Sonia Gandhi's second act as Congress president is, well, eventful. She took over the party from her son, Rahul Gandhi, when it was fighting an existential crisis/just like when she ascended to the top post the first time around (at that time, she ran the Congress successfully for 19 years, emerging as its longest-serving president).
Decades ago, her accepting the top job met with universal gratitude from party leaders. This time around, though, younger leaders chafing to take over are sour about her easily superseding them, and an ever-lengthening line of rebels is stretching to exit the party. Consequently, Sonia Gandhi is grappling with little fires everywhere, especially in states ready to vote in the next few months including Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand and Delhi.
While Sonia Gandhi's return as President three weeks ago may have stopped B S Hooda, the former Chief Minister of Haryana, from exiting the Congress and setting up a regional party, it is a pause and not a termination of his plans. Unless Hooda is made state chief and given a say in ticket allocation, replacing the ineffectual Ashok Tanwar, who was Rahul Gandhi appointee and favourite, he will make good on his threat to quit.
Hooda has an extremely good equation with Ahmed Patel, Sonia's chief aide, and Haryana state-in-charge Ghulam Nabi Azad, who are both lobbying for him.
But open threats of the kind made by Hooda at a recent rally where he attacked the Congress leadership and said the party's stand on Article 370 was wrong are pretty unprecedented in the big-tent durbar of the Congress.
Similar threats and near public blackmail is being served to Sonia Gandhi from erstwhile loyalist Jyotiraditya Scindia who is demanding that he be made party chief in Madhya Pradesh. 200 of his supporters have gone public saying they will quit the party if he is not given that position, currently held by Kamal Nath, the Chief Minister. Scindia also disagreed firmly with the party, welcoming the government's move to revoke Article 370. His supporters are upset that "maharaj" (emperor) has been put in charge of selecting candidates in Maharashtra, describing it is a ploy to keep him away from Madhya Pradesh. Kamal Nath met Sonia Gandhi yesterday to grapple with Scindia's near rebellion but, as is usual with the Congress, tried to ensure that he determines who becomes the state chief. The third part of the MP triangle, former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, who is currently described as "Super Chief Minister" by the bitter Scindia camp, is lobbying for Ajay Singh, son of the late Arjun Singh.
Scindia is fed up of the lackadaisical attitude of the "high command" and is building pressure by supposedly flirting with the BJP. He also feels that Kamal Nath and Singh have ganged up against him.
The old guard may have thought they trumped the angry young leaders by playing the Sonia card as a successor to Rahul Gandhi but, significantly, it has made no difference to the crisis gripping the party. "Sonia Gandhi is Rahul and Priyanka's mother, so she is a holding operation for her children, but as of now, I see no difference in the party drift because she has returned." Second acts are always difficult and now the young leaders of the party perceive Sonia as a nominee of the old guard which is trying to hold on to power by using Sonia as a family totem.
The brief 18-month Rahul Raj is over and the veterans are back to running the show. And yet, the crisis of ideology and exactly what the Congress actually stands for remains undefined. Rahul Gandhi continues to occupy outsize space in the party and also as the target of the BJP. The Modi government attacks him on a daily basis, the Congress spends a disproportionate share of time defending him. If Rahul Gandhi tweets something, it becomes the party line. The same thing happens with Priyanka Gandhi. "We now have a problem of too many Gandhis to listen to and in the fray," says a party spokesman.
Meanwhile, the party has no clarity on how to take on Narendra Modi and a resurgent BJP. Party leaders Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor have declared that "demonising Modi ensures he cannot be effectively attacked". Deaf to nuance, the Kerala Congress demanded an explanation from Tharoor.
A senior leader points out that all this is going on while Sonia was projected as the panacea to all that ails the party. Mission highly unaccomplished.
So what next? Expect the same muddle and jockeying to continue and an exodus of younger leaders who have faith in their political future once the Congress loses the upcoming state elections as is widely expected. And the Gandhis as the superglue of the Congress aren't being able to keep it from coming undone.
(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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