in 2021.

  • A gunfight in Jammu and Kashmir’s Nagrota led to the death of four Jaish-e-Mohammed militants, with New Delhi saying that they had planned to disrupt the District Development Council elections due to begin in the erstwhile state.

  • Madhya Pradesh now has a ‘cow cabinet,’ a group of ministers that will focus on the protection and welfare of cattle in the state.

Can’t make this up

India’s saas-bahu soap operas, which play on the conflict between mothers- and daughters-in-law within the household, are well known and easily caricatured today. As if to drive the idea home, one extremely popular show from the 2000s – whose star is now a Union minister – was titled, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, i.e. Because a Mother-in-law was once a Daughter-in-law too.

One enterprising jewel thief seems to have recognised the true economic opportunity here:

“In my experience, most mothers-in-law don’t get along with their daughters-in-law,” he says. “So I’d tell them,’ Your son has sent me to make you a necklace. But please don’t tell your daughter-in-law about that.’ Most would then be far willing to listen.” He’d then tease out the names of their sons, first by using vague descriptors like “the older one”, and then assume familiarity. With men, Mohammed dropped the saas-bahu act and pretended to be the son’s jeweller friend who’d been commissioned to make them a ring.”

Go read Omkar Khandekar’s full profile of the enterprising thief.

Meanwhile, this is from a couple of weeks ago, when the BJP’s Bengal Unit had Home Minister Amit Shah mistakenly garland a statue thinking it was that of Birsa Munda, the tribal freedom fighter from the late 1800s.

Except it turns out it wasn’t him, prompting the BJP to hurriedly find a picture of Munda for Shah to also garland, and for the party’s West Bengal unit chief to say this:

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