It is time for Sonia Gandhi to make another sacrifice. This time, for the sake of her son Rahul Gandhi who is taking over the mantle of leadership from her as Congress president.
Rahul is the fifth generation member and sixth person from the Nehru-Gandhi family to be AICC chief. In the 132 years of the grand old party, Nehru-Gandhi family members have been head of the party for 45 years with Sonia being longest -- 19 consecutive years. Jawaharlal Nehru served as AICC chief for 11 years, Indira seven, Rajiv six and Motilal Nehru two years.
Sonia needs to take a clean break from politics. In December 2013, when Sonia turned 66, she M had reportedly told select party leaders that she had planned to retire from active politics at 70. It had stunned everyone. After all, hardly anyone in India ever retires from politics.
Congressmen known to be crafty in matters of professing loyalty and sycophancy, had pleaded with her to let Rahul take over as Congress president. The script for Rahul’s crowning was given shape then. Political exigencies prevented Sonia from stepping down in 2016, but now at 71, she is expected to stay away from politics.
Congress insiders say a lot would depend on the outcome of the Gujarat election. A poor showing by the Congress, coupled with defeat in Himachal Pradesh, would make even die-hard Congress supporters a bit edgy who, in turn, are likely to plead for Sonia's continuation in an advisory role or call for Priyanka Gandhi's formal induction in the party. Both propositions are problematic for Rahul as that would mean a parallel power centre when he would be struggling to find his feet as the new party president.
On the other hand, a win in Himachal Pradesh or a good showing in Gujarat would establish Rahul as the undisputed leader of the grand old party. Sonia would then be at liberty to travel, pursue her passion for arts, handicrafts, and play the role of a doting grandmother to her grandchildren.
As things stand, Sonia is, however, unwilling to quit her Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat (as it would necessitate a difficult by-election for the Congress) and imply leaving the 10, Janpath premises (unless the Modi Government graciously lets her stay on grounds of security considerations).
Behind the scene, there are many proposals and suggestions already doing the rounds in the Congress circles over a possible role for Sonia. A large number of party leaders want her to stay on in an advisory capacity or ‘marg darshak’ mentor role but politically nothing would be worse for Rahul than the looming, towering shadow of Sonia. In the 13 years that mother and son have worked together between 2004-2017, there were many occasions when Rahul’s vision and course of action was blurred, overturned and withdrawn by Sonia.
The most glaring cases were Rahul’s initial thrust on restoration of inner-party democracy. Senior Congress leaders aka old guard, worked overtime to advice Sonia to confine Rahul to the Youth Congress, NSUI and Sewa Dal. Rahul as AICC general secretary kept whiling and wasting time as party general secretary in charge of these frontal organisations while the main party organisation remained unaffected.
In 2010, the world saw how Rahul tore up a copy of Manmohan Singh’s ordinance that had sought to protect corrupt and convicted persons in politics. Within hours and days, Rahul was seen tendering an apology to Manmohan. The prospects of Rahul emerging as Mr Clean, advocating transparency and good governance was lost.
There are some who feel Sonia should have kept herself confined to party organisation in 2004 when she turned down the Prime Minister’s post in May 2004. Jairam Ramesh, Pulok Chatterjee and a number of others quickly stitched together an office for the UPA chairperson and National Advisory Council chairperson's post for Sonia that accorded her a Cabinet Minister’s rank, protocol and other perks of office.
If the Congress president had stayed away from UPA-NAC and restricted herself as Congress president, Manmohan Singh and UPA would have perhaps performed better and allegations of “remote control” and dual power centres would not have gained currency.
The 47-year-old Nehru-Gandhi scion, therefore must walk alone and face the labourious and uphill task of bringing the Congress back to power in the country - whether in 2019 or 2024 - as party president.
Not just that Rahul has to pass the leadership test without looking to his mother for lesson, he also has to contend with criticism.
Sonia’s presence as Congress Parliamentary Party leader, head of Congress Parliamentary Board or any other forum would act as a “super durbar,” a parallel power centre and a listening post. As a mother, Sonia is entitled to advice Rahul but not at an institutional level. It will be counter-productive.
There is no dearth of Congress leaders who would attempt to rush to 10, Janpath on matters of appointments, policy issues, ideology and other aspects. If Rahul has to look for a “pair,” it can be the presence of Priyanka Gandhi who will provide strength and charisma. But once again, Rahul and the Congress need to be careful in not creating a parallel power centre.
It is time for Rahul to prove himself. No member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has failed in politics (in the sense of delivering power, winning elections) and Rahul has his task cut out for him. Sonia should be witness to it from 10, Janpath or Orbassano or wherever she chooses to be.
Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai
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