The more things change in India's oldest political party, the more they remain the same. The reason I began this piece with a hoary old cliche is that every few weeks, Rahul Gandhi's Congress strikes a nearer resemblance to the one his mother, Sonia Gandhi, led, with Generation Next not getting a look in - this when the "younger lot" averages about 50.
Today, it was announced that Ahmed Patel, who was the powerful Political Secretary to Sonia Gandhi and the indispensable behind-the-scene consigliere of the party is the new treasurer of the Congress. Patel is 69; he replaces Motilal Vora, who is 89 - and is not retiring; instead, Vora is now General Secretary in charge of Administration.
Patel's appointment is a signal of two things: the Congress party has a mega crisis of funds while the BJP is Asia's richest party as the country heads towards the elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh - states where the Congress fancies it has a serious chance in a bi-polar contest with the BJP ahead of the big finale in 2019. The other takeaway from Patel's new position is that he is as indispensable to Rahul Gandhi as he was to Sonia.
A host of leaders were hoping to be "RG's AP" but Rahul Gandhi issued the appointment letter on Patel's birthday, and the markedly low-profile backroom aide of the Gandhis triumphed in the quiet but assiduous style characteristic of him.
In the durbari style similarly characteristic of the Congress, a host of whispers had been claiming that Rahul Gandhi did not get along with his mother's closest aide and was fed up with the old guard. Gandhi Junior was initially wary of Patel but his re-election to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in August last year, which saw Patel defeating the ultimate election strategist, Amit Shah, established his credentials as one of the Congress' top tacticians.
Other appointments made by Gandhi today also saw Team Sonia get all the prizes. 73-year-old Meira Kumar was made a permanent invitee to the powerful Congress Working Committee; 65-year-old Anand Sharma was made the chief of the Foreign Affairs Committee, replacing 87-year-old Karan Singh.
So what do these appointments mean? Clearly, neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi seem to be comfortable giving leaders of his own generation positions of political authority.
Even the "Young Turks" groomed as ministers in the Manmohan Singh government languish in a sort of limbo. While Sachin Pilot has been appointed the Congress chief in Rajasthan, he has not been made the Chief Ministerial candidate with his senior, Ashok Gehlot, now a close Gandhi aide, were much in the running.
The same situation prevails in Madhya Pradesh where Kamal Nath, 71, has been made state chief while Jyotiraditya Scindia, 47, remains in suspense over what his role will be. Digvijaya Singh, former Chief Minister, has loftily announced he doesn't want to be considered, but his actions suggest he is determined to prove he is very much in the running. Scindia is chief whip of the party in the Lok Sabha and despite winning his Guna seat consecutively from 2002 to date and being the strongest Congress speaker was not made its leader in the Lok Sabha. That designation was held by Amarinder Singh and is now with the hard-working but ineffective Mallikarjun Kharge.
A young Congressman rues, "When will our turn come? We were earlier held back because Rahul Gandhi was not taking over. Now that he has, he seems to prefer Mrs Gandhi's team. My son is 18 but I will always be considered a youth leader here. We are forever destined to be perceived as the silver-spoon baba log. At least test our skill, give us responsibilities before writing us off."
Another articulate leader of Gen Next said, "We should have been allowed to manage the election for the Deputy Speaker in the Rajya Sabha. The party kept looking at Rahul Gandhi and he did not seem interested. The old guard went though the motions and predictably, we lost."
Who is in and who is out with the Gandhi family has long been a parlour game of Congress leaders. Gandhi has signalled that Gehlot and Patel are extremely important members of his team. He consults former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on key economic issues and Abhishek Manu Singhvi on legal issues.
The younger lot seem destined to forever bide their time.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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