Rahul Gandhi has finally ticked some very important boxes in his tenure as Congress President and can now happily take his new year break.
First, he put the Congress back in the business of winning elections; then, he displayed the delicate art of the deal in brokering peace between rival leaders in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh while installing his own choices as Chief Minister in both states.
Kamal Nath, 72, heads Madhya Pradesh now. Ashok Gehlot, 67, takes charge of Rajasthan with 41-year-old Sachin Pilot as his deputy. Gandhi also proved his Love Guru credentials (which debuted with that jhappi of PM Modi) by managing pretty pictures of the competing contenders in the midst of tough negotiations along with quotes from Tolstoy. So maharajah-sized egos were managed with flair; experience balanced with dynamism and youth.
The claims for Chief Minister went late into last night. A senior leader who was privy to the delicate negotiations says that Gandhi, like his grand mother and father, is a late bloomer but now finally shows sign of having a grip on managing his party. Also, he is no longer being second-guessed by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving president in Congress history, and her team of veterans.
This is perhaps the first time that Sonia Gandhi has provided support for a decision made entirely by Rahul Gandhi, who, to his credit, has managed to ensure that the Old Guard and Young Guns accept complementary roles unlike the sad old-age home of the BJP, the Margdarshak Mandal, where Shah and Modi have banished older leaders.
Gandhi appears to have taken years to make his own assessment of leaders and before deciding on where they fit into the party's scheme of things. So when funds became a problem for the party he asked Ahmed Patel in a joint meeting with his mother to take over the job of Treasurer. Patel, his mother's closest political aide, had been subjected to years of spin by rivals about how Gandhi disliked him and would have no job for him.
Kamal Nath had dragged a reluctant Digvijaya Singh and Scindia to a joint meeting with Gandhi before the polls where they said, "We don't care who you pick but pick one of us - or it will be curtains for the Congress in MP. We want to fight the BJP, not each other". I had written about this meeting in an earlier column here.
Gandhi then made Kamal Nath walk the talk, assigning him as President of the Congress in the state to raise funds and lead campaigning while ensuring that Scindia and Singh did not indulge in their longstanding rivalry. Kamal Nath revitalised a moribund party organisation barely six months before the elections with Singh playing his backroom boy and trouble-shooter. Singh, because of his two terms as Chief Minister, knew every key person in the organisation and helped smooth the way. Kamal Nath ensured that Scindia and Singh did not have to spend any time together.
Both Scindia and Kamal Nath told me separately that if any one tried to create trouble between them, they would call each other to pre-empt any misunderstanding.
Scindia did want his turn post the results but was told gently by Gandhi that he could wait. Gandhi was clear that Kamal Nath's enormous administrative experience is required to deliver on the tall poll promises and that his equation with industry will draw some show-piece job-creating projects to MP.
Gandhi also told Scindia that his "Shakti app" feedback showed overwhelming support for Kamal Nath and that he can't do without Scindia in Delhi.
Rajasthan was likely a tougher decision as Pilot as state chief had worked very hard delivering the Ajmer and Alwar parliamentary seats in by-elections in February this year. Pilot had made Rajasthan home and built a strong case against the Raje government. Yet, Gandhi, after having seen Gehlot in action in the Gujarat assembly elections, was extremely impressed with the unassuming leader. Gehlot managed competing caste leaders and excelled in booth management in Gujarat.
The eight Congress rebels in the fray in Rajasthan were said to be a shrewd Gehlot move to ensure that he did not lose his state. After the results, they said said they would only support Gehlot. Gandhi carefully analysed the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan to determine whether Gehlot or Pilot would be more effective.
A senior Congress leader said a vipassana course Gandhi undertook appears to have taught him a lot of patience. Another new trademark: the white smoke picture on social media once the deal is done.
(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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