Ahead of his 49th birthday next month and in the wake of his eating the BJP's dust in the general election, Rahul Gandhi, known for dithering, is firm that he will not reconsider his decision to quit as Congress President, a disclosure he made to the party on Saturday.
However, he told Ahmed Patel and K.C. Venugopal who were sent to meet him this morning by the party that they can have some time to find his replacement. The Congress, blasted by its performance in the election, now also contends with losing a Gandhi family member as the top party leader.
This is perhaps the first time that the three members of the Gandhi family are terribly at odds. Rahul has reportedly been urged by mother Sonia and sister Priyanka to remain in office - they are completely against his quitting. Ahmed Patel, his mother's closest aide, apparently warned him at today's meeting that the Congress will split if a Gandhi does not helm it.
Rahul Gandhi so far has been inflexible. Sonia, who holds the distinction of the Congress' longest-serving President, has given a giant hint about her feelings in a letter to her constituency Raebareli. She writes "I know that the coming days are going to be very tough, but I am fully confident that with the power of your support and trust, the Congress will meet every challenge."
The letter was written on May 24, the day before Gandhi offered to quit. Congress leaders who I spoke to before writing this column say that Gandhi had discussed his determination to quit with his mother and sister. Top leaders present at the Congress Working Committee on Saturday, where Rahul Gandhi made his stand clear, told me that while Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was overwrought and emotional, Sonia Gandhi did not say a word.
Priyanka said her brother could not alone shoulder the blame for the election disaster. After her sibling finished speaking, she accused party leaders of not following his lead in the campaign - by ignoring his cue on the Rafale scandal, for example. "He got no support from all you. He fought alone and made Modi nervous. But, why did none of you back him and expose the government?" she reportedly said.
Sonia Gandhi has a one-line response to her son's desire - the Gandhis do not quit public responsibility. She has reportedly said he has a huge legacy to live up to and must not duck the responsibility of ensuring that India's oldest political party does not splinter.
Rahul Gandhi's charge that the top leaders of the Congress only focused on perpetuating their family dynasties by putting up their sons for election and focusing on their campaigns while the Gandhi family got the flak as fifth-generation dynasts has become something of a conviction with him.
The attack was primarily against Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, whose son Vaibhav Gehlot contested and lost Jodhpur. Gandhi was reluctant to give him a ticket and was proved right when Gehlot spent 90 percent of his time campaigning for his son. The other two leaders who must plead guilty are Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath - whose son Nakul Nath was the lone Congress victor in the state - and P Chidambaram, whose son, the controversial Karti Chidambaram, won the family seat of Sivaganga with huge help from DMK. Chidambaram senior got emotional after Gandhi spoke and said that people in south India would commit suicide if he resigned as President. Gandhi did not react to this at all.
So what happens next? Rahul Gandhi has told the Congress he is willing to remain a dedicated party worker but his sister or mother cannot replace him, which was the desperate Working Committee's default option.
But it is true that he has backed out quitting immediately in order since he cannot hang the party out to dry. Senior leaders hope that this transition plan will extend so long that eventually, all talk of opting out will fade away.
Gandhi has clearly decided that he will no longer act as the lightening rod for all Congress bashing. He has made public his disenchantment with his post despite his family currently being the most visible political dynasty in the world.
Sources say that Gandhi is being told that he is being unfair to his family by stepping down. That Priyanka has just joined politics and his retreat will hurt her career, that the Modi government will up the ante on political vendetta against the Gandhi family, particularly Priyanka's husband, businessman Robert Vadra.
The Congress, shackled by the crisis of its 52 seats, wants no reworking of Vaastu Shastra at its top, thank you very much. "You don't know our party, no other name is under consideration. No other leader will be acceptable. It can only be Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhi family is the only glue that binds this snake pit together," said a senior leader to me.
Rahul Gandhi is done. But his family and party want him to take one for the team. Doesn't make for an enviable birthday.
(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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