Unwelcome, Sonia Gandhi sits on seat of fire

The long-drawn discussion within the Congress Party and media circles has quelled down by now and as each one expected none else but Sonia Gandhi returned to the party saddle (though going by the official Congress version a stop-gap arrangement) after a three-month long drama.

Sonia Gandhi's second act as Congress president is, well, eventful. She took over the party from her son, Rahul, 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).

Each of the political observers was almost certain that it could be none-else but a 'Gandhi' to rule the oldest party. It means that choice was narrowed down to only four persons.

Given the fact that Priyanka Gandhi has never shown any interest or skills to rule the party and her husband Robert Vadra was still busy in fighting the cases and corruption charges levelled against him, the choice further zeroed down to only the mother-son duo.

The son Rahul who proved to be utterly unsuccessful in retaining the party in the reckoning, bowed out of the race and thus the responsibility naturally fell on Sonia ji.

She has now accepted the challenge as she had done in late 90s, when the Congress had suffered a solid defeat in the hands of the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken over as the new Prime Minister.

At that point, 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’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. The war is not likely to quell unless Hooda is made state chief and given a say in ticket allocation, replacing the ineffectual Ashok Tanwar.

But open threats 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.

Hooda is not a stray example. Similar threats and near-public blackmail is being served to Sonia 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. This act if not controlled right now could prove to be fatal for the party in the MP.

The old guard may have thought they trumped the angry young leaders by playing the Sonia card as a successor to Rahul 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 continues to occupy outsize space in the party and also as the target of the BJP.

The Modi government attacks Rahul on a daily basis, the Congress spends a disproportionate share of time defending him. If Rahul tweets something, it becomes the party line.

The same thing happens with Priyanka. "We now have a problem of too many Gandhis to listen to and in the fray," was the comment coming from a party spokesman recently. It is a telling story.

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.

This is a mute question. the first task that Sonia has to undertake is to construct such a wall that would stop the exodus of party workers and leaders to the BJP and its allies.

This challenge she had not faced in her first regime. Now is no more the 'uncrowned queen' but a leader of the fraction-ridden weak party that has lost its path.

Will she be able to sail the party through his storm? If yes, she would be the 'real queen' and if not she would be termed as 'erstwhile leader' of an 'erstwhile party.'

Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).

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