The expected change at the top in the Congress Party seems to have been deferred yet again. Interim Chief Sonia Gandhi was expected to hand over the reins of the beleaguered party to someone else. It was widely reported that that someone else was none other than Rahul Gandhi. He had quit following the spectacular defeat of the party in the May 2019 Lok Sabha election. He had also expressed the desire that a new president should be elected as per the prescribed procedure in the party constitution. A full year later, the party is still unready to hold regular internal organizational polls — and has not done so in the last two decades — and is still run by edict from on-high. A couple of weeks ago, at a virtual meeting of senior leaders the issue of the new president was tangentially brought up, but without offering any clarity. For the first time, there were veiled hints by a couple of senior leaders against bringing back Rahul as party chief. Particularly, Kapil Sibal had crossed swords with Rahul’s supporters. While lamenting the dismal state of the party, the former central minister pressed for internal accountability and organisational elections only to invite a sharp counter from a member of the Rahul brigade. The latter pinned the blame for the loss in the parliamentary poll on the performance of the UPA government. With former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in attendance, neither he nor any other member of his government, notably not even P Chidambaram, offered a robust defence of UPA 2.0. Of course, there was no question of Sonia Gandhi standing up for the former prime minister and putting in his place her son’s sycophantic courtier who had been suitably rewarded with a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Sensing the mood of the interim president, other senior leaders elected to remain silent. Yet this did not end the well-sourced speculation about the return of Rahul. The circumstances which have now forced the Gandhis to put off the return of the chosen heir can only be surmised. That his re-induction at this stage could cause some prominent leaders to rebel can no longer be ruled out. Show of protest even by a couple of leaders at the return of the prince without an empire to call his own could snowball into an open rebellion against 10 Janpath. Without power and patronage, and little prospect of a return to power in the foreseeable future, it is natural for Congressmen to begin to feel itchy anyway, ready to explore greener pastures elsewhere. The recent traffic away from the party of groups of legislators in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc., vitally underlines a bleak future for the grand old party under the current dispensation. In the immediate course, even a minor upheaval in the central unit would have had a bearing on the fate of the precariously perched government in Rajasthan. Of course, the feud between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his sacked deputy, Sachin Pilot, could not be the sole factor for putting off the change in New Delhi. It is more than likely that the Gandhis are genuinely apprehensive that whispers against Rahul’s return now increasingly heard within the party could grow into a crescendo should Rahul return as party chief.
Aside from Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, who seems to have overcome the setback of public scandals of the mysterious death of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar, and the gift of sweat equity in the now defunct Cochin IPL franchise, enlisted his opposition to the nomination from on-high, though he said he was not against Rahul’s return. Displaying concern for Sonia on account for of her failing health, the always articulate MP from Thiruvanathapuram pressed for a full-term president through ‘a participatory and democratic process.’ On the same day, a party spokesman claimed that though she had completed a year as interim president, a process was still on to locate her successor. That process he did not spell out explicitly. But in the true Congress tradition it could involve backroom manoeuvres and give-and-take deals to ensure the only outcome that 10 Janpath desires. That is the return of Rahul whom this particular spokesperson not long ago had described as a ‘born leader’. In other words, drift and dithering in the affairs of the largest Opposition party is set to persist for the foreseeable future. Demoralised and opportunistic Congressmen increasingly would search for greener pastures elsewhere. The ruling BJP might be chuckling in its sleeves.