When will Rahul reclaim post?: Statesman columnist

In a photo from Oct 2, 2019, Rahul Gandhi, former Congress Party president, is pictured at an event to mark Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary in New Delhi. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It is almost six months since Sonia Gandhi took over as the interim Congress president but already rumours have started about the return of Rahul Gandhi as the party chief.

Naturally Sonia wants a second coming for her son as she was opposed to his relinquishing power earlier.

"Don't worry about Rahul Gandhi also, he will come back with more strength," former minister and Congress Working Committee member A. K. Antony, a loyalist of the Gandhi family, said some time ago.

Even when she took over from him in August, she was called the interim president and many predicted that he would return whenever he was ready.

The party knows that he had just taken a long break and will come back to take over the party sooner rather than later.

"I am available to the party whenever they require my services, input or advice," Rahul had said in his resignation letter in July.

After the Lok Sabha debacle, Rahul resigned in August taking responsibility for the poor result but he has not faded away as he still remains the main face of the Congress.

He has his importance as a member of the Gandhi family and former party president. Since putting in his papers, Rahul has been spending most of his time abroad, drawing flak from his political adversaries as also his critics within the party. They shake their heads and say, "He cannot be a 24/7 politician."

Though the family had a well thought out succession plan after Sonia's 19-year-rule, what the Gandhis did not bargain for was a disruption.

The arrival of Narendra Modi on the national scene changed politics in 2014.

Rahul was no match to the articulate Modi and the Gandhi scion failed to convince voters why they should opt for the grand old party instead of the Modi-led BJP.

The Congress got a mere 44 seats in 2014 and 54 in 2019 under Rahul's leadership. The entry of Priyanka Gandhi in politics did not click as expected.

Rahul has been visible at times like when he took a delegation to Jammu and Kashmir in August but had to return from the airport.

But he was conspicuously absent at other times. For instance he only addressed six rallies in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls.

The Congress performance was better than expected in both states and the party has even become part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra.

The polls had shown the need for strong regional leaders more than national leaders.

In states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and now Haryana local leaders managed an impressive electoral show.

However, under the leadership of Sonia, Rahul continues to have a say in important decisions. He works through his trusted lieutenants.

The Office of Rahul Gandhi - consisting of young politicians and non-political actors includes his social media coordinator Nikhil Alva, Alankar Sawai, Sachin Rao, K. Raju, Sandeep Singh and K.B. Byju - continues to be active.

In the recent Maharashtra government-formation drama, Rahul was said to have been fully in the picture though he was abroad at that time.

Insiders say that his trusted aide and Congress General Secretary K C Venugopal was on the phone briefing him about the fast moving developments in Delhi and Mumbai.

It was also said that Rahul was not in favour of joining the coalition initially. It was pressure from the Congress legislators and the state leaders that clinched the issue.

There is also the issue of the struggle for power between the old guard and the younger leaders who are Rahul loyalists.

The old guard including Ahmed Patel had gained dominance in the party after Sonia's return. For instance, in the recent Maharashtra drama, Patel played a role in the negotiations. The old guard also had a say in Parliament strategy.

On the other hand, Rahul loyalists including his appointees like Haryana PCC chief Ashok Tanwar were removed.

Rahul though has managed retention of some of his close confidantes in key positions, like K C Venugopal, who continues as General Secretary (Organisation).

The appointments of election screening committees in Maharashtra and Haryana also had the stamp of Rahul Gandhi.

Jyotiraditya Scindia was made the head of the Maharashtra screening committee while Madhusudan Mistry was made the head of the Haryana screening committee.

Now that the graph of the Modi government has fallen sharply due to the state of the economy and the way the BJP could not get a majority in Haryana and had to be out of power in Maharashtra, Rahul Gandhi is finding himself ready under the changed circumstances.

A senior Congress leader admitting the confusion in the party said, "One thing is certain. Rahulji will come back as the party chief again after the next round of Assembly elections." Another said, "He is looking for an opportune time."

What puzzle many is his strategy; why was he adamant on sticking to his resignation earlier and what makes him think of coming back? Is it the improvement of the Congress position in electoral politics?

The writer is a senior journalist. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.

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